Email is awful, here's how to make push better - The Signal
Blog Post

Pushing value, not spam

Justin Megahan

For any company with a mobile presence, it’s time to say that the push notification is the new email. Just as email became a godsend for marketers and product people alike twenty years ago, notifications – especially on our phones – are now the best way to engage with your users.

Here’s the thing, though: email has been used and abused by most of us for way too long. Canada enacted legislation to prevent too much spam. Gmail had to create a separate inbox called “Promotions” just to house all of the crap companies send (including, sometimes, from yours truly).

Thankfully there is a better system for push notifications. You have to download the app to receive its pushes. Still, if we’re not careful, we’re going to ruin push like we did email. But it can be avoided. As push notifications grow in sophistication, we have a chance to use push to provide value as an integral feature of the app.

Here, we’ve explored the state of push today and outlined an initial rubric for making your push notifications way better than any email.

Let’s make push notifications better

The hard truth is that push notifications should already be better. They should perform better and they should deliver more value to the recipient. Not just your push notifications. Everyone’s. iOS is sending over 40 billion pushes a day and Android is sending 70 billion. And there is still so much potential in push notifications and we aren’t realizing it. Big companies, small apps, and push service providers (the big two, of course, being Apple and Google): We could all be doing push notifications better.

Push notifications get users back in apps and have a drastic effect on retaining users. According to Urban Airship, users who are opted-in to push notifications are twice as likely to be retained. Which makes a lot of sense. The average Android user has 96 apps on their phone, and uses 35 apps a day. If you aren’t re-engaging your users with push notifications and getting them back in your app, then it’s easy to get lost in the sea of apps on their home screen.

After taking a quick look at my own iPhone, I easily count a dozen apps that I can’t remember the last time I opened. And push notifications are undoubtedly a huge factor in my churn. They either don’t send push notifications, I never opted in to receiving them, or I did, but then opted out after being spammed with useless notifications.

For as critical of a feature as it has become in the past handful of years with the growth of mobile apps, push notifications are still the wild west. We’re all figuring it out as we go, learning what works and what doesn’t. And Apple and Google are still building out the feature with each new release. They’re becoming more than just an alert. They’re becoming interactive. And that can make it hard. Best practices are constantly changing.

After the shocking news that Facebook is sunsetting Parse, many are probably reevaluating their push strategy. For those who were using the mobile backend provider to send push notifications, it’s an impetus for taking a more critical look at how they engage their users with push notifications. Without Parse, it’s going to get more costly, in time and in money. But the reward for getting push notifications right is high.

Let them know what they’re getting

One of the biggest differences between the two major push notification platforms is that Android is opt out and iOS is opt in. Android users will automatically receive push notifications after installing apps. iOS requires that the user is prompted and opts in to receiving push notifications.

Not surprisingly, this has a noticeable effect on how many users will receive your notifications on each operation system. A study from Kahuna showed that 78% of Android app users will receive pushes, while just under half, 48% of iOS users will receive pushes.

It also means that iOS apps have to be more strategic in setting the context for when they pop the question. You might not want to ask right out of the gate. If the first thing a user sees when they open your app for the first time is a splash screen and a prompt to receive push notifications, who could blame them for declining. What do you need to send me notifications for? You haven’t established value yet.

But you also can’t wait too long. A sizeable chunk of users will never open your app again. If you push it off too far, they might not reach the prompt. A best practice for iOS apps is to include the prompt in your initial onboarding, and to be very clear about what it is you’ll be alerting them for.


Don’t spam. Deliver value.

When I look at the notifications I’ve opted into, the apps might be varied, but the overarching theme is clear: they’re giving me something I want or need. And depending on the app, that means different things. It’s a piece of breaking news from the New York Times, a request to pay my friend for that burrito she bought me, an alert that a package is out for delivery, or that my brother has liked the instagram photo of my homemade pizza. These are all things that, for various reasons, I want to be notified of.

When broken down by industry, travel and transport apps have the highest percentage of users who remain opted in to push notifications. That’s not surprising: being notified that your Uber has arrived or that you need to check in for your flight are high value notifications.

In fact, according to Apple’s App Store Review Guidelines, apps are not allowed to send spammy or promotional push notifications. And while this is something that Apple has not strongly enforced (and has even been accused of violating its own guidelines), it’s a testament towards the expectations of push notifications.

5.5 – Apps that use Push Notifications to send unsolicited messages, or for the purpose of phishing or spamming will be rejected

5.6 – Apps cannot use Push Notifications to send advertising, promotions, or direct marketing of any kind

Don’t let engagement mask apathy

However, it’s not always obvious which notifications are providing value and which are driving users away. Anyone who has experience with email campaigns is aware of the three metrics associated with each and every send: emails delivered, emails opened, and unsubscribes. For what looks to be a better notification system, one might expect Apple’s and Google’s services to offer these metrics on push notifications. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple.

You should know how many push notifications you send. And tracking that a push notification has been opened is easy. When your recipient taps on the message, the push payload is delivered to the device and your app is opened. But knowing how many of your push notifications were delivered in the first place is difficult on both Android and iOS. You basically just get Google and Apple’s word that they’ll try their best.

And, unlike email unsubscribes, determining how many people have opted out after a push notification is an inexact science. At best, you can infer how many iOS users have opted out by pinging the Apple feedback service to see if the user can still receive pushes. It takes time and it’s a best guess, which is a problem. It sets a dangerous context for how one evaluates how successful a push notification is.

It’s easy to get caught up in the immediate spike of numbers following a large push notification. App opens jumps and you’re getting users back in your app and re-engaged. It can begin to feel like all you need to do is hit that button to send a push notification and see your numbers climb, like a lab rat hitting the button for an easy reward.

And this reward system can obscure the negative effect: people ignoring and opting out of your notifications and begin the process to becoming an inactive and churned user.

Until then, be particularly mindful of the things you can track: how many notifications you attempt to send, how many are actually opened, and what people are doing after they open the notification. If your open numbers are not holding steady with your notifications sent numbers, your users are becoming apathetic and, at best, ignoring your push, at worst, opting out or uninstalling your app.

Hand over the controls

Perhaps the best way to prevent your users from becoming apathetic of your push notifications is to give them more control. Give them the power over which push notifications they are getting, without them having to opt out of all your notifications. Having a screen in the settings of your app that allows users to toggle on and off which notifications they are receiving and gives you insight into how users are behaving, which you won’t get if they opt out from their operating systems settings.

This is important, because what one user may find valuable, another may not. A Twitter user with a 100 followers might want to know each time someone replies to one of their tweet, while a Twitter user with 100k followers probably won’t – though she might still want to be alerted when a friend who she’s following replies to one of her tweets.

When I lived on the east coast, I wanted to get that reminder from the NHL app at 7:00 on nights that my Penguins were playing. It was valuable. When I moved to the west coast and that notification started coming in at 4pm, when I was still at work and couldn’t watch, it became significantly less valuable. However, I would still be interested in getting a push with the score when the game ended, since that would give me quick, valuable information.


Engagement isn’t just in the app anymore

In 2014, with the introduction of iOS 8, push notifications became more functional and sophisticated. After being merely an alert and a link back into an app, push notifications were equipped with real actions. Now when I get a Slack message, I can quickly respond right from the notification, without having to open the app. When I get request for payment from Venmo, I can swipe on the message and accept the charge. Suddenly delivering value in a push notification itself is more tangible.

But almost a year and a half later, too few apps are taking advantage of this new capability. You want to get them back in the app at all costs, right? But by allowing users to get value in fewer actions, without loading the app each time, you’re creating a more frictionless path to creating and maintaining a power user. The easier it is for me to do what I want to do in Venmo when I’m in a rush, the more likely I am to turn back to the app, instead of the array of other payment apps, in the future.


Let’s make push notifications better

The landscape of push notifications is still evolving. Push looks pretty different today than it did just a couple years ago, and quite different than it did a handful of years ago when everyone was treating it like email. But we still haven’t figured it out, and there is great potential in doing it better, in getting more users opted in, in providing value to drive engagement, but also in observing and reacting to user apathy to prevent them from opting out. There’s even potential to take what you learn from push notifications and apply it across your other channels … yes, even to email.

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