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How rewriting text messages can help services to save money

A person's hands are holding a smartphone with a notification text on the screen.

For public sector services, text messages are a cost-effective way to speak to people. They’re cheaper than letters and, if they’re well written, they can be more engaging than emails.

It’s important that services get the best value for money from the messages they send. To help them do this, we’ve been reading (and rewriting) their text messages.

Less is more

The cost of sending a text message depends on how long it is. Anything over 160 characters counts as more than one message. This gives us a simple - if simplistic - way to measure if a text message provides good value for money.

For example, if you cut 1 character from a 460-character message, you reduce the cost of sending it by a quarter. Small changes like this could help a service to make substantial economic savings. They might even be able to use Notify for free under our current pricing model.

To test this idea, we decided to offer some free content design support.

We contacted a small number of services and asked them to pick a long text message template. Then we worked our way through a series of questions:

  1. Does the content address the user’s needs? If not, discard it.
  2. Is everything in the right order?
  3. Can we say the same things in fewer characters?
  4. Is it clear, easy to understand and free from acronyms and jargon?
  5. Does the message feel trustworthy? If the user needs to click on a link or pay money, it has to look legitimate.
  6. Is there any personalisation in the template? Names, dates and locations can all affect the length of a message.

One of the services we worked with was Leicester Children’s Centres. They handle everything from early-years activities to supporting families dealing with domestic violence.

This is the template they chose:

Leicester Children’s Centres: Hello. Due to the situation regarding COVID-19, the Children, Young People and Family Centres are not able to offer their Bumps to Babies antenatal courses at the moment. However, we have uploaded our course videos online so that you are still able to access the information that we would have gone through in our classes. If you have any queries after watching, please contact your midwife at your next appointment or on [phone number]

The link to the videos is: [link]

And here’s the new version we wrote together:

Leicester Children’s Centres: Bumps to Babies antenatal classes are not running at the moment, so we’ve made them available as a series of videos. You can watch them at: [link]

If you have any questions, speak to your midwife or call [phone number].

The original was 4 text messages long. We got it down to 2. Cutting it by half will save the service up to 4,000 text messages a year.

We later found out that Leicester City Council has 6 similar services. They’re all going to start using the new template, which could save the council up to 24,000 text messages a year.

Not a bad result for a couple of hours of work.

We’ve heard from services that prioritising content design can sometimes be hard. But a well-written message can save time and money as well as making things easier for recipients.

Rewriting a few templates could mean that a service never has to pay to use Notify. Those that do pay can take the money they save and spend it on other important work.

What we’re doing next

GOV.UK Notify is a small team. We don’t have enough content designers to offer one-to-one support for 6,000 plus services. But pair writing with our users has been a great way to learn about the challenges they face, and how we can help.

Next we’re going to explore:

  • designing reusable content patterns for text messages
  • updating the existing guidance

If you want to help us test some reusable text message templates, get in touch or leave a comment below.

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  1. Comment by Steve Godman posted on

    Hi Karl, really positive post and good insight for those challenged with the costs associated with sending text messages. We have been testing with local authorities the use of RCS messages here and although it is slightly more expensive to send an RCS message, the impact has been encouraging as well as all the verification and authentication that comes with it makes it quite a compelling business case. Do reach out if you'd like to hear about the results of our recent projects.

  2. Comment by Laura posted on

    It's great that this content design saved the council money - but did it also lead to more people doing the thing?

    • Replies to Laura>

      Comment by Karl Chillmaid posted on

      Hi Laura,

      Good question. The short answer is, we don’t know for sure.

      Leicester Children’s Centres do not own the website the text message links to. The team responsible for that site does send them a summary of how the page is performing, but it’s not very detailed. All we do know is, the number of page views and the amount of time spent on the page have not changed much.

      This means Leicester Children’s Centres are getting the same results for half the cost. That’s good news for them and a sign that cost efficiencies don’t always come at the expense of quality. But you’re right to highlight that making things cheaper is not the same as making them better.


  3. Comment by Sophie posted on

    This is really interesting - thanks for sharing. Did you find more/ less people clicked on the link when the text was shorter too?

    • Replies to Sophie>

      Comment by Karl Chillmaid posted on

      Hi Sophie,

      I’m glad you found the post interesting. We enjoyed doing this work and it was hard to pick which service to write about.

      Since we halved the cost of sending this message, visits to the website have stayed roughly the same. Which is a good thing.

      That’s all Leicester Children’s Centres can tell us at the moment. They don’t own the site, so it’s hard to access analytics about it or track the number of times people click the link.

      Many of the services we spoke to do not use analytics to measure success. Instead they rely on feedback from other sources. For example, the number of people that sign up for a thing, call the helpline, or miss an appointment.