Sometimes we get questions from mobile businesses just starting out regarding which channels are the best ones to use for connecting with users.
Inevitably, our answer is: use the channels that your users prefer! And if you don’t know which channels those are, you MUST ask them.
However, there is a large amount of confusion and head scratching when it comes to the difference between push notifications and SMS. Namely: when should a marketer choose one over the other?
Choosing push notifications vs SMS is tricky. There are certain situations when one is more effective than the other. So how are these two channels different, and when you should use push notifications vs SMS?
If you recall, SMS stands for short messaging service.
It is the older text messaging technology that relies on mobile phone carriers, cell towers, and physical phones to get a message from sender to recipient, no WiFi necessary. Just a phone carrier signal and a mobile phone.
And yet, despite its age, it’s a powerhouse channel: response rates from SMS messages are 209% higher than from voice calls, Facebook, or email marketing campaigns.
In fact, according to a 2018 study by Emarsys, 29% of targeted customers respond to SMS with 47% of those responders making a purchase.
SMS messages are perceived to be more trustworthy than other forms of communication.
Think about it: who texts you?
Overwhelmingly, text messaging is used as an immediate communication channel for the people — and the companies — you trust.
But also, SMS feels more direct, and somehow more personal. Sure, you may be sending a message to thousands of users, but the recipient will perceive it to be a direct message to them.
The trust in this personal mode of communication reflects in its open rates. SMS messages have open rates of 98%. Compare that to the 20% open rate of email, and you’ll see how much more trust customers place on text messages over emails. 
This is a good rule of thumb to follow: reserve your SMS messages for conveying information that is urgent, time-sensitive, or transactional.
When a service provider sends you a text message, it’s a good bet that the information you’ve been given is important. Think: banking alerts, weather warnings, or a doctor’s appointment reminder. If it will impact a user’s finances, health, or personal safety, use SMS!
The exception here, of course, is if you’re already running SMS marketing campaigns and are engaging your users successfully via text messaging games and promotions.
If you need to send information that must be acted upon, then text messaging is the way to go. Think: flight delays, appointment reminders, event cancellations.
Say an event or a flight is canceled on the day itself. You better send it by text message! SMS connectivity will be more universal and reliable than WiFi.
The danger with relying on a push notification is that your user may be in an area with no WiFi connectivity, or may not have a data plan. That means they’ll receive the push notification only when they finally get to a location with WiFi.
Finally, use SMS for stuff that is transactional. Think: delivery alerts, package tracking notices, even billing reminders.
Image: How-To Geek
Don’t use SMS for information that a user will need to refer to in the future. This includes receipts, set up instructions, and other help materials.
Firstly, text messages aren’t as easy to scroll or search through as email. Secondly, they may be deleted by accident.
Also, don’t use text messages for long-form content. SMS are limited to 160 characters.
Sure you can string them together to send a longer message. But why pay for the extra text messages (and why would you let your users pay for them as well) when you could send the same info through email for free?
We’ve covered a lot about push notifications on this blog. They’re personalized messages sent to users nudging them to complete certain actions in your app. They can also be used to convey information like updates or announcements.
And they’re successful when they’re tailored to the users’ preferences or interests. According to our 2018 push notification study, personalized push notifications see 9.06% higher open rates than push notifications with generic messaging.
Just remember that users opted in to receive push notifications. And they’ll keep permitting it so long as your push messages provide value. When you fail to give them anything useful and begin to annoy them, they may choose to revoke that permission.
There are so many different ways to use push notifications to get a message across. In fact, we even collected 45 real-time push notification templates that you can easily copy-paste into your own campaigns.
But if you were to boil them down into buckets, they would be:
If you’re announcing a deal, discount, coupon, or sale, then push is the way to go. Particularly if you’re running an ecommerce app.
91% of app users find push notifications from shopping apps useful, with the most helpful notifications being shipping/delivery updates, new discounts, and price reductions for a followed product.
Push notifications are the perfect vehicle for recommendations and suggestions. Think: suggesting a new movie for users to watch, a new destination to visit, or a new restaurant to try.
Additionally, push notifications are a good way to upsell your users – whether that means nudging them toward a paid plan, or suggesting more expensive items based on their past purchasing behavior. They key is always to personalize it to what the user has done in the past.
Push notifications are a good way to remind users to accomplish certain tasks, especially during the onboarding phase. Think: renewing your subscription, completing your profile, watching the onboarding video, connecting the app to your contacts or social media accounts, and much more.
News and Updates
Push is also a great channel for announcements and updates. Have new products to offer or new additions to the catalog/playlist/library? Released a new feature on the app? Then send out a push notification to tell your users about it.
Continuous App Onboarding
Push is great for highlighting your app’s features. Spotlight a functionality that your user hasn’t tried. Or introduce them to a newly released feature. The more you can educate them about how your app solves their problems, the more value they’ll find in your app.
Because push notifications typically disappear once the user swipes them away, they’re even more fleeting than a text message. This makes push a really a bad choice for sending information that the user needs to refer to later on.
Re-engaging Users Without Offering Any Value
This might be debatable, depending on the type of app you market. But personally, if an app sends a push notification that only reminds me I haven’t used it for the past two weeks, then the only action I’m going to take is to uninstall it. If you’re going to re-engage then offer something of value – a discount, a promotion, anything other than a pithy “we miss you.”
Long, Wordy Messages
Again, push messages are short. Anything beyond a sentence or two, and the text gets cut off. In some mobile devices, you may not even be able to read the full message after clicking on it! So be concise! Leave the essays for your email newsletters and blog posts.
Overall, when deciding between SMS text vs push notification, then favor SMS for messages that:
And use mobile push notification when you need to:
Mastering Mobile App Engagement & Retention