What are iOS push notifications?

iOS push notifications are a type of message product teams can send directly to users’ iOS devices. Unlike in-app messages, which only appear within the app itself, push notifications can reach users any time. These messages are powerful. Used properly, they can increase retention. Used improperly, they have the potential to disturb users.

Why do designers and marketers love iOS push notifications?

iOS push notifications have the power to bring users back to an app. Unlike in-app messages, push notifications travel directly from a server to users’ devices and activate an alert similar to a text message. The message appears over other apps or, if the phone is closed, on users’ lock screens. Because most users only spend a small fraction of their day in any given app, push notifications are a powerful way for product teams and marketers to keep the conversation going.

Because iOS push notifications are inherently more intrusive than other forms of messaging, they are a double-edged sword. If overused, consumers may perceive them as spam. Enough companies have abused this channel to create a culture where most consumers turn notifications off. Once a user silences push notifications, that communication channel is closed until the user reopens it.

Used skillfully however, push notifications can help product teams deliver value and help increase app usage, retention, and engagement.

Here are a few common use cases for iOS push notifications:

  • A social media app can alert users that they’ve been tagged in a photo
  • A personal finance app can notify users that they’ve exceeded their budget
  • A marketing software can alert users to an error
  • A news app can deliver breaking news

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How do iOS push notifications work?

Push notifications are an opt-in only channel. Product teams and marketers can only target messages to specific users who have downloaded the app and have given their permission to receive notifications.

If app teams want to send push notifications, they must actively seek users’ permission. Unlike on the Android operating system (OS) where push notifications are turned on by default, on iOS they are turned off. This heavily influences user behavior.

According to Marketing Charts, only 40 percent of iOS users accept push notifications whereas in Android, 59 percent do. This is all the more reason for product teams, marketers, and developers to tread lightly with push notifications and ensure that they add to the user experience. More on that later.

There are three elements to the iOS push notification system:

  1. A push notification system or server
  2. Apple Push Notification System (APNS)
  3. Users’ iOS devices which have the product team’s app

Apple’s APNS acts as an intermediary between users and developers and coordinates two-way push notification communication. Because it’s a free service, product teams need only publish an app and deploy a push notification system which can access APNS to message users who download their app.

To receive push notifications, users must download the app in question, open it, and enable push notifications. Product teams often use in-app messages during the new user welcome process to ask for permission to send push notifications.

Product teams who explain the value-add to the user typically have more success convincing them to enable push notifications. For example, “Would you like to be notified of breaking news? If so, enable push notifications” is much more effective than “Would you like to enable push notifications?”

Once users enable push notifications, their device and app register with APNS and the communication channel is opened. App creators can then design and send push notifications which include the following elements:

  • Text
  • Images or media attachments
  • Notification sounds
  • Badge numbers on the app icon
  • Actions the user can take without opening the app
  • Silent elements which wake up the app and perform background tasks

In the iPhone 6S and newer models, notifications can use 3D Touch technology, also known as Force Touch, which allows users to interact with notifications without opening the app. For example, social media apps like Twitter and messaging apps like WhatsApp allow users to reply to messages from within the notification itself.

Product teams must treat the push notification channel with care. Each push notification is an interruption, so it should contain clear, concise value for the user, like notifying them of something they actually want to know. Product teams who use them for blatant marketing messages often suffer higher opt-out rates. Once broken, user trust is difficult to repair.

How to use iOS push notifications

To start sending push notifications, app creators must either build or buy this functionality. Building it completely from scratch can be cumbersome. Teams will need server-side development knowledge, must create an interface simple enough for non-technical teams to use, and must support this service in perpetuity. DIY also raises the spectre of server-side errors which can compound with client-side errors to make problems exponentially more difficult to troubleshoot.

Product teams who want to make the most their resources often purchase pre-built tools for sending push notifications. Many product analytics platforms include these tools and can reduce the complexity of this service down to a simple software license.

Product analytics also provide features which increase the effectiveness of iOS push notifications. Product and marketing teams can easily design the notifications and preview how they will look to users. They can segment the audience for each notification, collect detailed user-level data on how each message performs, and ensure that iOS push notifications increase app usage and retain more users.

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