What Are Push Notifications?
Push notifications are messages delivered on mobile devices - typically mobile phones. You will almost certainly be familiar with them from your own experience. Whilst push notifications on Android and iOS can differ in some key ways, in general they serve one key purpose: they communicate with users when they are outside apps.
This simple truth has meant that in general they have been used to bring people back into the app, but more recently the development of more ‘stand-alone’ and interactive notifications has enabled interactions to take place without the user returning to the app, meaning the push notification itself becomes a key aspect of the two-directional brand/consumer relationship.
Push Notifications In Context
To understand push notifications and how to use them, it might help to put them in some historical context.
The rise of push is inextricably linked with the rise of the native mobile app. The superior user experience of the latter has seen it emerge a the single most popular channel when it comes to that relationship between brand and consumer that we noted earlier. By doing so, it replaced to a great extent the ‘desktop internet’ experience.
Just as email was to that desktop experience, so is push for mobile apps. A way to speak to user and customers at any time, and indeed precisely when they are not already engaged with the service. Just like the mobile app, of course, push had the ability to ‘follow’ the user, or perhaps had the good fortune to be delivered on a device the user carried around all day.
That is an ability that can bring out the worst in marketers - and it did. Many push campaigns were little better than spam, and the channel gained a bad reputation thanks to campaigns in which millions of users were sent generic messages of little value.
But things are changing. New developments, that we will examine below, are re-defining push notifications. A new richness of experience has been added to an understanding that the push notification is perfectly designed to be a 1-2-1 communication delivered ‘in the moment’. Used well, they can form the heart of a modern omni-channel marketing program. Let’s look at a few examples.
What Are The Benefits Of Push Notifications?
Push notifications can be particularly beneficial in a number of cases and a number of industries. For example:
- A news media business can use push notifications to let users know about breaking news stories - and include video reports
- An airline can use push notifications to provide passengers with updates relating to their flight such as gate changes
- A retailer can let customers know when they are close to a bricks-and-mortar - and an item they left in their shopping cart is in stock
- A telco company can let customers know their options when their contract is about to expire - and advertise a specific device available to those renewing
- A bank can send customer satisfaction surveys to customers who have just left a branch
Those examples should demonstrate that used wisely, push notifications can strengthen the relationship between brand and consumer, and help increase customer loyalty, engagement and ultimately revenue. But to do that, they must be used thoughtfully and wisely.
Securing Opt-In For Push Notifications
It starts with ensuring that you can send push notifications in the first place. All the sophistication in the world won’t help if you don’t have a sufficient percentage of your audience willing to receive them. Follow these simple steps to ensure that your push notification opt-in rates are as high as possible from the outset:
- If possible, refrain from asking for notification opt-in the moment the app is first opened. This is like asking for permission to send messages when the user has no clear idea of what the app does, never mind what form those messages might take. The default answer is “no”, your job is to get it to “yes”.
- Don’t rely on the default OS opt-in message for push notifications. This is usually factual, direct and won’t help provide context to the user. Again, the default option is more likely to get the default answer: “no”.
- Do create in-app campaigns that are shown before the standard OS opt-in procedure. These should clearly articulate WHY the user will want to opt-in for push notifications, couched in terms of their own benefit. Letting someone know that push notifications are used to help them during travel (for an airline, for example) is likely to drive up opt-in rates.
- Experiment with timing. The right time to ask for opt-in might be the start of the second session. Then again, perhaps immediately after the user performs a task that can be meaningfully followed up with a push campaign (“we can let you know when your parcel is shipped” for example” is the right time to ask. Test and find out.
Put all those elements together and you’ll see opt-in rates increasing by up to 30 or 40% - meaning better results for marketing and communication via push notification in the future.
Meanwhile, take note: as of iOS 12 both the Apple and Android platforms are effectively running an ‘opt-out’ model for push, meaning that from the moment of install app developers can send push notifications. However, this ‘provisional’ opt-out model will only deliver push notifications silently to the Notification Center (see below), and can only be allowed to alert the user once they agree.
Although these notifications are certainly better than nothing, they don’t change the fact that collecting full opt-in remains incredibly valuable. More importantly, they underline the reality that the single most effective way to drive opt-in is by sending great, relevant push notifications. The user is able to respond to provisional notifications by either increasing the prominence of future notifications or turning them off altogether. It is your job to ensure they choose the former.
How To Use Push Notifications
Before getting into the detail under this heading, let’s remind ourselves of one core reality:
Generic push campaigns are ineffective. The more targeted, timely, rich and personalized a campaign is, the better the results you can expect.
In fact let’s go further. Without the latter, the former is almost worthless. Spray and pray push notifications are almost certainly delivering negative value for your business. Fortunately, there are a number of ways in which we can deliver a superior push experience and as a result drive both engagement and our ultimate business objectives.
Broadly speaking, there are two ways to improve your push notification performance.
- Deliver a better or more relevant type of message,
- To a smaller, more targeted audience
Let’s look at making that happen under each heading in turn.
Types Of Push Notification
The number of potential types of notification is effectively infinite. However, we can get a handle on our options by considering the various ways in which any given notification can be enhanced. In many cases these options can be combined. It is of course possible to deliver localized rich media notifications incorporating deep links, for example.
Let’s start with the simplest. The plain notification has been with us for some time and still has plenty to offer. It is, however, the default choice. It consists of regular text without any personalization, and without the addition of interactive or rich media elements. Make no mistake, with the right targeting these notifications can still do a job. But they have been superseded by better options.
Rich Media Notifications
Rich media notifications include images or even video within the message. This has obvious benefits. Most obviously, it enables visual communication. That’s significant. A picture is worth a thousand words as they say - and in the world of conventional push notifications you have nothing like a thousand words to play with anyway.
If you’re a retailer promoting a specific item, a picture is going to help. If you are telco operator looking to secure a contract renewal through a new handset, it helps to be able to include a video outlining the features and benefits of that handset in more detail.
It’s incredibly simple to add images and video or audio files to push notifications - assuming you have the right tools. They look incredible and in the right circumstances can deliver a 9x increase in click-thru rates. So if you’re not already delivering rich media push - it’s time to start.
If there’s one thing guaranteed to make a push notification ineffective, it’s sending it in a language that the user doesn’t understand. This may sound like an obvious point, but you’d be surprised how often international organizations can default to the ‘one language fits all’ option.
However localizing push notifications to a user’s chosen language is a simple process. And with localized messages delivering increases to engagement of up to 50%, it translates to a significant benefit to the business. There is no excuse not to.
It’s also easier that you might think. Segmenting users by location doesn’t take account of those individuals who are living or travelling in a country with an official language different to their own. Manually collected data can be inaccurate. But there’s a more straightforward alternative. At Swrve we localize according to the language settings of the phone itself, so notifications are delivered in the language the user has chosen, rather than the language of the place they’re in.
This means your users don’t have to manually select their language, and you don’t need to create multiple segments - Swrve sends the correct language version out to each user automatically. All you have to do is include all relevant languages in a single campaign and localization happens at the touch of a button.
An interactive notification is one that the user can respond to without leaving the notification or in some cases the lock screen. For example, the user could confirm attendance at a meeting, like a social media post, or reply to a message from a friend - all from the notification itself.
Interactive notifications have completely changed the way we think about push. Most importantly, they mean that bringing the user back to the app is no longer necessarily the aim of any given notification. By allowing us to complete common tasks or respond to updates without ever opening the app they bring the relationship between brand and consumer to the inbox itself.
Combined with rich media notifications, interactive push provides a significantly deeper experience in the inbox. Perhaps most importantly, by enabling the user to respond meaningfully to the push in the moment, they drive significantly greater levels of engagement and specifically greater levels of goal completion. As targeting becomes ever more sophisticated we’ll see interactive notifications delivered to users at just the moment they need to order a taxi, purchase a specific item, make a booking - and enable them to do that at the touch of a button.
Dynamic Notifications and Personalization
The content in any given push notification doesn’t need to be same for everyone. In fact, it shouldn’t be. Increase the effectiveness of any push campaigns by incorporating dynamic content relevant to the specific customer or situation.
Whilst we often think in terms of simple personalization - such as including the customer’s name rather than a generic greeting, dynamic push notifications should go beyond this. As a general rule of thumb, the more content in any given message that is dynamically generated, the better.
To give one example of a particularly effective dynamic push, consider a campaign to let a customer know that an item they left in their shopping cart is available at a specific discount in a store near them right now. It is of course possible to create a campaign that delivers a standard message to all relevant customers and personalize only the name. However, it is more effective to dynamically include the specific item and the price it is available in store.
Doing so requires integration of multiple data streams including those relating to consumer behavior on other channels, plus internal company systems such as that managing inventory and stock control - but most modern marketing platforms should be capable of dynamic integration of this type.
Effectively, when we use dynamic content in this way we are creating bespoke notifications for individuals: the “campaign of one” that all marketers dream of. Make your notifications as dynamic as possible and enjoy the results!
A notification that the user is not aware of. That might not make a lot of sense, but in fact silent push notifications are a powerful tool for many organizations that need to update apps regularly. Simply put, a silent push is a notification that ‘wakes up’ the app and sends data to that app without the user being aware. By doing so, it ensures that the next time the app is opened the content and experience is as up-to-date as possible.
There are two core reasons to use silent push in this way. Firstly, it removes the need to download data when the app is opened, thus making the experience faster and more pleasant for the user. Second, it means that if the app is opened when offline the experience is as up to date as possible.
Take a newspaper app as an example. Content changes rapidly in this context. If a user opens the app, they do not want to wait while that happens. With silent push operating in the background, the content is updated automatically and ready to go when the moment the app is opened. If the same user last checked the app yesterday, and opens it on a plane today, they will see the most recent news before they boarded - not what was there yesterday.
That same logic applies to other frequently updated apps such as retail apps or games. Whatever the industry, silent push improves user experience and thus engagement and retention and revenue levels.
Updating and Perishing Notifications
If you are sending multiple updates via push notifications, consider using the ability to update notifications already sent if they have not been read. This ensures that the user only receives information that is accurate at the time they check the push notification, rather than a series of inaccurate messages followed by a single correct one!
There are a number of instances in which this ability can come in handy. Updates relating to sports scores or breaking news are an obvious example. So it the situation in which the price or terms of a special offer changes over time - by updating the original notification the user can no longer see an incorrect price or respond to terms that are no longer accurate.
Similarly, in updates that relate to a user’s status, such as a bank balance for example, it is again important to ensure that an initial notification (perhaps triggered by the balance going below a specific amount) is updated when the balance changes again. Updating notifications will ensure the best possible service and experience is delivered, and shield the user from any nasty surprises created by out-of-date notifications
There is one other way to handle this particular challenge: notifications that auto-delete if not delivered or read within a certain time frame. Again, if a specific offer is only available for a particular time period, a perishable notification relating to that offer can be sent that cannot be viewed after that time period.
As we stated above, the original purpose of push notifications, and still the primary purpose, is to bring users back to the app. But where exactly in the app? In too many cases notifications deliver information about a specific product or campaign and then link that information to a generic experience.
As a result, a user responding to the notification can be thrown off the scent and as a result are less likely to complete the task. And if our ultimate goal is the completion of a specific task or activity, then that’s going to damage the effectiveness of all our campaigns.
Instead, make sure to deep-link notifications where possible. If you are promoting a specific product, bring the user to the appropriate product page in the app. If you are delivering breaking news, link to that specific news. And if you are letting the user know about a new feature, bring them to the relevant screens that explain that feature.
Deep linking is a simple fix that can have a major impact on task completion rates. At Swrve we’ve seen customers drive increases in conversion by 20% or 30% whilst click-thru rates remain constant. That’s an uplift worth chasing.
Image note - we should show a push (rich media) advertising 20% off a particular product today only, and show the concept of clicking that push going straight to the relevant page in the app with that product on it.
Putting It All Together
The conclusion to all the above is simple: there are a multitude of ways in which the standard push notification can be improved, upgraded and adapted. And of course it isn’t a case of choosing one approach or another. Almost every one of these ‘upgrades’ are compatible with many or all of the others.
In other words - it’s time to get creative when it comes to your notifications. But perhaps even more, it’s time to get creative when it comes to targeting those campaigns. Let’s talk about that next.
Targeting And Triggering Push Notifications
Let’s recall our second method of improving push notification performance: delivering “to a smaller, more targeted audience”.
That’s absolutely key. We know from experience that it’s all-too-tempting to send lots of push notifications campaigns to lots of people, but that’s usually a mistake. True, the marginal cost of sending a push campaign is effectively zero, the actual cost to your business can be much higher.
Put simply, sending large scale, unfocused and untargeted push notification campaigns is doing two things, neither of which is particularly good news:
- You are irritating your customers and prospects. Indeed, in many cases you are irritating your best customers - those with a sufficient attachment to your brand that they are willing to download and use an app. The net result is an erosion of brand loyalty - that can manifest itself in very direct ways like deleting the app. A good way to lose a customer.
- At best, you are teaching customers to ignore you. That may not mean a great deal in the short term, but in the medium and long term you’ll find that when you really need to talk to people, you’re out of luck. Don’t make that mistake.
As a rule: if you find yourself sending a campaign to a large audience, stop and ask yourself why. And as a target: aim for the ‘campaign of one’ - the message to the specific individual in a moment of need that responds to that need in a helpful, constructive way.
A Note On Triggered Notifications versus Campaigns
Before going any further, it’s time to outline one final way in which the way interactions between brand and consumer are delivered has changed. This is the transition away from scheduled campaigns to individual notifications triggered by a specific change in the individual user’s status or behavior.
To put that in practical terms, previously we created content, selected an audience, and then scheduled a campaign to be delivered at a particular time. Now we are more likely to define a particular behavior or combination of behaviors we want to respond to (either immediately or after a specific lapse of time, and establish a system which automatically responds to those behaviors with the appropriate message at the right time.
This is a major change in the way marketing departments think about interactions for sure, but it also has hidden implications. The most significant of these is the fact that perhaps the greatest hurdle in the way of true 1-2-1 interaction - that fact that this approach has been so hard to scale - is no more.
Triggered interactions can be set up for an almost infinite number of circumstances and then be left alone to reach out to the right person at the right time - forever. There is no need to manually create these interactions, so each individual receives a truly unique series of touches that responds to their behavior - and indeed their previous reactions to previous messages.
This change of perspective can be hard for marketers to achieve. Everything marketers have been taught relates to ‘audiences’ and ‘campaigns’, so letting these concepts go can be tough. In addition, the smartphone delivers such an outstanding opportunity to speak to large audiences directly, wherever they are, that it can be hard to give it up. But that is precisely way changing our approach is so important: the consumer will no longer tolerate interruption on such a personal device.
Here’s a few simple ways to make that happen and get close to the campaign of one (or all the way there!)
Target On (Sophisticated) Behavior
In a sense marketing is currently undergoing an evolution from activity targeted against demographic and relatively permanent data (think “18-34 year old woman living in New York”) to targeting based on what each individual does and has done in the past (“anyone who has viewed Episode 1, Season 7 of Game Of Thrones and has not yet viewed Episode 2”).
This is essentially a move to what we call behavioral targeting, and more importantly it is a move away from approximation and generalisation and toward treating each individual as just that: an individual.
Once we’ve committed to delivering based on behavioral data, it becomes a question of collecting as much as possible, and being as sophisticated as possible when it comes to using that data to support targeting. Two clear requirements stand out.
Firstly, that the behavioral data we collect and store is as detailed as possible. Ideally, we want to get down beyond the event itself to the detail within that event. For example, instead of simply being aware that a particular individual has ‘booked a flight’ we can know a lot more, including:
- Departure and destination airport
- Duration of flight
- Time and date of departure (and how far we are from that time now)
- Whether the passenger is travelling alone
- Whether the passenger has booked seats in the past
- And if so, where
- And when, in terms relative to departure time and date
- And how often…
This level of detail opens up new possibilities both in terms of targeting but also in terms of the personalization we spoke of above. In a world of triggered messages, it supports the delivery of push notifications aware of the smallest detail, and delivered based on almost any event conceivable.
Secondly, that behavioral data is collected from every relevant channel and done so in real-time. Push notifications are delivered on mobile and are linked to the mobile app. But consumers don’t think in terms of channels, they think in terms of brands. What they expect is a consistent, relevant and meaningful experience that reflects interactions with the brand in any channel.
For example, if a customer abandons a cart on mobile but then completes the purchase online, it is essential to be aware of this before communicating via push. That’s obvious, but in the same way we should be aware of store visits, pages browsed online in any channel, shows watched - the entire range of user activity, in each channel.
In this sense, the first step towards building a truly effective push notification program is the ability to share detailed user behavior data across and between channels, and by doing so delivering an up-to-the-moment 360° view of each individual user. This is the data that informs the most effective campaigns possible.
Trigger On Time
The ability to trigger push campaigns enables us to be timely when it comes to interactions. And it is almost impossible to overstate the increase in effectiveness that can be delivered when we send notifications at the right time.
Remember, the ‘right time’ is both relative and personal. Let’s say we wanted to use the data relating to a flight booking that we collected above in order to sell a specific seat to a customer. The right time to send this notification is relative to when the flight takes off (another piece of data we’ll have to integrate with our system, but also the right moment for that particular user.
For example, if they normally book a seat, and do so at least 24 hours ahead of take off, the right time for that individual is the first opportunity during usual app usage hours within 24 hours of the flight taking off. And to send the message in this way, we have to have a clear understanding of the historical and current behavior of the user and the details relating to the flight they have booked.
You’ll notice this is a world away from the concept of scheduling a campaign to hundreds, thousands or even millions of people. The interaction is delivered solely to this individual at the right time for them. And it is more effective, and helps drive incremental ancillary revenue, as a result.
Trigger On Location
For marketers, one of the great benefits of the smartphone is the ability to understand where our customers are at any moment in time. Location often gives us key insight into an individual user and in many cases we can infer intent based on location data.
This is a whole new world: it has never been possible before to target and deliver communications based on location, other than in a very general and superficial way above-the-line (ie via billboards etc). And location isn’t just about messages to users in a certain location right now: it is possible to deliver campaigns based on where individuals have been previously and how long they were there, or trigger campaigns as people leave areas, or a certain amount of specified time after they leave.
Things get even more interesting (and effective) when we combine location with all the other aspects of user behavior we discussed above. These campaigns that target individuals based on location+intelligence means that we can deliver communications to just the right people in just the right location.
Here’s three examples of the type of campaign location enables us to deliver:
- A customer satisfaction survey delivered to customers of a telco who have visited a branch, sent direct to the phone via push notification 10 minutes after leaving the store
- A campaign to remind customers they are eligible for a motor loan, delivered to customers who have spent at least 10 minutes (in total) in locations marked as car dealerships
- A campaign sent by a listings app to users in a new city for the first time, delivered at 6pm local time with the message “If you’re looking for somewhere to eat this evening, we can help”
The possibilities are endless. And with the ability to deliver more personal and relevant campaigns it’s time to fold location into your push notification strategy
Integrate With Existing Systems
There’s one last step to a comprehensive push notification program: integrating with internal systems to enable individual operational push messages to be delivered in response to specific triggers or status changes.
This requires what we would call ‘API integration’. A simple example would be a notification like the one shown, sent to a bank customer when their balance has dropped below a certain amount. This can of course only be triggered and delivered by the internal systems monitoring balance levels. And it is a single campaign delivered direct to the relevant user (we wouldn’t create an ‘audience’ of customers whose balance has dropped below $100 and send these people a single campaign after all).
That does not mean, however, that we cannot apply everything we’ve learned in this document to these messages. We can use rich media, dynamically include the new balance amount, and even provide an interactive option to call a customer service representative to arrange an overdraft. That’s what happens when we bring everything together to create truly compelling notifications.
How To Measure The Success Of Push Notifications
The short answer to this question is: don’t measure the success of push notifications using click-through rate as a metric. The reason is simple: it is relatively easy to game this number by creating ‘clickbait’ content that might get people to the app, but is equally likely to disappoint them once they are there.
Instead, always consider what actual success looks like. For example, if you want users to buy a particular item, make that your success goal and run tests and reports on that basis. If your push notification campaign is designed to increase total engagement, again - use that metric to establish the difference between those who received the push and those who did not. And always look at the broader picture. It is possible to drive up specific metrics whilst damaging others that may in fact be more meaningful.
Use A/B tests to continuously evaluate which creative and approach is most successful when it comes to delivering on your objectives. Continue to learn and optimise. Lastly, use control groups to understand the impact on the bottom line both in terms of an individual campaign and your collective push strategy.