Instant Census Blog

Back to all blog posts

How Short Codes Work, and Why Ted Cruz and a Strip Club Both Want You to Text 33733

By Josh Zagorsky on August 20, 2015

Text Messaging

A US short code is a 5- or 6-digit number (shorter than the standard 10 digits) that only handles text messaging; you can’t make phone calls to or from a short code. In this week’s post, we’ll talk about the pros and cons of short codes, when to use them, and how to use them effectively by avoiding the common, yet unexpected mishaps they may create.

Short Code Pros

  • You can send more messages from a short code than from a standard 10-digit number. Twilio’s text messaging infrastructure can send 1 message per second from a standard phone number, or 30+ messages per second from a short code

  • Short codes are easier for people to remember or to type out

Short Code Cons

  • A US short code typically costs $1,000 per month

  • All mobile carriers have to approve your short code individually, which often takes 12-16 weeks

  • Individual cellphone users may sometimes be charged more for messages to and from a short code than for messages to and from standard 10-digit phone numbers

How Organizations Use Short Codes Now

Many organizations use shared short codes. The way this works is that one text messaging company buys a short code and then rents out “keywords” to its client organizations. If people want to text an organization, they text a specific keyword to the short code, and the text messaging company routes the client’s messages to the organization that registered that keyword.


For example, Ez Texting has one short code (313131) which they use for many different clients including nightclubs and medical clinics. If you text one keyword, you’re talking to one of their clients; if you text another, you’re talking to a different client. Here are a few keywords Ez Texting has attached to 313131:

  • HELPLINE: After-hours help line for the Blue Ridge Women’s Center

  • BABY: Health and wellness information for pregnant mothers from the South Texas Health System

  • SODELICIOUS: Recipies and updates from SO Delicious Dairy Free ice cream

  • WARPED: Tour updates from Vans Warped Tour

  • DISCO: Get a password for admission to a party at Discovery Night Club in Little Rock, Arkansas

  • VIPCARD: Club/party/drink tickets for spring break in Panama City Beach, Florida

Tatango is another text message marketing company, and they have two short codes. Their short code 33733 has a variety of keywords attached to it, including San Francisco strip clubs and US conservative political organizations:

  • CONSTITUTION, IMAGINE: Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign

  • HAZARD, DEFUND: Heritage Foundation’s 2013 campaign against Obamacare

  • BIG CATCH: Big Catch Seafood, Ontario, California (get an app-download link)

  • ALUMNI: Kent State University Alumni Association (trivia facts and contests)

  • CENTERFOLDS, LITTLED, PHSF, GCSF: Centerfolds, Little Darlings, PenthouseSF and Gold Club (four different strip clubs in San Francisco)

We’ve heard one story of a shared short code going awry when a survey company used one to send messages to a panel of respondents. One of the respondents got jumbled messages from the survey company and from a retailer. It turned out that he had previously used the same short code to text the retailer, and somehow wires had been crossed.


In a larger-scale incident back in 2010, Ez Texting had a client called using Ez Texting’s standard 313131 shortcode. T-Mobile objected to this and started dropping all messages coming from 313131, which meant that none of Ez Texting’s clients could send messages to cellphones on T-Mobile’s network. Ez Texting filed for a restraining order against T-Mobile and the companies settled two weeks later.

If your organization has the budget and has the time to go through the approval process, using a dedicated short code can be well worth it. Chipotle uses its own short code (888222) instead of renting a shared one. It uses different keywords to let people sign up for information, coupons, and various promotional campaigns.

How Instant Census Can Help You Use Short Codes or Avoid Using Short Codes

If you want to use a short code with Instant Census, talk to us, and we can run your surveys through a custom short code provided by Twilio.

Instant Census also enables you to send very large-scale surveys using standard 10-digit phone numbers. Our software automatically distributes survey respondents among multiple 10-digit phone numbers, so that each number only handles a small subset of all of the outgoing and incoming messages. Each respondent only sees the Instant Census phone number that they interact with. When you run surveys through the Instant Census Admin Portal, you still see the surveys, respondents, and data in one unified place.

Whether you want to run surveys off of your own (dedicated) short code or off of standard 10-digit phone numbers, we can help you do it with Instant Census. Get in touch today!

Want to learn more about our capabilities and what we do? Get in touch!

Whatever your target audience, discover how easy it is to start connecting and get results.