Henry Cazalet - Director, The SMS Works
Business RCS Messaging – Will it ever progress from ‘interesting case study’ to widescale adoption?
Business RCS messaging has had a bumpy ride for the last decade.
Rich Business Messaging has been waiting to replace the outdated and clunky SMS since 2008. But since then, progress has been embarrassingly slow and we’re not really much further forward.
There are so many hurdles that RCS still has to tackle that it’s possible that it may never make it as a credible business communication tool. As it stands, it’s an utter shambles.
For consumers at least, RCS is now available to all Android users in the US as Google rolled out the new messaging platform to all users in early 2020.
Even the consumer roll out of RCS has been chaotic and painfully slow. In reviewing its chances of competing with Facebook's Messenger, tech journalist, Marc Lagace said :
"RCS could eventually replace Messenger, but it's still a complete mess."
Before we dive into the catalogue of problems, let just describe what RCS is.
What is Business RCS messaging?
RCS is the evolution of the clunky and outdated text message. SMS is over 25 years old and despite being an incredibly powerful and responsive channel, its replacement is well overdue.
It was originally an idea conceived of by The GSMA. (The Global System for Mobile Communications,is the organisation that represents the interest of the mobile industry worldwide.)
Google has been a major backer of RCS and recently lost patience with the slow progress of its roll-out and decided to go ahead and launch Google RCS messaging without involving the mobile networks.
RCS messaging allows you to send rich content rather than just plain text. So you can send and receive images, videos and audio.
It also supports read receipts and allows you to see when the other person is typing. Crucially RCS messaging does away with being shackled to just 160 characters as you are with SMS.
This is a example RCS message sent by Virgin to its customers in 2019.
Virgin Trains sent an RCS to customers with information about their onward journey
RCS messaging features
- Up 8000 characters
- Send and receive images
- Send and receive video
- Send and receive audio
- Live video calls
- Supports read receipts
- Group chat
- Typing indicators
- Location sharing
A selection of recent RCS campaigns
These are all features that other messaging apps like IMessage and WhatsApp, have had for some time.
There are no killer features that RCS messaging has to make it stand out. It does however have the distinct advantage that you only need to have someone’s mobile number and you can send them an RCS message. There’s no need to download an app or make sure that the other person has the same app as you.
This is all well and good for consumers, but where does that leave companies that want to use RCS messaging to communicate with their customers.
The 8 big challenges facing RCS messaging
Businesses and marketers are longing to get access to RCS. It could transform the way they communicate with their customers.
The potential applications are far reaching not just for marketing but also for many types of customer service, alerts, bulletins etc.
But until all the issues are solved, RCS could be a spectacular failure.
On evaluating its chances of success, TIM Green from Mobile Ecosystem Forum said:
“RCS is – for now at least – classic ‘vapourware’. It’s something that might take off… at some point in the future… we’re not sure when.""
Here’s a rundown of all the major problems that must be solved before RCS is a viable option for businesses
- Apple have not adopted and are unlikely to adopt RCS Messaging.
- The complexity barrier - setting up an RCS campaign to account for Iphone users is not easy.
- RCS pricing has not been set.
- RCS messaging is not encrypted and could result in hacking
- There are already reports of spam and fraudulent phishing attempts
- Uptake of business RCS messaging is slow and we're still in case study mode
- RCS is losing the battle with Whatsapp business messaging
- Your can completely switch off from ever receiving RCS messages
1. It’s highly unlikely that Apple will ever adopt RCS business messaging
It’s becoming increasingly clear that Apple are not going to adopt business RCS in the foreseeable future. It competes with their own IMessage and there’s’ no reason why Apple would want its iPhone users moving away from it.
Despite some industry rumours in early 2019 that suggested that Apple were in discussion with the GSMA, nothing since then has indicated that Apple are anywhere close to adopting RCS
In a recent interview, Nick Lane from UK based research company Mobilesquared, said:
“In terms of supporting RCS business messaging, that won’t happen. Why would they want to do that?”
Dieter Bohn - Executive Editor of The verge agrees:
"There’s no indication Apple is even faintly interested in supporting it on the iPhone."
Without Apple, business RCS may struggle to gain traction as a significant proportion of any customer base won’t be able to receive them.
For most marketers the lack of Apple involvement makes it completely unusable from the start. How can you possibly offer seamless, consistent customer communication using RCS if up to 40% of your customers are unable to receive them?
Even the most eye-catching case studies are unlikely to convince all but the most adventurous marketing departments.
2. The complexity barrier
As an alternative to RCS, marketers will need to deliver an SMS to iPhone users containing a link to a mobile optimised landing page that replicates the content of the RCS message.
Inevitably, customers with iPhones will receive a second-rate experience compared with those with Android phones. So immediately you’re creating a division in the level of service that you're delivering to customers.
This kind of 2-tier approach will be highly complex and expensive to implement and for most, the benefits will not outweigh these additional hurdles.
This problem isn't being discussed enough by RCS evangelists. The usual response is to airily propose that Iphone users should simply receive a text as an alternative to an RCS.
But this completely ignores the detail of how a decent customer experience will be delivered.
Imagine the headache and expense of creating a mobile web page for each RCS message that you want to send.
Without Apple at the RCS table it’s going to be a major headache for brands to be able to deliver the same experience across their entire customer base.
3. Business RCS pricing is still unresolved
Industry insiders have been demanding some sort of resolution on pricing for the past 3 or 4 years and yet we’re still waiting for clarity on what sending a business RCS is going to cost.
Nick Lane at Mobilesquared referred to the lack of progress as ‘groundhog day’.
The situation is getting embarrassing and no one appears willing or able to break cover and set some pricing that allows marketers to explore the potential ROI of RCS.
Before Mobile World Congress in February 2019, Derek Johnson, CEO of Tatango highlighted the pricing issues as an urgent problem that needed resolving. Since then, we’re no further forward.
“We have to get this resolved as an industry before we can even look at anything because if the ROI is too low or doesn’t even compete with SMS, then RCS is essentially dead before it even starts."
A few pricing models have been suggested but these have all been complex or unrealistic.
RCS is different to SMS in that it encourages an ongoing communication, rather than a simple one-way push of information. An RCS message flow might include multiple messages and interactions.
So unlike SMS, you need to have a pricing model that allows for multiple RCS but without the costs spiralling out of control.
One suggestion is to have a ‘cost per session’. Once an RCS conversation has begun, you simply pay a flat fee for a set period, probably 24 hours.
Another more outlandish idea is to set the price of RCS based on the profit that results from the RCS exchange. Thankfully this idea seems to have quietly disappeared. It would have been unworkable and impossible to regulate.
By contrast, bulk SMS marketing has always had clear and transparent pricing. One text sent, uses one text credit.
UK, research company Mobilesquared appear to be taking the lead on pricing with their token-based proposal.
Their suggestion is that you would purchase a block of RCS tokens from your RCS provider. Different types of RCS message would use different numbers of tokens.
If you were sending a simple image then you might use 1 token but if you had a scrollable element or button options, then you would use 2.
Quite how this would work in reality is unclear, as there will be almost infinite numbers of ways that an RCS message could be presented.
The whole pricing of business RCS is still in utter chaos and without a universally agreed approach, RCS simply can’t be used.
4. RCS messaging is not encrypted and can lead to hacking
Surprisingly, RCS unlike most other messaging apps is not end-to-end encrypted. It uses the same rules and protocols as SMS.
Network providers can keep records of all RCS messages in a fully readable format and these could be accessible to anyone that has legitimate legal access.
For many, this is a reason in itself to never use RCS.
More recently there have been troubling security concerns when German security company SRLabs demonstrated that RCS could allow hackers to access SMS and voice data. Sloppy implementation of RCS by both Google and carriers could allow messages and calls to be intercepted or altered at will.
SRLabs founder Karsten Nohl argues that:
“RCS gives us the capability to read your text messages and listen to your calls. You’re going to be more vulnerable to hackers because your network decided to activate RCS. If you put out a new technology for a billion people, you should define the whole security concept."
Watch an SR Labs video clearly demonstrating how RCS can be hacked and message content changed.
5. There are already reports of RCS spam
Alarmingly, spammers are already moving into the RCS space.
P2P RCS is free, so it makes it a very attractive for people that want to abuse it.
Mobilesquared managed to get hold of some data from AdaptiveMobile that showed that there were 6000 active spammers on the network.
The spamming issue was revealed by the fact that the top 20 RCS senders had sent 31,000 messages between them. The only way that would be possible is if they were spamming.
The solution to RCS spam appears to be the implementation of an adequate firewall to prevent users from being victims of RCS phishing or scams.
When Mobile Squared brought this to the attention of mobile operators, they reported the following.
‘Mobilesquared has been told by a number of mobile operators that have launched RCS, that there is no budget available to invest in an RCS firewall, leaving their platform vulnerable to attack.’
This appears to be an extraordinary lax approach to basic security and won’t help popularise the use of RCS for either individuals or businesses.
It’s possible that the reputation of RCS could be ruined by spammers before it has had a chance to become widely adopted.
6. 10 years on and we’re still in case study mode
As the years drift past, we still haven’t seen any examples where companies are using RCS as an integrated part of their customer communications.
There have been some very eye-catching case studies, notably Subway who achieved a 140% uplift in sales with their RCS campaign in early 2019.
The latest RCS campaign from Papa Johns in the UK, achieved a 23% uplift compared to SMS.
But these campaigns are all one-off marketing tactics. You send an RCS message; you measure the sales and compare it to your usual response rates. Then you dash of a PR release, trumpeting your success which is then gleefully published in the world’s marketing press.
But this is all a bit thin. We don’t see any companies who have taken RCS to the next stage of its development.
Until we see examples where a company has integrated RCS into all their other communications and tackled the complexity of having a solution for iPhone users, RCS will remain on the fringes, with promising potential but never quite delivering.
Big investment and big buzz from RCS suppliers
Many of the potential suppliers of business RCS messaging have invested heavily in preparing themselves for the opportunity that it presents.
Some of them have even been involved with Google’s early access program. This gave a select number of providers an opportunity to influence the development and potential applications of RCS.
To help get people taking about RCS and generate a market buzz, most providers have offered a series of user groups, seminars and exciting demos to give potential customers a glimpse of the excitement that lies in store.
Having committed so whole-heartedly to the new platform, they're understandably keen to see RCS succeed.
The marketing press and business media in general is stuffed full of articles talking about the potential of RCS to transform customers communications and why now is the time to act
Most of these articles represent wishful thinking and are often paid for editorial rather than news of any sort.
7. RCS messaging is losing the battle with WhatsApp business messaging
RCS isn’t the only business messaging app out there.
RCS is already losing the battle with WhatsApp.
WhatsApp for business is fast becoming the most popular business messaging app.
From just 992 users at the end of 2019, research company Mobile squared project they will have over 55,000 business users by 2024.
That’s a rise of 5400% over 4 years.
This spectacular rise could easily elbow RCS messaging into the shadows and turn it into the ‘also ran’ of business messaging.
WhatsApp is so rich and interactive that its prevalence is set to be almost ubiquitous within a few short years. In fact, it could be so prevalent that it makes RCS as we know it a non-starter.
Paul Skeldon - Telemedia
8. You can now turn RCS messaging off
Google has now made it possible for you to completely de-register from receiving RCS messages.
In just a few short clicks you can switch off RCS messaging - permanently.
For a messaging channel that has aspirations to become the next messaging standard, this is bad news.
So anyone that can’t be bothered to explore the potential benefits or perhaps isn’t that impressed, can’t simply switch it off.
Mobile industry experts stress change must happen if RCS is to be a success
To get under the skin of the real life problems faced by the companies trying to sell RCS messaging to brands, David O’Byrne of mFuture Consulting surveyed a number of RCS providers.
Fuller results of his findings can be found on a podcast on the MEF website.
What follows is a more or less word for word transcription of what the RCS providers described as the main challenges.
“2 issues came up time and time again.
We were doing SMS for this customer. They were happy but they wanted something richer.
We showed them RCS, they were ecstatic.
We did a trial with them on RCS, and they saw that they had 20 or 30 or even more percent greater engagement and every metric was improved by moving to RCS.
We were all ready to do a full RCS campaign and they asked what percentage of customers’ phone will this land on?
We said maybe between 15 and 20 %
And they pulled the plug.
And they’re still doing SMS."
"The other story we got was we were all ready to do a campaign but the brand got so confused that 6 months later they were still deciding what images to use."
At the moment there is nothing that is going to hugely improve either the reach of RCS messaging or the fact that brands are finding it confusing, complex and with disappointingly few users able to accept receive RCS messages.
As David concluded:
“There needs to be a way of delivering a unified experience to all handsets including IOS handsets right now, otherwise brands will never move out of pilot mode and we will never start to see the money coming through on the solution.”
I couldn’t agree more.
So there’s plenty of quite gloomy analysis on the outlook for RCS messaging and for the time being I don’t see that changing.
A long and uncertain road ahead for RCS
With the catalogue of issues facing RCS business messaging, it’s hard to predict when and even if it will become a credible option for marketers.
Just one of the problems would be challenging enough but with so many forces working against it, RCS may never emerge as a fully formed communication platform.
Optimism, goodwill and great case studies will only get the new channel so far.
If RCS is to become a success, we need to see wide adoption in the next 12 months or it may sink without trace.