Insights & Resources6 min read

SMS vs MMS - Breaking Down the Important Differences

From pricing to restrictions, we break down the subtle yet important difference between SMS and MMS.

Risa Takenaka
SMS vs MMS message comparison
SMS and MMS messages seem very similar when they appear on your phone. However, the two messaging services have some notable differences, which become important when you compare SMS vs MMS for business use.
And understanding these differences is important in choosing the right service for achieving your business goals. Here’s what you need to know.

SMS vs MMS

The biggest difference between SMS (Short Message Service) and MMS (Multimedia Message Service) is that SMS is only capable of sending text. MMS can send multimedia content—pictures, video, and audio—in addition to text. However, the added capabilities of MMS present some device compatibility limitations.
Additionally, sending multimedia content requires some additional network infrastructure, since sending pictures, videos, and audio is more data intensive than sending just text. It’s that added infrastructure that leads to differences in cost and sending limits between SMS and MMS.
But this difference in sending infrastructure is largely transparent to the people holding the cell phones on each end of the message. There are practical differences that are more visible to the end user.

What are SMS messages?

SMS messages are simple text-only messages that can be transmitted over traditional cellular phone networks. You don’t need an internet connection to send or receive an SMS message. Standard cellular service is enough for transmitting SMS messages.
SMS is a very simple and affordable way to send messages to almost any mobile device.

What are MMS messages?

MMS messages are similar to SMS messages. However, MMS messages can include images, videos, and sound. This multimedia capability requires an internet connection. A traditional cellular connection isn’t enough to transmit visual and audio media.
Usually, this internet connection is achieved through cellular data networks. Sending and receiving MMS messages almost always requires a cellular data plan.
Of course, you can send text in an MMS message. However—in most cases—MMS is not as efficient for sending text-only messages as SMS. We’ll cover why shortly.

5 key differences between SMS and MMS

There are a handful of differences between SMS and MMS that affect the experience and costs of using each of these services for business. These differences stem from the networks and data capabilities required to send MMS messages.

How SMS and MMS are sent

SMS messages are sent over cellular networks, using standard cellular data packets. An SMS message is sent from the sender’s phone to the nearest cell tower. That message is then sent to the SMS message center, which passes the message to a cell tower near the recipient, and on to the recipient.
MMS messages use some of this sending infrastructure. But the process is slightly more complex.
When an MMS message is sent, it gets submitted to a multimedia messaging service center (MMSC). The MMSC sends an SMS notification to the SMSC (Short Message Service Center), which notifies the recipient’s device that there’s an MMS message waiting on the MMSC. Lastly, the recipient’s phone retrieves the MMS message from the MMSC.
This might seem inconsequential. However, since sending an MMS message requires two service centers and sending an SMS message to prompt the recipient’s phone to retrieve the MMS message from the MMSC, MMS messages are more expensive to send.

Ability to send media

We’ve already mentioned that this is the key difference between SMS and MMS. And it’s what justifies the higher cost of sending MMS messages. Messages with visual or audio content are more engaging than text-only messages.
However, that doesn’t make MMS a one-size-fits-all solution. There are use cases where SMS is a better way to communicate.

Space and character limitations

Since MMS messages are sent using cellular data, they can be much larger than SMS messages.
SMS messages have a 160 character limit. On the other hand, MMS messages have a 1600 character limit. MMS messages also have data limits. Most carriers limit MMS messages to 3.75MB of data. Some carriers have lower data limits, though.
Also, most carriers have lower send limits for MMS messages. It just takes more resources to transmit an MMS message. So you have to send MMS messages less frequently than SMS messages.
However, message frequency limitations are usually measured in the number of messages per second or minute. Most of the time, that limitation won’t be an issue, unless you’re sending a mass message to thousands of people.

SMS and MMS cost differences

The typical cost for sending SMS messages is between $0.01 and $0.05 per text. However, some carriers charge less (and some charge more).
With most carriers, sending an MMS message with visual content costs about the same as sending four or five SMS messages. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth it to send MMS messages. More about that in a moment.

Device compatibility

Device compatibility can be a concern for sending MMS messages.
Almost any mobile device can receive an SMS message. But only more advanced devices—like smartphones—can receive MMS messages. If the device is unable to display an image or video, it simply can’t show the media in an MMS message.
But there are about 2.71 billion smartphone users out there. So there are plenty of people who can get MMS messages.
For critical communication, like appointment reminders and accepting payments via text, SMS is the best option, though. You definitely need those types of messages to reach the recipient, regardless of what kind of phone they have.

Should businesses use SMS or MMS?

Choosing SMS or MMS isn’t a one-time decision. SMS is a better choice in some cases. While you’ll be better off using MMS for other things.
If you’re sending text-only messages, there’s no reason to pay the cost of sending an MMS message.
However, it’s worth noting that SMS messages longer than 160 characters will be split into multiple messages. Since MMS messages have a 1600 character limit, it can be more cost efficient to send a single MMS message rather than several SMS messages. And it won’t blow up your recipient’s phone with a bunch of message alerts.
If you’re sending images or video, you have to send MMS messages. But why would you need to send images and video?
The area where businesses can benefit most from using MMS is in their marketing campaigns. Some sources report that MMS marketing campaigns see 15% to 20% better engagement than SMS campaigns.
So sending MMS messages can definitely be worth the cost. But that doesn’t mean that MMS is the best option for everything.
Even in marketing, SMS has its place. For example, it’s wise to use SMS if you know that a large portion of your customer base does not have a smartphone.
Also, for things like placing orders through text or simple text alerts, it’s more cost efficient to use SMS. There’s no need to send videos or pictures with basic appointment reminders or in a customer service text exchange.
Ultimately, the answer is that businesses should use both SMS and MMS. Use MMS where the cost is justified—like marketing—and SMS where you just need simple, affordable communication.

SMS vs. MMS Infographic (Download)

Check out our infographic below to learn about the differences SMS and MMS offers and how to leverage them for your business communications.

Explore your options with Telnyx

Ready to start using SMS and MMS? Try the Telnyx Mission Control Portal for free. Or contact a Telnyx expert to get your questions answered.
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