Is the Era of SMS Dead? Long Live Interactive Voice Response!

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The death of SMS text messages has been foretold many times in the past. However, they are still the best low-tech way to reach everyone with a mobile phone. Or so we often believe. New experiences by technologists in Africa and South Asia suggest SMS texts may finally be on the way out.
SMS Texts Lose to IVR in Africa
Recently, Viamo found that using interactive voice response (IVR) instead of SMS text messages in Ghana resulted in participation rates that were two times higher for women, four times higher for rural populations and ten times higher overall.
IVR has the distinct advantage over SMS texts as a medium to reach people as it transcends language and literacy barriers. Voice messages can be recorded in local languages and people can easily follow the messages even if they do not know how to read – this is crucial when 774 million adults are illiterate, and 516 million of those are women.
People Are Tired of SMS Text Spam
When IDinsight tried to send SMS text messages to farmers in India, they found that over 26% – a surprising number to them – were registered on India’s “Do Not Disturb” database, which prohibits broadcast messages and mass campaigns from directly contacting them without their written consent.
This finding is consistent with other research that says organizations today cannot even pay people to receive SMS – that’s how bad the SMS spam problem is in developing countries.
Learn How to Use Interactive Voice Response
If you want to experiment with interactive voice response, you can try the free RapidPro course developed by UNICEF Innovation and TechChange.
RapidPro is a powerful tool that allows you to connect directly with a user on their mobile phone over SMS, voice, or social media without the help of a software developer, making it easy to adapt for different contexts and needs.
This free on-demand course designed to be taken in 1-1.5 hours at your own pace from anywhere in the world, can help you build the capacity necessary to successfully design, deploy, and scale SMS, IVR, and social media-based interactions using RapidPro.
This way, you can directly test if IVR beats SMS in your constituency.
Use Female Interactive Voice Responses
Going back to Viamo, if you are going to use IVR, they found that using a female voice instead of a male voice in interactive voice response messages caused a 22% increase in response rates of rural African women.
For example, using the voice of an older “auntie” can gave the impression of someone who could relate to a rural environment, while sounding experienced enough to be trusted.
Of course, using female voices can reinforce harmful gender stereotypes, according to the United Nations, which argues that using female voices can preconditioned users to fall back upon antiquated and harmful perceptions of women.
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