What’s a Push Notification?
Let’s start from something I like: a technical definition of what a push notification is. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, (the expression did enter the dictionary!) a push notification is “a message sent to a smartphone relating to one of its apps, even when it is not running, or the act of sending such messages […]”.
As usual, the definition gives us interesting ideas to help us “dismantle” some common views about push notifications. For example, notifications are messages sent to a smartphone, not from a smartphone, as many believe. Technically, as the definition stresses, apps don’t send push notifications, in fact they can be sent even if the app is closed and isn’t currently working.
So, who’s actually sending push notifications? Well, it’s pretty simple: it’s a third system able to send messages to those users’ smartphones in which a specific app has been installed, thanks to special accesses and certificates made available for mobile app developers by Google and Apple. For example, if you’ve installed a weather app in your smartphone alerting you in case of bad weather, its developer could send you a push notification to tell you “Bring an umbrella with you!”
Let’s now have a look at the answers to some common questions about push notifications:
- Q: If we’re talking about a third system, can I receive push notifications even if I delete the app?
- A: No, of course not. As I said before, developers use a channel made available by Google and Apple through which they can send push notifications to your smartphone. If you decide to delete the app, the channel can’t be used to send push notifications anymore.
- Q: Can developers send push notifications not related to an app?
- A: No, of course not. Notifications are always related to an app, unless they’re linked to some system functions. There’s a simple reason for this: Google and Apple want users to know from where push notifications come, in order to give them the opportunity to grant and withdraw the authorization of a specific app to send notifications.
Keep this last example in mind, because push notifications sent by developers have no number limit. That’s why the two Californian Tech Companies decided to give users a way to block wrong notifications. What do I mean by wrong? We’ll discuss it in the following sections. Now I’d like to explain to you why push notifications can be an important asset for your app (and for your business, in general).
Why are push notifications important?
This is a particular issue because, when I discuss it with my colleagues and customers, sometimes they don’t know the answer. They hardly find a reason for which push notifications are important or not, and then think about the way they can tackle the issue.
Some of them instinctively answer: “Push notifications help you sell more”, which is a good answer, but this isn’t the only reason and, for many people, not even the main reason why they’re important.
My answer to this question is: “Push notifications are by far the most successful marketing tool”. That’s my honest opinion, but let me explain why.
There once was the web, consisting in few ugly and unusable pages users could search when they needed something (not only something to buy, it could even be a research of a text for an exam or an article able to satisfy the curiosity of these hypothetical users). In a nutshell, there was a one-way path: I need something > I look for it > I find it.
As time goes by, the exponential growth in available on-line resources and user behavior evolution have given rise to a new kind of marketing. There has been a transition from a situation in which users had all the power, to a situation in which companies or product/service providers have been trying to regain it. Indeed, marketers now adopt a strategy that is more focused on users and their life cycle to increase user engagement and conversion rates. You can learn more about this marketing strategy here.
Website owners do whatever it takes to be found, and then try to collect customers data in order to reach them again, sell them new products, tell them about new services. Website owners basically try to make a connection with customers.
Push notifications have the same purpose, with the difference that it’s almost impossible to ignore them, because they occupy a physical space (even if digital) in our most used device: the smartphone.
In USA, while only half the population has got a computer, more than 80% has got a smartphone (2018, Mobile Fact Sheet, retrieved from pewresearch.org). In less computerized countries, this gap is even greater, for sure. Because getting a cheap smartphone is extremely easier compared to buying a computer.
Nowadays, it’s easy to ignore emails, because we’ve been using them for quite some time. Indeed, we know how to manage this tool, and are quite familiar with it.
How easy is it to create secondary (or fake email) addresses to sign in for services we don’t want to receive any kind of communication from? And how quickly do we transfer useless messages into folders we forget about? How often do we unsubscribe newsletters? Despite this, email marketing is always a really powerful tool.
Push notifications are even stronger. Sure, some users do disable them. In 2018, 67.5% of users enabled push notifications (2018, Push Notifications 2018, retrieved from eMarketer.com). It’s a pretty high number, and if we consider push notifications’ engagement rate (7 times higher than email campaigns average engagement rate), we see that push notifications are an all-powerful marketing tool. But don’t be deceived by appearances! Push notifications alone are less effective than an omnichannel marketing strategy including emails too.
As in all great stories, there’s a downside. While push notifications are widely used to reduce the number of users who leave apps, trying to keep them active and encouraging them to often use them, there are cases in which misused push notifications can lead users to uninstall them.
How to use push notifications properly
“I’m sorry dear [app name], you’ve overplayed your hand. Delete the app. Done.” My wife’s exact words two days ago at lunch. I asked her what was going on and she decisively said: “This app has just sent me a no sense push notification!”
I was shocked at first. Then, I started thinking about it, and realized I had done the same thing several times. I suppose you’ve done it too, for example with a push notification or a newsletter. It’s like when you subscribe to a newsletter because of a topic you’re interested in, and after some days, you receive a no sense email, you know?
The only possible outcome is that a lot of users will realize they’re not interested in your newsletter and will unsubscribe. That’s the lethal effect I was talking about. And it has to be definitely avoided.
So, what’s the point? What are the features of a good push notification?
- Customization: content shouldn’t address a general audience, but one single person.
- Action: push notifications need to provide users with a clear goal, i.e. a practical and intuitive action users can perform and take advantage from.
- Timing: push notifications may be triggered by users behavior and preferences.
Read this article to discover also push notifications’ best practices!
Timing is the most difficult part to put into practice, that’s why it’s natural that you get to it in a second step. Actually, there’s also a very special kind of push notification that’s fully capable of meeting the timing requirement: in-app messages.
However, at first you can focus on customization and action, for sure. Without these two elements, the chances that your push notification will be ignored (and even have negative outcomes related to the number of users using your app) are really high.
Let’s see some examples about how to build a simple and effective strategy to create successful push notifications.
I know you’re thinking about calling users by name to add a personal touch to your push notification. There’s nothing wrong with it, actually. The only thing I’d like to tell you is that custom emails including users’ names (and other details) are things from the ’90s. You can use this strategy, of course, but don’t think that it’ll be enough because users already know how the trick works. You’ll just need some curly braces, then you’ll get data form a database, and think you’ll get away with this.
In this case, what I mean by customization is a completely different thing. I want you to send a push notification writing to a single person. I’m not asking you to do users’ interviews, create buyer personas or carrying out other advanced searches (even though this would contribute to setting your tone of voice, and using keywords suitable for your audience). I’m only asking you to write to one person. Only one.
The first mistake inexperienced copywriters make is public speaking. After all, we can understand it. It’s the same for me here: I’m writing this article, and going to post it soon. I really hope you won’t be the only one reading it. Actually, I’m imagining multiple readers for my article. That’s why my instinct is to write a speech, as if I was on a stage talking to dozens of people. The result? I wouldn’t be talking to anyone, and worst of all, I’d alienate my audience. Let’s see some examples.
Come on! After what I’ve written above, it’s your turn: what’s the problem with this push notification?
Exactly! It’s addressing the crowd by saying “Roll up all”. The message turns out to be so impersonal that it almost bothers the audience. How dare these guys send me a message on my phone like those flyer adds you find in your mailbox?
To avoid this reaction, let’s see how we can change our push notification to add a personal touch to it.
Notice anything different?
Yeah, this push notification is addressing a specific person/user. I’m talking to you, a user who’s fond of our brand, and making it clear that I’m writing this message with you in mind. It’s a trick, obviously, but it’s all part of a party game. Users know that no one writes a push notification at a time to any single person. What they do care about is that content is relevant for them, and personal.
In the push notification above (the last one), the action is not clear. I realized it when I was writing it, and decided to leave it like that to use it as an example of a good push notification, not a perfect one.
“Seize the day”, “Take advantage now”, “Hurry up” aren’t successful calls to action. My personal opinion is that they’re used and misused. So, users are tired of hearing the same expressions.
Actions need to be clear, include steps, and clearly tell users what they have to do and what the result will be. We’re not stupid, mind you. If you read “Seize the day” in a push notification, you’ll immediately understand that you have to open the app, buy something, and hurry up because the discount is only valid for a certain period of time. Then, why are we wracking our brains over the perfect call to action?
Because you’re not risking that users won’t understand, but that they won’t have time to do it. If I were going to list the reasons why users may be distracted when you send them your push notification, it would probably take me a few days. Users shouldn’t interpret. On the contrary, they should read the message, and let themselves be guided without question. What else do you think impulse purchase is? Your push notification goal, like email marketing goal, is pushing users to click on it, and perform the action you’ve suggested to them. So, what kind of CTA you’d better use?
For what concerns traditional expressions, the old good “Shop now”, “Buy now”, “Open the app and get your discount” always work. It’s no coincidence that “Shop now” is still the most used (and set by default) CTA in Facebook ads.
What if you could reduce your text size and add some buttons, some full-fledged CTAs like in websites?
As you can see, it’s possible. The main call to action is the same, but I’ve added a “Remind me later” button that can be useful to record users’ interest and reproduce the push notification at a later time.
Aaah, this is dark magic. Actually, it’s nothing but simple technology, and timing shouldn’t look like a supernatural entity. Nowadays, users are used to be thanked when they’ve just performed an action, get discounts soon after they’ve bought something, see everywhere brands or products’ ads they’ve come across recently. Timing is crucial, you know it too. It’s even more true when it comes to sending push notifications to the right user at the right time.
How can you exploit timing to create a perfect push notification?
What about letting users choose when they want to receive your push notifications? Yeah, this is the common example of a fitness app, but you can use it for plenty of applications, such as: meditation, nutrition, habits creation, shopping, entertainment… anything, literally. When users are the ones making choices, you’ll be responsible for few things only. You won’t be the one invading their privacy anymore, you’ll simply offer them a service to help them reach their goals.
What about sending users push notifications based on their location? If you own some physical stores or sell your products in some stores, you can exploit users’ position to send them hyper-focused push notifications. That’s location-based marketing! Read this article if you want to know more! Imagine someone walking in town and passing by one of your stores. You can attract them with an exclusive discount, a little present (a coffee, a water bowl for their dog, etc.), or some news pushing them to enter your store. Bear in mind that while this is pure marketing for you, it can turn out to be a magic moment for users. A moment in which their link with your brand is strengthened, and this will encourage them to talk about you and what you’ve done for them to all their friends and acquaintances.
I know, this is a really looong article, but many other things about push notifications haven’t been said yet! I’ve dealt with the following topics:
- What push notifications are and why they’re important:
- Preferential channel between brand and end users run by Apple and Google;
- Much better KPIs compared to email marketing;
- Good push notifications’ features:
- Customization: speak directly to users;
- Action: clearly explain to users what they should do step by step;
- Timing: make sure users receive your push notification at the right moment.
- Examples of best practices applied to sample push notifications.
I warn you: if you think that this guide may be enough for you to build a successful push notification strategy, I can tell you that this isn’t the case. Just like an article about email marketing won’t make you an expert in that field, this one about push notifications won’t be magic either.
However, you should bear in mind that a push notification strategy, like any other, needs a solid foundation. Through this article, I wanted to provide you with inspiration and encourage you to think about which features a good push notification needs.
Nobody could ever tell you how the perfect notification looks like. The only way is finding it by chance, and having the tools to analyze the features that make it perfect.
Who said that you can’t create value by sending users a perfect timing push notification? Actually, there are plenty of fields of application, but I’ve made a generic example above (without even choosing a specific artist, to avoid to antagonize half the population), so that you can understand how much timing is important, for sure, but also how content is crucial. In this way, you’re helping users not miss out on something that could be really interesting for them. It’s all about collecting the right data, building a successful strategy, and showing content to the right audience, at the right time. I know, I’ve overused the word “right” in the last couple of sentences. But you know that this is how marketing works, and push notifications are no exception.