Twilio is one of the world’s most rapidly-growing companies, and interest in the company and its products is rising. However, it’s not always clear what a company is about and what it does merely from a list of its products and features. Like reading the spec sheet for a product you know nothing about, you can come away better informed, but none the wiser. So in this post, we’ll offer a quick rundown of what Twilio does, followed by a look at four organizations that are using it to transform core parts of what they do. Let’s start at the beginning.
What is Twilio?
Twilio is a tool for connecting communications systems. That can mean SMS, phone or video chat, with two-factor authentication, AI, conference calls and full-fledged contact centers in the mix.
It’s a big deal because phone communications have traditionally been hard to achieve. Even the first generation of VoIP, itself a massive improvement on the copper-wire contact center and internal switchboard, soaked up significant amounts of time, money, and technical expertise.
Twilio is a way out of all that. It lets companies plug one set of communication tools into another to provide seamless experiences for users. Developers can build using the tools they already know. Think of it as ‘Confluence, for communication.’
An application for contact centers
Contact center as an application with Twilio Flex: a programmable call center with a customizable UI. Add new channels with a click or create custom channels. Configure and brand in the Flex UI or get into the code and, in Twilio’s words, ‘rip it apart’ — and put it back together any way you like. Also features intelligent routing, two-way integrations and a drag-and-drop workflow editor.
Easily segment and reach large audiences
Integrated, easy email with SendGrid Marketing Campaigns: a segmentable, templated, customizable email tool with analytics built in. Plug it into other tools with Twilio SendGrid Email API. Use the drag-and-drop or code editors to build campaigns quickly, and manage them from a central dashboard. Automate drips or build programmatic email flows. Import and segment contact lists in a few minutes and a few clicks. Personalize, A/B test, and preview right in the tool.
Build messaging flows into applications
Reach users around the world through the channels they’re already using, with Programmable Messaging: messaging flows including SMS and WhatsApp. Build if-this-then-that logic flows and automated drip messaging, using the same API calls to reach customers on SMS, MMS, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger direct from your application, using tools like Twilio’s WhatsApp Business API. Send high-volume messages with Short Codes.
Make and receive voice and video calls in your application
With just a few lines of code — in the language of your choice — you can build Programmable Voice into your app. Create programmatic calling and automated calls using Twilio Autopilot. Inbuilt analytics monitors KPIs like jitter, mean opinion score, and latency. You can do the same with video calls using Programmable Video: programmable, real-time video chat in applications — or create omnichannel, cross-platform seamless programmatic communication with Twilio Conversations. Get access to global Tier 1 cellular networks on a single SIM with Super SIM, or call from toll-free virtual Phone Numbers.
Manage IoT fleets
Control fleets of IoT devices with Programmable Wireless SIMs, with SIMs that let you add 2G, 3G, or LTE cellular connectivity to your devices and send information over cellular data or via machine-to-machine (M2M) SMS. For more challenging radio conditions, or for very large fleets of low-power IoT devices such as sensors, preventative maintenance monitors, utilities meters, and location trackers there’s the Narrowband SIM.
Twilio also lets you manage logon, including 2FA (Two-Factor Authentication) through push notification, WhatsApp, email, SMS, and voice, as well as login without password, through its Verify API (which incorporates Twilio Authy). Its suite of Developer Tools includes the fully open source Twilio Labs Serverless development project.
These sound pretty cool to me, but they’re somewhat abstract. They tell you what you can do, but not much about what you can achieve.
A better way to understand what Twilio is and what it can do is to look at some of its use cases, so here’s the list of four ways that Twilio is transforming major organizations.
Let workers and customers contact each other — without sharing their phone numbers
Twilio Flex let rideshare app Lyft build a call center that allows drivers and customers to communicate with each other directly, without sharing their phone numbers with each other.
The problem is a tricky one. Customers want to be able to call a driver and check they’ve got pickup details right or ask questions they might have forgotten to ask (can my dog travel, do you have wheelchair access?). They might want to check in with a driver who’s a few minutes late. But at the same time, the driver is a stranger. Customers don’t want to give their phone numbers out to several strangers a week. Drivers are in a similar position, wanting to communicate directly but retain their privacy.
The solution is for Lyft to ‘filter’ communication, so that drivers and customers can talk to each other without directly connecting their phone numbers. But Lyft has over 12 million active users, with over a million people using the service every month. A conventional call center to handle that kind of volume would make a big hole in the company’s revenue.
Lyft started out addressing this by automating communication at key points in the user-driver interaction, like when a ride request is accepted and when a car shows up at a location. That cut the number of calls that had to be managed manually. Gradually, calls moved onto a custom call center system built on Twilio by Lyft’s own developers, handling the approximately 30 million interactions between users and drivers that Lyft deals with every week. Drivers and users save time, get easy communication, and retain their privacy. Inside Lyft, a process that used to require multiple manual actions to manage is now done largely automatically, ensuring the company has clean, accurate data and saving time and frustration for workers.
Speech recognition-powered switchboards
When venerable UK-based department store Marks and Spencer began experiencing a historically high volume of incoming messages — through Twitter, SMS, email and webchat as well as old-fashioned, actual phone calls — they moved to replace their legacy call center technology and infrastructure.
In 2019, Marks and Spencer had unprecedented call volume; in 2020, under pressure from Covid mitigation protocols that kept customers out of the shop, it leaped again, prompting the company to update their mobile notification strategy to include click-and-collect, bookable shopping timeslots, and instore checkout on a mobile app.
The legacy phone system in place before these changes was totally unequipped to store and manage the data arising from modern, multi-touchpoint consumer interactions. And without managing this data, it’s impossible to derive insights from it or to leverage it to improve performance. However, improvements there could not come at the cost of reducing customer satisfaction with Marks and Spencer’s increasingly-crucial communications.
The solution was to pair Twilio Speech Recognition with programmable voice, and layer the result over the existing physical infrastructure. Marks and Spencer can be both more responsive to customer needs, and have improved visibility into the business. Speech Recognition routes customer inquiries correctly over 90% of the time, with about 98% caller response and engagement. Improved accuracy and responsiveness cut around 10 seconds off average call time.
2FA on financial transactions
Traditional money transfers have been difficult and complex. Send money from one country to another through the bank and you face an average delay of between one and five working days’ delay. Some transactions can take much longer. Users face stiff fees, too.
Companies like Transferwise set out to change all that, but they face some of the same difficulties banks do. One of the most important is ensuring that the people sending and receiving funds are who they say they are, and they legitimately control the funds and accounts they say they do. It matters less when the amounts are relatively small, but concerns around things like international money laundering and terrorist funding come into play, as well as the requirement to prevent theft.
Transferwise typically charges 8X less than banks, and currently sends over $1.8 billion a month on behalf of over two million users. How can Transferwise continue to offer its services and be faster and cheaper than the banks, without exposing its users and itself to identity-related risks?
The company is well aware of the problem. Edward Dowling, product manager at TransferWise’s Security Team, says, ‘we can be the most convenient, the fastest, and the cheapest way to send money abroad, but if we don't have strong security underpinning all of that, it doesn't matter. If customers don’t trust us, they won’t use us.’
TransferWise now works seamlessly with its users’ bank accounts, which means it no longer just conveys specified payments: it has access to customer funds. Security and privacy, that don’t compromise speed and affordability, is absolutely essential.
Initially, TransferWise used SMS-based 2FA (Two-Factor Authentication), rejecting other more complex options in the face of a relatively older, less tech-savvy user base. Instead, they use push notification-based 2FA, powered by Twilio Authy, for accounts that give access to customer funds. ‘We integrated Authy into our mobile application as well as into the back-end of the Wise website,’ says Dowling. ‘After some initial exploratory work by our developers, Twilio took the entire team through a three-day, onsite workshop to guide us through implementation, show us best practices and common pitfalls.’ Currently, about 20% to 30% of TransferWise logins use 2FA, and the company prompts users to upgrade after successful SMS logins; about 93% do so, with most reversions coming from customers who lose or replace devices.
Managing staffing across a large organization
The American Red Cross helps train people in first aid, provides disaster relief, and offers a wide range of other services including blood drives. Its work is vital, and often time-sensitive; it’s also very sensitive to location. When people need help you have to go to them, frequently in inaccessible or distant places. So the Red Cross needs to organize its ‘workforce’ to achieve that, against the clock and on a budget.
So far, the story is a familiar one for many organizations. But the Red Cross is different in another way. Most of its ‘boots on the ground’ — 95% — are volunteers. And they’re busy. The Red Cross responds to 60,000 disasters every year, or one every eight minutes. How do you quickly assemble and dispatch a group of volunteers in a crisis?
The difference is as big as this: in the past, when a disaster required an immediate response from the Red Cross, a volunteer picked up a list of phone numbers and started dialing. If you’ve handled data before, you’re probably already shuddering with horror. But beyond the dead numbers, the wasted calls to people at work or asleep or out, there’s another issue. Every second you’re on the phone with Jimmy, you’re not on the phone with Jane. Calling two dozen volunteers could take twenty or thirty minutes before you can even start getting anything actually done.
DCSOps, built by San Francisco volunteer John Laxson and shortly thereafter integrated with Twilio SMS, works differently. Now, dispatchers send simultaneous SMS messages to everyone on the list, including pertinent details. Available volunteers are able to hit the ground running and the lead time until a team is ready is cut sharply. Keyword-based SMS communication in the field keeps everyone organized without soaking up time or relying too heavily on what might be spotty connectivity. About 20% of the US population lives in areas served by DCSOps, but its users and developers are hopeful that wider adoption is coming.
- Twilio is a set of tools for connecting other tools. It’s best thought of as a way to get your applications, customers and organization to all talk to each other.
- It specializes in programmatic communication, with AI solutions increasingly available.
- Most success stories involve developers creating their own tools on Twilio, or connecting Twilio to what they’re already using.