The Importance of "Push" in the App Age

The number of mobile apps-and consumers who use them on a regular basis-has increased tremendously. A rash of reports suggest app download numbers will continue to break records and hit somewhere between 200 billion and 270 billion in 2017, up from between 70 billion and 100 billion in 2013. Add to that the latest comScore report, which states mobile apps account for more than 50% of all digital media consumption, and it's little wonder that content companies are lining up to launch or revamp their mobile app.

But the numbers are just part of the story. Many apps are still deleted (or ignored) shortly after they are downloaded, which is why I have written several reports on app engagement and what companies can/must do to avoid this fate. Part of it is delivering a good app experience from the get-go. The rest revolves around finding ways to encourage ongoing engagement. Fortunately, this isn't rocket science thanks to the mix of messaging tools that companies can use to be "the brand in the hand" of their customers.

First and foremost, we have push notifications. This form of direct-to-consumer communication channel (a capability designed specifically for the smartphone) represents an ideal way to reach consumers on their personal mobile devices. What's more, both sides benefit: People receive the notifications they genuinely want, and companies-through their apps-have a new channel to message and engage consumers on their device home screens. But there are strict rules of engagement to follow here.

Urban Airship, which offers a push notification platform and in-app messaging, has published the Rules of Good Push in "The Pocket Guide to Good Push," a must-read document that outlines why and how companies can deliver communications that are personal, relevant, and completely transparent. Deviate from the rules and you are guilty of what Urban Airship aptly calls "Bad Push."

It's great to have the guidelines-especially since many companies are misusing push notifications to nudge their users a little too often. Do a search on Twitter and you'll find evidence of a growing pushback against push notifications that are nothing more than celebrity gossip disguised as breaking news. (Justin Bieber updates? Oh, please, no!)

This is why some smart organizations are thinking up new ways to put the people more in control of the messages they receive. ABC News Digital has become one of the first to "push" the envelope. Its approach allows app users to personalize alerts so they get more of what they really want and less of what they don't. In practice, users can create a personalized newsfeed direct to the app. All they have to do is mark a story of interest in order to receive follow-up stories. A simple swipe is all it takes for a user to unfollow a story.

And it doesn't stop there. ABC News has also revamped its app to enable a kind of in-app message center-centered around an email-like inbox within the app. In this scenario, the inbox has become a news repository, a place where users store and find the news that matters most to them.

ABC News observes that this inbox gives users a convenient way to catch up on topics they follow, but may be too busy to keep up with on their phone's lock screen. It also reports more than 1 million stories were starred by users in the first 5 months following the app relaunch.

As Peter Roybal, head of mobile product for ABC News, puts it, in a company case study published on the Urban Airship website, "People are hammered by information throughout the day. The inbox is a great tool for catching up on push alerts."

Notifications can also link to video, allowing users to watch live streams as breaking news unfolds. ABC News notes that the feature is particularly well-received by users, with the app achieving a 500% increase in live video streaming thanks to push notifications.

Connect the dots, and examples such as ABC News show that push messaging-particularly when it is personalized-adds a huge amount of value to the overall app user experience. What's even better? Push can enhance all outbound communications, including email and text messaging, to alert and engage people around content. For this reason, I recommend companies integrate push notifications into their wider strategies to reach and engage consumers at every touchpoint throughout the customer journey.