It’s becoming increasingly common. Your smartphone bleeps. It’s a briefly intrusive communiqué from an impersonal database telling you about an offer, a sale or a smart loan opportunity. Matters are made worse because you can’t remember having communicated with the business before, much less subscribed for updates.

As a business owner, is it appropriate for you to text your customers? Arguably, text messaging is a very personal form of communication. But this is perhaps why businesses use them. Junk mail gave way to email spam. But as most people dropped spam filters into place, that aqueduct was squeezed dry. It seems the only place where the end user has little control over receipt is text messaging.

But that isn’t the only reason text messaging is the darling of companies looking for a little pester power. Response rates are higher than almost any other medium of communication- and about eight times higher than email messaging, according to a study by US mobile marketing firm Cellit. While the firm might have motivation to loudly state its case given its business, Forrester research also holds that SMS response rates of between 5 to 25 percent are not uncommon. In the UAE, SMS marketing businesses have been known to tout response rates higher than 10 percent, which is far higher than the 1 to 2 percent response rates email campaigns garner.

Yet texts in the middle of the night are seldom received with much zeal. Bleeping nightstands mean grumpy customers. As Eileen Wallis, Managing Partner of the Portsmouth Group, suggests, “Text messaging is a form of communication which in an ideal world needs to be wanted and opted into by the receiver. Examples of this would be airline loyalty programmes, premium banking, shopping privilege cards- in these cases, if done well, it is appropriate.

She believes that some customers like receiving texts if they are beneficial or on target. However, “Unwanted texts or spam should not be undertaken. If they are, there should be clear instructions on how recipients are able to opt out. Companies who engage in sending unwanted texts run a very real risk of alienating existing and potential customers.”

Wallis notes that when texts are blatantly promotional, sent at an inconvenient time of day, sent numerous times, or are not relevant to the recipient, the company runs the risk of putting off its customer base. She also believes that some sectors are just more appropriate than others for text communication because they were early adopters. Customers are therefore now conditioned. “People are accustomed to mobile banking for example. They’re also used to receiving helpful reminders from airlines about checking in for their flights. Particularly in the Middle East- we are such a shopping centric environment that texts about sales can be welcomed,” she says.

Businesses shouldn’t be concerned only with the etiquette of SMS marketing. There is also the UAE’s legal and regulatory environment to contend with.

Takamasa Makita, Legal Director for international law firm Clyde & Co.’s Dubai office explains that the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) issued a regulatory policy on 30 December 2009 called the Unsolicited Electronic Communications Regulation Policy (Policy). “It is designed to minimse the transmission of spam to and from the UAE. Under the Policy, service providers in the UAE are required to minimise spam and take all reasonable steps to ensure that spam is not being transmitted over their networks,” he says.

He also notes that in a recent update the TRA has also stated penalties for unsolicited messages. “The TRA has stated that initially, senders of this content will be warned, but if there is repeat violation, their service will be temporarily terminated and if caught again the senders will be fined and their service terminated permanently.”

As per Makita’s interpretation of UAE law and TRA regulations, providers are prohibited from sending SMS spam for the purpose of marketing services offered by them unless consent has been received in the case of all new mobile customers. Providers also have to notify all existing mobile customers that they are currently deemed to have agreed to receive the provider’s own SMS spam and that they have the option to opt-out.

The law is clear when it comes to mobile providers but perhaps less so concerning marketing firms that use software to send out bulk messages to harvested databases. But best practice, both in terms of law and etiquette, would indicate that consent remains a key principle.

Contributed to Zawya Business Pulse