push notifications
Marketing Marketing Technology

For Better Push Notifications, Take a Cue from Publishers


Are push notifications at risk of becoming spam? It’s a question brands and publishers have been struggling to answer.

A push notification is a message that pops up on a mobile device, even when you aren’t actively using an application. These notifications can be really useful—like when you’re waiting for an important email and receive an alert immediately; when bad weather is approaching; or when important news breaks. With a quick look at your lock screen, you can absorb the notification information. Users generally have to opt-in to receive the alerts, and they can always opt-out to silence them.

But picture this: you wake up Saturday morning after a long week at work. You roll over to read the news on your phone, and your screen is flooded with notifications. MyFitnessPal wants to remind you that two weeks ago, you thought this was the perfect time to work out. You’ve got financial updates from your credit card app, and Netflix is reminding you about the new series they’ve added that you’ll just love. You’ve got shopping app updates, breaking news stories, a LinkedIn update, and what looks like a game request from your six-year-old niece. Not to mention the three texts you received from team members after you headed out for the evening, and all those Facebook messages you got overnight.

You’re overwhelmed by all this—and though you’re not surprised to see it, you’ve had enough. You head straight to your settings and start turning push notifications off. Then it hits you: this is what many of your brand’s users is going through.

On the whole, notifications have a reputation for being very effective. Unlike a few years ago, when the marketing technology was still new, the tactic is now at risk of being overused. Like many of the marketing tactics that came before it, push is now getting abused by publishers and brands hoping for a quick eyeball boost, without thinking about how to use push strategically to highlight quality content.

Publishers and brands need a rethink on how to use push to deliver content and tell their brand story. Instead of sending notifications willy-nilly, brands need to have a plan. If a few publishers and brands over-do it, they risk ruining push for everyone—and turning their users away from their apps completely.


The Psychology of Push

There’s a reason why publishers love push notifications: they work.

Smartphone users are addicted to checking their lock screens and the notifications found there. A 2013 study found that the average user checks his or her phone’s lock screen 110 times per day. Some users unlock their phones up to 900 times a day. According to The Atlantic, “In the years since [2013], notifications have become an even more important part of the smartphone experience, so it’s safe to guess that the number has risen dramatically.”

The motivation behind this compulsive smartphone checking may be psychological. B.F. Skinner found that the intermittent reinforcement of rewards produces unique behaviors. In the 1950s, Skinner observed that lab mice responded quite differently with different patterns of rewards. In his experiment, mice would press a lever and receive a treat—sometimes a small one, sometimes a large one, and sometimes nothing at all. Unlike the other mice, the mice that received treats on a random scheduled pressed the lever compulsively.

Experts argue that our smartphones and marketing technology enable this same type of compulsive behavior. When we get a notification alert, we never know if it might be mundane or life-altering—so we continually check our smartphones, waiting for a really interesting reward to crop up.

“Most emails are boring, most texts mundane, most Facebook updates trivial,” wrote Dr. Andrew Weil, founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. “But just enough of these electronic media experiences are just rewarding enough at a frequency that is just random enough that the small effort of repeatedly tapping the screen nearly always seems worth it.”

Why Brands Love Push

Breaking news and content plays perfectly into this “hooked on notifications” culture. A well-executed push can score serious eyeballs. According to Digiday, The New York Times earns 60 percent of all digital traffic to a story within the first 24 hours via push notifications, especially if that story breaks over a weekend. USA Today and The Guardian used notifications to drive big spikes in app usage during the 2016 Olympics and the presidential race, Digiday reported.

Indeed, notifications are becoming more and more critical to brands and publishers alike. Smartphone users increasingly stick to using just a handful of apps on a regular basis, and that means brands and publishers have to work hard to get their attention.

Smartphone users increasingly stick to using just a handful of apps on a regular basis, and that means brands and publishers have to work hard to get their attention.

Notifications, which have a good track record of producing results, can fill in this gap. Research shows that overall, users who receive notifications are far more engaged than users who don’t, according to Localytics data analyzed by Business Insider. Those who enabled notifications logged 53 percent more session than those who hadn’t engaged with a push notification.

Graph of push notification retention

Given the pressures of low app usage, there’s big incentive for brands and publishers to use—and possibly overuse—notifications. A poorly created notification can generate problems, however. Compared to other industries, media-related apps experience some of the highest opt-out rates for push alerts. Disruptive notifications can send a user running.

A Better Push Strategy

At The New York Times, notifications are handled by an 11-person team. Tailoring and personalizing notifications is a big emphasis. Notifications are customized based on geography, and the publisher is experimenting with sending more feature-based notifications in addition to breaking news.

Taking into account personal preferences will become more important as more smartphone operating systems allow apps to embed video and other rich media into notifications. Allowing users to state their preferences for the type of content they want to receive can help, but many users don’t want to mess with a cumbersome onboarding process. Smarter analysis of what push notifications resonate with particular audiences can help. For example, if a user doesn’t engage with a notification on a specific topic, the publisher or brand can try a different content route next time.

Brands and publishers need to think strategically before they send a notification. A good notification strategy complements the content you want to highlight. For many users, push is the first and only chance you have to hook them into the story you’re telling—so choose your notifications wisely.

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