The Potential of Push Messaging for Mobile Marketers

Article ImagePush notifications from an app can be powerful messages that drive engagement back to the mothership. However, since phones are such personal devices, experts say marketers must use the communications respectfully and strategically.

"The phone is my turf, and if you're one of the lucky apps to have made it onto that turf, then already we have an implicit, tacit personal relationship," says Peggy Anne Salz, chief analyst at the mobile research and consulting firm MobileGroove. "If it's going to be personal, there needs to be value, and that value comes from knowing and understanding me ... and reflecting that in how you communicate with me by push notifications."

A 2015 survey from Localytics and Research Now supports that notion. When researchers asked respondents what they wanted from push messages, the top replies were the following: "A special offer based on my preferences," "a breaking news alert," "new content personalized to my preferences," and "a special offer based on my location."

One company that is responding to that desire for tailored notifications is the food discovery platform Yummly. "Push notifications are hugely important for us," says Shelley Carella, its brand director and marketing manager. "It is a great way to remind users to come back, to teach them tips and tricks for using the app, and to delight them with a bit of silliness while also giving helpful reminders and timely recipe suggestions."

Yummly personalizes its push notifications based on attributes such as location, diets, allergies, taste preferences, and the day and time someone is most likely to use the app. Users can provide some of this data when they first launch the app, and Yummly gains more intelligence based on their in-app activity.

The aforementioned survey also reveals that 52% of respondents found push messages to be "an annoying distraction." Marketers risk having users opt out when notifications become a bother.

Learning how to best optimize push notification as a way to engage users without being annoying is a quest of TED, says Thaniya Keereepart, head of mobile and platforms for the nonprofit that's devoted to spreading ideas. TED works with the customer relationship firm Appboy to experiment with issues such as determining the best time to send messages about new TED talks. Using an Appboy feature called Intelligent Delivery, TED can now send messages to users at different times, based on when they typically engage with the app and its notifications.

Likewise, TED is starting to automate the frequency and content of notifications, based on a user's previous response to a push. "We're careful to have a better understanding of which segments of our users are actually engaging with [a push] and do appreciate our push, and for the ones who don't, we send them less things and different things," Keereepart says.

Harder, and further down the line for TED, is figuring out which talks people will most appreciate being told about. Signals can be hard to read: People might watch a talk because they enjoy the subject; it's funny; or someone forwarded it to them. Keereepart says TED plans to do more work developing a recommendation engine across its ecosystem, and the results will likely trickle down to push notifications.

One consideration in customization is a user's choice of OS since Android and iOS don't handle push messages the same way. Their differences start from the onset: Android users automatically get opted into push notifications when they download an app. iOS users must manually accept to receive them-and fewer chose to do so last year, according to the 2016 "Push Notification Benchmark" report from Accengage, which analyzed 38 billion push notifications sent worldwide by more than 1,500 iOS and Android apps in 2015. The company found the opt-in rate for iOS users fell to 41% from 46% the prior year.

Finding the optimal time to ask permission to send notifications can help marketers get it. Carella stresses the importance of A/B testing at different times in the user lifecycle and the on-boarding process to see what works best for a userbase. The right time might be 20 seconds into the first visit, she says, or after someone's taken a few actions in the app. It's important for the request to give an idea of the kind of messages users can expect and why they should want to get them, she adds.

Marketers also must consider that opted-in Android and iOS users don't tend to engage evenly. The Accengage study finds the percentage of users who click on notifications, which the company refers to as the reaction rate, is significantly higher for Android users in the U.S.: 11%, compared to 3.5% for iOS.

Yummly reports higher click-through rates from Android users. TED sees higher conversion; for it, this consists of click-through and what it calls "influence opens," with Android. "Sometimes, people see a push message, but do not click on it right away," Keereepart says. "They may look at it, dismiss it, and then go on to open the app directly. We think this is equally as successful as direct clicks."

So what is it about Android that leads to higher reactions on average? For one, its push formats are richer, says Nicolas Vitre, marketing director at Accengage, which sells push notification technology. Also, he says, marketers can simulate the reception of a push notification when the device is being unlocked "at the perfect time, when people are much more likely to react."

But Carella and Keereepart think other factors are at play. "On iOS, timing is so critical, because if [recipients] don't open your push from their home/lock screen, most will never return to the notifications center to find it later," Carella says. Keereepart adds, "The experience design of push on iOS has more of a sense of urgency, which isn't always a good thing for a publisher if its content is unwelcomed. We're more careful to respect this of our users."

Keereepart says TED can be more experimental with Android users than with those on iOS-but with any experimentation, there's a risk. "The more you try, the more noise it creates," Keereepart says. "The downside to creating too much noise with push notifications is that when [users] turn it off, there's no way to remind them to turn it back on."