The Five Basics of Texting for a Human-Centered Safety Net

Key considerations for using text messages to improve public benefit outcomes for clients and caseworkers
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Effective government service delivery now requires using digital means to communicate. Text messages are an integral tool to keep applicants and clients informed about their status in public benefits programs like food assistance and medical care. From updates about application stages to reminders about appointments, texting makes public benefits more accessible to people already relying on mobile phones for many other tasks in their everyday life. 

Shifting to texting can feel like a big task—but it doesn’t have to be, even for public benefits programs that currently rely on traditional mail to communicate with applicants and clients. In fact, texting is a cost-effective way to improve outcomes and ease burden for both clients and caseworkers.

Code for America’s Safety Net program has developed a Texting Playbook filled with insights from our work with state agencies around the country. We’ve taken these learnings and outlined a few simple considerations to help agencies get started with texting.

Want to learn more about texting? We’re excited to share more texting tips—including real message examples, results, and policy guidance—in the Texting Playbook: Basics of Texting Safety Net Clients. Download the playbook to learn how your agency can start texting clients.

Consideration #1: What kind of texts should programs send?

“Nudge” texts, or personalized messages that work to improve outcomes, are an easy way for governments to begin texting benefits recipients. These texts help the recipient remember to take action to complete an application. We suggest starting with the following nudge texts: 

  • Reminders to complete an application or take action, such as a call to submit verification documents. Include the recipient’s preferred name, directions for next steps, a call to action with a link, and a list of any outstanding documents, if applicable. 
  • Appointment reminders for upcoming interviews. Include the date, time, and location of the appointment and a short description of what to expect. List what they should bring, along with contact information and a way to reschedule. 
  • Reminders to renew their benefits with clear language that alerts them they are at risk of losing their benefits. Provide instructions on how to renew, along with a deadline, and a link. 
  • Outreach texts to support cross-enrollment. These inform benefits recipients that they may be eligible for assistance via another program. These are most effective when you include the individual’s name, identify the sender, and provide a short message with a clear call to action and a link to the new benefits application. 

Consideration #2: How often should you send texts?

Sending multiple texts can increase response rates and outcomes. Many safety net clients juggle multiple priorities and are not able to take immediate action upon the first text. Depending on the type of text, we suggest sending nudges to provide additional reminders and opportunities to take action. For example, with interview reminders,  we recommend sending one text a week in advance and another on the day before the appointment. 

Consideration #3: What should the messages say?

When texting benefits recipients, it’s important to use simple, clear, concise language. We’ve found effective nudge texts are readable at a sixth grade level, are written in fewer than 320 characters, and contain information like the person’s name (which can result in a nearly 25% increase in response rates). The Texting Playbook lays out sample messages in more detail and includes suggested language to ensure safety net clients get the information they need.

Agencies can create a sense of psychological ownership by framing benefits as already belonging to clients. Using phrases like “belongs to you” and referring to it as “your money” reduces people’s aversion to asking for help. Find out more.

Consideration #4: What makes texts seem legitimate?

Over the years, many of us have seen an increase in spam texts on our phones. It’s important for governments to convey legitimacy in their messages to avoid any perception of a scam. Including information like a case number, the name of the benefits agency, and a contact phone for the call center means it’s more likely a client will see a text as legitimate. It’s also recommended that agencies use a consistent number or short code for outgoing messages to establish trust and ensure an ongoing, recognizable text thread. 

Consideration #5: Is texting affordable?

Texting clients about renewals and reporting requirements can have a large impact on reducing churn. Churn occurs when benefits lapse with eligible recipients, causing them to need to quickly reapply. This can be extremely costly to states. Instead of renewals, these are processed as new cases, increasing caseworkers’ loads. One study estimated Medicaid churn costs agencies up to $600 per person; another found SNAP churn costs about $80, which is three times the cost of a renewal. 

Texting can help reduce churn by increasing the number of clients who submit renewals, reducing the number of clients who miss interviews and appointments, and ensuring clients remember to submit outstanding documents.

Texting is also far more affordable and effective than other forms of outreach communications, such as paper mailers. Averaging less than $0.05 per message, texting produces a higher return on investment than sending mail, which can cost states around $0.77 per contact. Additionally, sending texts to mobile phones is particularly beneficial for clients with unstable housing situations or those experiencing homelessness—a population that makes up a large share of benefits clients.

We compared the cost of texting versus mailing SNAP recipients based on real-world costs. For a caseload of 650,000 people, replacing a mailer with a text saved one state $487,000. Learn more about the breakdown in our Texting Playbook.

These tips only scratch the surface of how to implement and review the results of a texting campaign. Creating a texting campaign can be intimidating to many organizations, but it is doable, and most importantly, can lead to major cost savings for agencies, easier processes for caseworkers, and more accessible public benefits for those who need them. For actionable steps to create your own texting campaign, download our playbook.

If you’re part of a state government and want to learn more about working with Code for America, we invite you to fill out our partnership form.

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