Push Notifications And In-App Messages: The Key Difference You Need To Understand

As consumers move to mobile, it is no surprise that we’ve seen marketing follow. Marketers have a habit of following people around after all: “be where the customer is” having been a decent rule of thumb in that industry since a certain entrepreneurial snake persuaded Eve to get stuck into off-limits fruit and veg.

That logic applies doubly to the mobile app, which accounts for about 90% of mobile minutes these days. Any decent brand or organization knows it needs to communicate with customers or prospects in the app, either their own or someone else’s (the latter option explaining the prevalence of brand advertising in Facebook and other popular apps).

If that’s the case - and limiting the discussion to communication within or via our own apps - what are our best options for delivering these interactions, how do they differ from each other, and what jobs are they particularly suited for? Those questions will hopefully be answered in the space of this short post.

Interactions Via The Mobile App - The Options

To my mind there are three options out there when it comes to truly native mobile interactions. The first is the editing and personalization of the app experience itself, for example adapting the order in which menu items are displayed, or highlighting certain options for certain types of mobile app user.

For many this doesn’t feel like marketing, and indeed in a lot of ways that is precisely why it can be so effective. However, beyond the simple observation that a huge amount can be achieved by careful and thoughtful optimization of the app interface, I don’t intend to spend any time in this particular post looking at this aspect of app marketing in more detail.

Instead, I want to look closer at push notifications. Specifically, I want to talk about when to use them and why - questions that have more complex answers than you might think.

Push And In-App - The Key Difference

Take a step back and the key difference between push notifications and in-app messages is simple and obvious: push can only be sent to users outside the app, in-app messages only to users when they are already in the app (there’s a clue in the name).

Indeed this is one of those distinctions that is so obvious it is sometimes overlooked, but as interactive, rich media push messages become more common it in fact becomes the core difference and the single fact that determines which ‘jobs’ we should give to each channel.

So what are the jobs we should give to push? As a rule, the fact that they are used outside the app implies that push campaigns have to gain the user’s attention. They are not already within our brand ecosystem, and as a result campaigns should be used with care in order to both avoid annoyance and deliver the best results possible.

With that in mind, here’s three smart ways to use push:

  • To get attention and bring people back to the app. Until recently, this was the only game in town (interactive push - see below - changed all that). And it remains the single most important job push can do. But we should always be careful to only reach out when we truly believe we have something of value or interest to the specific individual that would make opening up the app worthwhile - otherwise we are simply teaching people to ignore us. If there are new features, or breaking stories that we really think our target will be interested in - fine. If not - don’t bother.
  • To deliver updates that are an end in themselves. Sometimes, you need to tell someone something and you require no further action. Their gate is now open. They have successfully topped up their account. Their balance is now below $100. I like to think these are a little like emails whose subjects lines end “eom”. Of course you can also fold geo-location into these alerts - for example letting someone know they are near a physical location where they can pick up an item left in an online shopping cart.
  • To complete simple interactions. Interactive push has enabled users to perform some simple interactions outside the app. But before jumping on this particular bandwagon, it’s worth ensuring that your definition of ‘simple’ ties in with the consumers. Yes, an expensive purchase CAN be made with one click - but in terms of the mental load on the user, WILL it? When things get more complex, it is time to use push to send people into the app - and let in-app campaigns do what they do best: provide deeper and more interactive experiences that help build confidence and get consumers over the line.