SMS Messages for Financial Inclusion in the Dominican Republic

SMS Messages for Financial Inclusion in the Dominican Republic


A bank account offers a safe way for low-income families to accumulate wealth, enabling them to undertake substantial investments or create a financial safety net for unexpected expenses. However, a significant number of poor households refrain from engaging with official financial services.

In the Dominican Republic, funds sent from overseas have consistently been a fundamental component of national income. In 2015, the amount exceeded US$4.9 billion, indicating an 8.5% increase compared to the preceding year and marking the highest growth rate for remittances in the region. Constituting over 7% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), these transactions play a vital role as a substantial source of foreign exchange. Additionally, for the households receiving them, these incoming remittances typically make up around 14% of their monthly income.

Banco Unión addresses this issue by distributing remittances to around 400,000 clients who lack a conventional bank account. Due to this situation, the bank has created two type of bank accounts focusing on satisfying the needs of these clients.


While remittances play a crucial role in Dominican households, only half of those receiving these funds have a bank account to manage and strengthen them. To enhance the involvement of remittance recipients with formal financial institutions and promote a savings culture, Banco Unión, in collaboration with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA), developed SMS message campaigns. The goal is to encourage the adoption and active use of accounts among Banco Unión's clientele who receive remittances.

Banco Unión has undertaken three initiatives specifically tailored to meet the needs of those who receive remittances: the first two are the "Cuenta con Ella" and "Cuenta Clavo" bank accounts, and the third is a line of financial education videos. The intention is to use messages as a tool for behavioral change that promotes the adoption and use of these bank accounts. These initiatives also seek to identify what types of messages, content, frequency, and timing are most effective in encouraging savings.

Behavioral barriers

  • Present bias: The tendency to opt for a lesser benefit in the short term over a greater benefit in the longer term, which is associated with a preference for instant gratification. This bias may lead individuals to avoid opening a savings account, causing them to underestimate the future advantages of building reserves.

Behavioral tools

  • Reminders: These can take the form of an email, a text message, a letter, or an in-person visit to someone who must decide on some aspects of their intention-action. Reminders are intended to mitigate procrastination, forgetfulness, and/or cognitive overload. The monthly messages served as reminders of the benefits of savings and the "Cuenta con Ella" bank account.
  • Salience: Our attention is limited. Therefore, behavioral economics pays special attention to the moment when a message is delivered, the channel through which it is delivered, and the content it emphasizes. This project incorporates various message types to capture attention in different ways.
  • Personalization: Personalizing information based on individual characteristics and traits of identity is shown to improve responsiveness and outcomes. The messages include the name of each client or non-client.

Intervention design

In order to determine the most effective approach to promote the adoption and usage of Cuenta con Ella and Cuenta Clavo accounts through regular SMS messages, two randomized controlled trials were devised. These trials involved sending SMS campaigns to clients as the primary intervention. Throughout each trial, clients received one SMS message per month, with the content of the message remaining consistent every month for each client.

In Study 1, the focus was on 80% of clients currently receiving remittances through home delivery without having a corresponding bank account. The intervention targeted a sample of 73,209 individuals, utilizing monthly SMS messages to provide information on Cuenta con Ella and Cuenta Clavo accounts, along with similar services. The SMS messages were categorized into 11 different messages across three thematic areas: generic financial education messages derived from Banco Unión's online video series, information about various features of Banco Unión's products, and savings "rules of thumb." Each message included a greeting which could be personalized, including the name of the client, or generic. Also, there were two different framings: an inquisitive frame to encourage reflection and interactivity, and a declarative frame for straightforward presentation. As a final sentence, the message could have the slogan of Banco Union, or include an action-oriented conclusion. Additionally, there were variations in message delivery, exploring the impact of receiving monthly SMS messages for 4, 5, or 6 months to assess the effectiveness of different durations in encouraging account adoption.

Study 2 aimed to enhance account usage by implementing a single SMS campaign directed at half of a group of new clients, encouraging the development of savings balances through the pursuit of specific goals. Banco Unión conducted a brief phone survey to understand the savings goals of these new clients and personalized the SMS messages based on the obtained information. The study included 2,087 clients, with no overlap between the study sample of Study 1, which focused on unbanked clients, and Study 2, which exclusively targeted banked clients. The message starts with a personalized (name of the client) or generic greeting. Then, it includes a core content including the type of goal and monthly savings amount specified by the clients, for those who completed the survey. For those who did not complete the survey, the first SMS prompted them to consider a savings goal and monthly savings amount, with subsequent messages serving as reminders to save towards their goals.


In both studies, participants consistently received the same message, lacking variation in the information provided. This limitation hinders the ability to assess whether presenting diverse information could generate different outcomes.

In Study 2, there was a low level of engagement among individuals when it came to participating in the survey on saving goals. Despite attempting to reach 2,147 clients, the bank ultimately reached only 540 after three attempts.

The campaign was implemented well after an initial marketing effort had already targeted this population, meaning those without accounts were likely the least inclined to open one.

It was not feasible to determine if individuals were inclined to pursue their goals and choose to increase their savings using an account from another bank, thereby retaining the Banco Unión account solely for remittances.


Two randomized evaluations revealed that the messaging campaigns failed to increase clients' utilization of formal bank accounts and may have even discouraged engagement with Banco Unión. This was evidenced by a decline in deposit and withdrawal activities, as well as slightly lower balances at the conclusion of the campaigns. Surprisingly, reminders to save seemed to have a dampening effect on transaction behavior and account balances, rendering them an ineffective tool for driving engagement.

In Study 1, the bank closely monitored the sample clients to identify those who opened accounts. However, the bank could only detect 197 new accounts in this group, resulting in a meager take-up rate of 0.27%. SMS campaigns, unfortunately, had no discernible impact on increasing account openings.

In Study 2, account activity remained notably low, with only 21 percent of clients making transactions after the initiation of SMS campaigns. Surprisingly, SMS messages led clients to transact less within a given 4-week window compared to the control group. This reduction in both the number and volume of transactions was evenly distributed between deposits and withdrawals, making the overall change in balance indistinguishable within the same timeframe. Additionally, clients who completed the survey and received subsequent SMS messages tailored to their savings goals were even more likely to draw down their account.

Policy implications

The size of a goal matters. Reminding a client about a goal that seems out of reach might discourage saving. In Study 2, the main idea is to use the saving goals information that clients reveal through the survey as a tool to improve their savings habits. The messages would be reminders of their proposed goals and encourage them to persist making contributions to achieve them. However, sending reminders can discourager saving behavior, because some individuals may have set a very large goal and reminders can reinforce the idea that they will not be able to achieve it.

Moreover, understanding the local context is crucial. Fraud has been a concern in the banking sector in the Dominican Republic, making clients apprehensive that a bank reaching out to them might cause harm rather than benefit. Both messages revealed that the bank was aware of their financial actions, through remittances or savings goals, which may have led to them feeling exposed to fraud. It is essential to understand the kind of relationship clients want with the bank to ensure that banks’ actions are not perceived as intrusive or violating their privacy.