Posey's Tips & Tricks

Microsoft Excel as a Text Messaging Platform

The ability to send bulk text messages could be beneficial to businesses -- and not only to those that want to send out mass SPAM content.

Microsoft recently sent out a tweet from @Office365 indicating that it was now possible to send text messages from Excel (using a third-party add-on). I have to confess that my initial reaction to the tween was to wonder how sending SMS text messages from Excel could possibly be useful. Initially, I was envisioning automated spreadsheets equipped with really obnoxious text messaging reminders. Once my morning energy drink kicked in, however, I began to realize that texting from Excel could indeed be useful.

I think that the main reason why I did not initially see the value in being able to send text messages from Excel had a lot to do with the way that I personally use Excel.  I personally use Excel for producing financial spreadsheets, or for generating graphic representations of data sets (although I am increasingly using PowerShell for graphing instead of relying on Excel). What I tend to forget sometimes is that there are many people who use Excel as a tool for storing contact lists. Hence, an automated text messaging engine could conceivably be used to send out text blasts to everyone whose name appears on a list.

So what about use cases? Although such a tool has obvious social uses, I can also think of at least a couple of business-related uses cases. One option would be to use an SMS engine as a tool for contacting customers. I'm not talking about sending out text spam or promotional material, but rather important information that needs to be quickly and reliably conveyed to customers. Let me give you an example.

Many years ago, I owned an antivirus company. At the time, my customer data was locked away in a SQL Server database behind a Web front-end. The data wasn't easy to get to aside from certain accounting functions, but that was fine because I never contacted customers without being specifically asked to do so.

Eventually, the day came when I needed to contact my customers to warn them to be sure to update their software so that they would be protected against a particularly notorious virus that had been getting a lot of media attention. Unfortunately, that proved to be a tough task. My solution wasn't exactly elegant, but it worked -- well, sort of.

I used a conversion tool to extract the contents of the SQL Server database and dump it into an Access database. From there, I set up a mail merge in which customer records were merged into a form letter, and sent out through an old-school SMTP relay. The problem was that not everyone received the message. The sender mailbox got flooded with out-of-office replies, and of course there were those who claimed never to have received the message at all. I also had a couple of people report me for sending out unsolicited bulk e-mail.

An SMS text-based solution could have been much more effective (of course such a solution didn't exist way back then). Data could have been brought into Excel, and a message could have been sent to each customer's mobile device with a minimum of effort. It would have avoided the hassles of custom coding, out of office replies, and being reported as a spammer.

Another use case for Excel-based text messaging is internal emergency communications within an organization. Back in the mid-'90s, I was living in Kentucky and working for a large insurance company. There was an incident in which a major blizzard was forecast to hit the area. All of the company's employees were told to watch a particular television station at 4:00 AM the next day to find out whether or not we would be open for business. That night the blizzard hit the city really hard, and I vividly remember being half asleep at 4:00 AM and trying to comprehend the list of closures scrolling rapidly across the bottom of my tiny 19-inch TV screen. Fatigue, the small screen size and poor reception made the seemingly simple task of reading the list of closures a lot more challenging than it otherwise would have been.

Imagine how a situation like that could be different today. Rather than requiring employees to get up at some insanely early hour and watch for an announcement on the television, the organization could instead text all of the employees to let them know whether or not to come into the office.

In retrospect, I think that being able to send text messages from Excel could prove to be quite useful. There have long been third-party texting add-ins for Outlook, but the ones that I have used only allowed texts to be sent to one person at a time. Text messaging for Excel could greatly simplify bulk communications.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 22-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.


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