Why Apple’s Notification Changes Could Be Bad News For Bad Marketers

Sometimes the most important announcements sneak under the radar. Even if WWDC this year was low key enough in terms of consumer-facing hardware, there was plenty of the usual excitement about augmented reality, improvements to Siri and so on. But for marketers, what was probably the most important news of the week went mostly unnoticed.

That announcement was essentially as follows: iOS 12 will give consumers ever more control over the notifications they receive on mobile. The two most obvious changes are that:

  • Users will now be able to opt-out of further notifications directly from any notification
  • Users will be able to easily specify ‘downtime’ during which notifications are ignored

In addition, Siri will bring machine learning to bear on the way in which push notifications are handled. Put simply, by learning how individual users respond to notifications from individual brands, she will adapt the way future notifications are handled - either by increasing or decreasing their prominence.

The motivation behind these changes: giving users more control and helping them manage what can at times feel like a deluge of alerts, messages and notifications that can collectively lead to a less satisfying relationship with the smartphone. By putting control into the hands of the user, Apple are bringing an end to the days of ‘mobile spam’.

Marketers Can No Longer Rely On Inertia

Let’s look at that first bullet point again. It may sound like a small change, but it has big implications. In the past users had two choices if they wanted to turn off notifications from a specific app. One was to navigate the warren of individual app settings and stop notifications there. Most users didn’t really know how to do this. The other was to delete the app. Most users know how to do this, but can be reluctant if the service a brand provides is both useful and irritating.

Result? Marketers could get away with murder. Irrelevant and actively irritating notifications might have been ineffective and may have lost a few users here and there, but the marginal damage of one pointless notification was essentially zero. Inertia took care of that.

With this one change, however, Apple has turned that logic on its head. Any user who receives a poor quality notification can now say ‘no more’ at the touch of a button. So marketers - and indeed anyone in the brand responsible for communications with customers - need to be absolutely clear: irrelevance has consequences.

About 50% of your mobile app users probably opt-in for push notifications (it varies of course, and we can increase that number whatever it is). So you are able to talk to just 50% of your audience. If you continue to send poorly targeted and irrelevant communication, that number is only going to decrease over time. Every irrelevant message reduces the effectiveness of the truly important messages further down the line.

What To Do Now

For some these changes in iOS 12 may induce a mild panic. They shouldn’t. In response all they require is the adoption of marketing practices that are good for the brand and good for the customer. That means keeping just a few key points in mind:

  • Collect data and use it. Irrelevance is usually a consequence of blanket communications to large audiences, many members of which have no interest in that specific message. Contrary to popular opinion, users like it when you demonstrate an understanding of what makes them tick, so ensure you have a clear understanding of what each individual likes and responds to - and integrate it into your targeting process.
  • Be honest about relevance. Ask yourself the hard question: is this really an important or useful message for the target audience? Or do I just think that by sending a million ‘special offers’ I might pick up some small amount of incremental revenue and hit a short term target? Now that the long-term costs of irrelevance are high, you need to put the user experience first - every time.
  • Be helpful. Focus communication on notifications that provide genuine benefit. For airlines, that means gate announcements, check-in alerts, boarding calls. Revenue-driving messages are still OK, if they are used in moderation and follow the rules above. But skew your comms towards helping rather than selling.
  • Learn how to talk to customers. If a specific individual never responds to push notifications, stop sending them push notifications. If they do respond, but tend to respond at a particular time (and not at others), then learn from experience and send at that time in future. As part of a multi-channel strategy, you should be learning which channels each individual prefers, and for which type of message. Put that knowledge into practice.