Best practice in the news and media sector

News apps are big business. The reason why is obvious - well over 50% of the entire population report accessing news via a smart device (phone or tablet) within any given week, and apps now dominate the mobile internet to the extent that we can safely assume that close to all of that population are using apps of one form or another.

But news is also a competitive business. Users will typically have only a handful of ‘go to’ apps for news content, and often default to a single one: mirroring habits associated with the ‘old days’ of physical newspapers. So it is vitally important to get and hold that position on the smartphone screen.

One tried and trusted method of building the engagement - and making sure that users return to your app (as opposed to a competitor) is the push notification. In a sense, it is a way of breaking any story to the individual, and linking them straight back to the app. But to make the most of push notifications, you need users to opt-in. And it’s here that news organizations could make additional effort to ensure that this happens.

All too often, the first thing I am confronted with is something a little like these examples from CNN and BBC:


There are two key problems here. The first is that these screens are the first thing I see. Before I have any idea about whether I am going to like this app experience, or any clear information on how push notifications are going to be used, I am being asked to opt-in to receive what can be an invasive communication channel.  

My second issue is that insufficient information is given to me around why I would wish to opt-in. Now to be totally fair, CNN at least attempt to inform me that breaking news will be sent using push (although the language isn’t great). And it could certainly be argued that most users will instinctively understand what a push notification from a news organization is likely to be. But nevertheless, it wouldn’t hurt to work a little harder. Here’s a good example of The New York Times doing it right, or at least doing it in a way that makes more sense to me:


Now at first glance this doesn’t look so different to the invitation from CNN: but there’s a key difference. It is delivered several sessions and / or a fixed time after first install (it’s hard to reverse engineer the exact logic!). That means two things:

  1. I know I like the New York Times app and am enjoying the content, so I am more likely to say yes, and
  2. I have enough context to understand what breaking news notifications from this source are likely to involve (because I have spent time in the app)

That might sound trivial, but that is far from the case. Research suggests that up to 70% of users opt-out of push notifications from media and news organizations. A significant contributing factor is bound to be that they simply aren’t asking the question in the right way.

At the very least, it is imperative to test when to ask the push notification question. There is no ‘right’ answer to this, but we’ve found with many customers that asking for push opt-in immediately on first session start is definitely a wrong answer. So experiment with various timings. Similarly, make the opt-in invitation explain what’s in it for the user, and test various forms of that content.

In fact it’s also possible to use in-app messages to ‘screen’ ahead of the push opt-in invite, by showing a branded page selling the benefit of push, before sending users who agree they’d like the service to the push opt-in page. But I haven’t to date seen any news apps use that technique.  :-(

The New York Times, by the way, also has some nice techniques for encouraging subscription - but that’s for another post…