A push notification is a brief and attention-grabbing message that brands can send to their customers even when they are not currently engaging with the app or the website. These messages come from the apps you have installed on your phone.

Modern push notifications were popularized by Apple that in 2009 launched push notification support for iOS and the Apple Push Notification Service (APNs). Google introduced push notification support on Android in 2010.

Why are they so important?

Push notifications are the follow-up to user acquisition. They are great for boosting retention and engagement rates. If they are timely, personal, and actionable they have the potential to be the most intuitive and intimate way to interact with your users. Keep in mind that push notifications only reach users who have installed your app

You can use push to:

  • Make targeted recommendations to keep your users coming back to your app.
  • Remind your users how to use the app to achieve whatever they wanted to achieve in the first place.
  • Include a special offer to entice users back, or let them know if there is a special offer or event that’s available for a limited time.
  • Confirm an action a user has taken and include additional relevant information.
  • Customer service alerts
  • Social updates
  • Deliver location specific information
  • New content availability notices

Strong points

  • Grab customer’s attention
  • Reach your customers no matter what they are doing. Since they can reach beyond your digital presence, they are good for re-engagement campaigns.
  • Urgent messages. If you really need to reach a user, a push may be the best way to do it.

Weak points

  • Not everyone opts in for push notifications. Customers have to agree to receive them. On Android, apps are not required to ask permission to send push notifications. iOS apps require a user to grant permission for an app to send them push notifications.
  • If push notifications play a critical role in getting your users to form a habit of using your app, declining access could lead to losing them forever.
  • It is easy for the user to opt out and consider this, it’s even easier for them to uninstall the app.
  • They are not good to educate customers on how to use your app or to let them know about an update.
  • Not everyone responds the same way to different messaging channels.
  • Sending too many push notifications can trigger uninstalls. 78% of customers will opt out or uninstall an app if they are not happy with the push notifications they receive (DMA research study into app push notifications 2014)

How do they appear?

On iOS, Apple has a Notification Center that is organized in chronological order. Users get to the Notification Center by swiping down from the top of the screen.

Android devices show unread messages on the lock screen.

iOS let users customize push notifications at an individual app level. They can turn sounds on or off, and pick the style that iOS uses to show a notification.

Android uses a standard banner approach that users cannot change at an OS level.

All mobile operating systems ask users for their permission to share location information. Location data combined with behavioral data allow publishers to send more relevant content to their users.

Push notifications best practices

Timing is everything

Take into account time of the day, time zone, app user preferences (does your user tend to visit your app at certain time of the day?), the content of push (must be relevant and tie into a specific time of day or a triggered event), user schedule and engagement window.

The only way to get the timing right is by looking at customer data.  Customer data is essential to identify each user’s unique engagement window (time when they are more open to receiving notifications).

Frequency. How often should you communicate via push?

Determining the right amount of messages is crucial if we don’t want users to opt-out because they are receiving too many notifications too often.

Frequency can vary greatly by industry. In a survey done by Appboy, 46% of the users said they’ll opt-out of push if they receive 2-5 messages in one week.

32% users said they’ll stop using the app altogether if they receive 6-10 push messages in one week.

There is an interesting framework that links frequency to relevancy and I’ll talk about it in the “designing a push notification strategy” section.

Write solid copy-text

Consider the length. The amount of words that appear on your lock screen varies from one smartphone to another. Shorter messages are usually more effective.

According to Localytics data, notifications with 10 words or fewer see almost double the click rate than those with 11-20 words.

Use clear, actionable language. Quickly make clear the purpose of the push notification. Your message needs to identify the value, goal, or reward behind the notification.

User behavior on different mobile operating systems

Take into consideration user behavior on different mobile operating systems because this can impact engagement and retention rates. Retention rates on Android tend to be higher than on iOS.

Also, iOs open rates are much lower because on iOs once you have open up one notification from you lock screen, all the other clear. On Android, push notifications are shown on the lock screen and remain in the notification bar until clear.

Apple users are accustomed to choice. They are asked if they want to opt-in into push notifications and location-based data.

Android users are giving consent to access personal data by installing the app.

Take a long-term view when analyzing campaign results

It’s best to test in months rather than in weeks. Run experiments with notifications for at least six weeks (the sweet spot is around 12 weeks). Notifications have a strong novelty biases and the performance you get when you introduce a new element (for example emojis) may lose efficacy over time.

Best use of vibration

Resort to vibration for only the most urgent of pings. If a notification vibrates and the user does not find it urgent, the likelihood of the app being uninstalled skyrockets.

Use variety of personalization in your copy

When talking about personalization, using the user’s first name is just the first step to take. In your notifications, you should showcase all you know about the user. Send notifications based on user’s past search history, location and available personal data (user tastes, behavioral history, social signals, content they have posted).

Ensure notifications are localized to the user’s language (use their phone’s system language, or their explicit language preference rather than making an assumption based on their country).

One way to personalize your copy is by taking advantage of customer attributes and events. Customer attributes are things like age, gender, the language the user speaks, the time zone they are in, or their favorite color.

Customer events provide information about customer behavior within your app or your website (abandoning the shopping cart, rating your app, watching a video, making a purchase).

To get this kind of customer data you need a CRM platform and integrate the platform’s SDK into your app and/or website.

Add relevant customer events or attributes into messages. You could, for example, make reference to one of their favorite brands (customer attribute) and the fact that they have made a purchase in the past (customer event). This kind of personalization allows you to send messages to large groups of users keeping them personal at the same time.

Another way to individually customize content is by using dynamic content with information from third-party sources you can send campaigns that incorporate real-time information (weather updates, ticket availability, sports scores)

There is also the delivery time personalization that uses data about each recipient’s engagement with previous outreach. It is a good way to send messages at the time the user is more open to engaging with them.

Direct the users where they are supposed to go

Make sure that when users tap a push they get where they are supposed to go. Don’t send them to a generic home screen, send them to a specific page or the product they want to see.

One solution for this is to deep link directly from push notifications to relevant in-app pages or sections.

Don’t take push notifications permissions for granted

You need the user permission to send notifications and the way you ask them can have a big impact on how they respond.

On Android, the permission request is added to the app’s AndroidManifest.xml and subsumed in the all-or-none standard permissions list displayed on app install.

On iOS, you must trigger the iOS push notification permission request in your application code. The user will see a generic dialog asking for permission and the options “Don’t allow” and “Ok”. If the user taps “Don’t Allow”, it takes multiple taps within the Settings app to re-grant permission, so you better find ways to get the “Ok”.

Choose your metrics to evaluate the success of your campaigns

Keep an eye on essential metrics for evaluating the success of your push notification campaigns. Not only conversion metrics such as CTRs and short-term engagement but also measure long-term engagement, retention and negative signals such as push opt-outs, email unsubscribes and app uninstalls.

In order to measure the success of your push notifications campaigns, you need to know first the goal of that campaign. Some metrics you can use are the following:

  • Click rate: percentage of users who opened a push notification
  • Conversion rate: percentage of users who did a conversion event after clicking on your message
  • Engagement: Average number of sessions per user after viewing a push notification
  • Conversion frequency: Average number of conversion events completed per user after viewing a push notification
  • Revenue: Average new revenue per user after viewing a push notification

When you are setting up your campaign, include a control group that’s a small group of your audience who will not receive the message from the campaign. This will allow you to measure the direct impact of your campaign by measuring lift over the control group.

Use your message to encourage the user

Send users messages that are encouraging, not shaming which happens a lot with health and fitness apps. Consider giving users the option of taking a break and let them determine how long they want their hiatus to be, and then send them a notification asking if they are ready to come back.

Some examples of messages users really want to receive:

  • Messages that make their life easier
  • Messages that include a special offer based on their location
  • Messages that alert them about things that really matter to them
  • Messages that help them pick up where they left off
  • Messages that keep them posted

Find creative ways of using push notifications

Incentivize users when they choose the opt-in feature (app only purchases, discounts, money off). When choosing an incentive, take into consideration the type of app you have and your audience.

Combine user information from the app (location, in-app preferences) with user psychology. For example:

  • Use humor to keep user engaged
  • Use copy that has an element of suspense or curiosity
  • Provide important information when it’s needed the most (a product that is back in stock, when the cost of a ticket is going down)
  • Use reverse psychology
  • Build trust which is especially important in the e-commerce space

Designing a push notification strategy

Where to start when you finally decide to implement push notifications on your app. These are some of the things you need to consider.

Define your business goals

What business goals are you trying to achieve with your push notifications? The answer to this question will help you define your push strategy.

Make sure that all the messages you send, via any messaging channel (email, SMS, notifications), serve common goals. Possible goals for your push notification campaigns may include:

  • Increase DAUs
  • Introduce new capabilities and features to your users
  • Stay top of mind
  • Drive a goal or goals (i.e. purchases, shares)
  • Increase lifetime value, both of individuals and on the aggregate

Find ways to convince people to opt-in for push notifications

Instead of asking right away to opt-in for push notifications, prepare them by using in-app messages to explain why you want to send them push notifications and how exactly enabling push will benefit them. With a comprehensive user onboarding strategy, you can influence user opt-in rates.

Since you can only trigger Apple’s default permission request once per feature, some apps use priming for push before the actual Apple permission request screen appears.  This is the process you need to follow:

First, choose the right moment. Good moments can be when there’s a compelling need that push notifications can address.

Once you have identified the right moments, explain the value. Users should see clearly and quickly the benefits they get from receiving push notifications. In-app messages work very well to explain how users can get the most out of your app or website.

When asking them to opt-in don’t use Apple’s generic opt-in prompt, create a custom one where you explain the value of enabling push and ask the users if they want to receive notifications. If the user says YES, then trigger the generic Apple prompt. If the user says NO, you still have the ability to ask them again sometime in the near future. So delay the Apple prompt until the user comes to a screen that needs them to grant access.

It’s important to ask them when the time is right which may vary according to the type of app. But never ask as soon as the user is onboarding the app because it’s too early. You need to gain the user’s trust before asking for permissions.

A study done by Localytics shows that users completing between 1 and 3 sessions in an app have an average opt-in rate of 35% and the rate doubles when users complete 4-6 sessions in an app.

Decide what notifications you should build first

Here you can use Andy Carvell’s RRF framework. This framework is designed to help prioritize the development of growth-centric programmatic notifications that are created to increase engagement with the core product. This framework consists of three dimensions: Reach, Relevance, and Frequency.

It helps you make the decision based on the impact (the increased user engagement and retention) that these notifications are going to make.

Impact= Reach*Relevance*Frequency

Reach

In order to use this framework, it’s important to understand first how many users will potentially qualify for a specific notification type. Here you need to consider if it’s a one-to-one or a one-to-many mapping.

An example of one-to-one notification:  a social app where a user sends a message to a friend or a private group of friends. This event generates one notification per recipient.

An example of one-to-many notification. Here there are some of the possibilities:

  • Direct message, reach= 1
  • FB Status Update, reach= hundreds
  • New feature announcement, reach= entire user base
  • A celebrity posts a selfie on Instagram, reach=millions

The most impactful notification has the potential to reach the entire user base. When prioritizing which notifications to build first, go for notifications that have a total or near-total reach.

Relevance

Users’ tolerance for frequency of notifications is directly proportional to the relevancy of the notification.

When you are designing the product, it can be difficult to determine the relevancy of every notification you want to send because this is something that only can be evaluated once notifications are live and you analyze the click/open rates. However, things like personalization and timely content can increase the relevancy of the message.

Frequency

High-frequency events (for example a new post) that are engaging have high potential for impact. Frequency is often dictated by external events within the system or the real world. Increasing frequency is often outside the direct control of a notification team.

For more details about Andy Carvell’s frameworks see RRF: a framework for building impactful notifications

Decide what push notification platform fits your needs better.

I have written another post just to talk about this: Choosing the push notification platform that better fits your needs.

Segment your audience

Use segmentation to create user audiences (groups of people that share similar characteristics). Segments can be based on age, gender, location, interests, in-app actions. Target your messages to each segment you have created.

User audiences help you determine the best content or offer to use in your push message.

Creating, managing and measuring push campaigns as your app grows and you have larger groups or multiple segments will require marketing automation.

Use a spreadsheet to craft your push notification strategy

Craft a push notification strategy using a spreadsheet where every proposed push notification will have its own row. In the columns, you will use attributes like timing, conditions, default status, app screen the notification drives to, goals, sample notifications copy, notes…)

Design your in-app preferences center

It’s a function in your app that lets your user configure which push notifications they receive from you, and which ones they don’t. Decide how much control do you want to give to the user but avoid using an excess of controls that could be overwhelming.

Find the ideal number of push messages to send

Sending too many can trigger uninstalls. But how can you know how many notifications are too many?

Localytics research found out that 46% users will opt-out if they receive between 2-5 messages/week, and 32% will stop using the app altogether if they receive between 6-10 messages/week. This may give you an idea of what an average user considers too many messages and serve as a guide at the beginning when you don’t have enough data to evaluate the situation. The data you collect about your users will help you find the “magic number” that works for your app.

Keep users engage with other channels

Design a strategy that coordinates multi-channel messaging. An Appboy survey found out that 29’4% of users would opt back for push notifications if they received appealing messages through other channels (in-app messages, emails, social media, new feed cards)

Assess if you are sending the right push notification

Before sending your push notification, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is this the best time to be sending the push notification?
  • Is the message short and sweet?
  • Are these users receiving too many push notifications from me?
  • Did I personalize the message for its recipient?
  • Is this the best message for each recipient’s lifecycle status?
  • Would an image or an emoji enhance the notification?
  • How can I hone it through testing?
  • Is the value clear?

These questions help you evaluate if you are on the right path.

Design a strategy for those users that have opt-out of push notifications

Think ahead and have a strategy to win back those users that have opt-out of push. One way to do this is by creating a re-permission campaign. In order to do this, you’ll need to use a mobile marketing automation platform that allows you to track when a user opts out of receiving push notifications and create an audience segment with this group of users.

A push re-permission campaign is a messaging campaign that you send to customers who have declined permission to send them notifications with the purpose of changing their mind.

Follow these steps:
  • Identify the members of your audience that have opt-out of receiving push notifications.
  • Pick a messaging channel to communicate with them since you cannot use the push notification channel. Possible options are in-app messages or News Feed Cards that don’t require permissions or use email.
  • You will need some kind of incentive if you want them to change their mind. The incentive may vary from one app to another. It must be something that makes the whole experience with your app more appealing (discounts, exclusive content)
  • Pay special attention to the message you are sending. Take advantage of all the data you have collected on your customers and personalize the message.
  • Test, test, test. Use multivariate testing to optimize the messages you send. Try different message variants with different copy, different images, and different incentives.
  • Assess the results. See if the customers that received the re-permission campaign opt-in for push, or if your campaign has resulted in more uninstalled apps, and act accordingly.

Use A/B testing for key push notifications

Invest resources to analyze consumer behaviors. Over time you can increase the effectiveness of push messages by measuring customer engagement triggered by push: how many app opens occurred, how much time was spent in the app, and which messages caused immediate app opens versus delayed app opens.

You can A/B test the notification content, your targeted audience, and the timing.

  • Message copy. Experiment with the message, the tone, and the length.
  • Rich push notifications. Use A/B testing to decide when and where to use rich push notifications (images, audio, video).
  • Audience segments. Target your push notifications to audience segments this will help you customize the content that each user group experiences.
  • Message timing. Timing depends on the type of campaign you are running. Data shows that 63% of push notifications are sent at the wrong time, so this is something that’s worth testing. There are two ways to personalize message timing: behavioral triggers and algorithmic scheduling.  With behavioral triggers, the message is sent to users when they meet a given criteria (not opening the app for X number of days, adding items to cart and not checking out). For messages that cannot be triggered, use algorithmic scheduling.
  • Message channel. Testing the same message on different channels (push notification, in-app messages, emails), can help you decide which channel is better as a primary channel.
  • Pre-permissions. A/B test pre-permission copy to determine how it affects opt-in rates.

Decide how to measure the success of your push notification campaigns

At least you want to keep track of these basic metrics: sends, opens, and conversions. As a general rule, open rates are a good way to see if users are engaging with your notifications.

Some interesting articles about push notification
What You Must Know To Build Savvy Push Notifications
New data shows up to 60% of users opt-out of push notifications
Learn how to prime for push
9 Rules for a top-flight push notification strategy
Marketers, stop agonizing over when to send that message
One in three consumers still saying ‘no’ to brands’ app push notifications
The right way to ask users for iOS permissions
Are You Pushing The Right Push Notifications – Evaluating Strategy, Tactics & Tools
What 671 million push notifications say about how people spend their day
An Even Better Recipe for Perfect Push Notifications
Push Notifications vs. In-App Messaging: What’s the Difference for App Marketing?
Push Notifications Explained

Push notifications marketing strategy
7 Types of Push Notifications Users Actually Enjoy
Study finds Android outperforms iOS in user reaction time for push alerts
How to build a push notification strategy that creates a better UX for mobile apps
The Keys to Smart Behavioral Push Notifications
Crack the Crux of Push Notifications, Make It Growth Hacking Strategy

Testing
The Best Way to Launch a Push Notification Test
5 Rules for smarter multivariate testing