What Are Push Notifications?

What Are Push Notifications?
Posted on May 11, 2021

Push notifications are text or rich media messages sent to mobile devices from third-party applications. If you’re reading this on your phone, it’s likely that you’ve recently come across a push notification or two. Push notifications offer value in multiple ways for both mobile marketers and smartphone users. 

For such a popular channel, it would be easy to think that this technology has been around longer than just over a decade (they originated in June 2009). However, it was only 12 years ago that push notifications first appeared during an update announcement from Apple. This version of push notifications, called Apple Push Notification Service, offered a new experience for customers. And the rest is history. 

Let’s look at how big the push notification pond is in 2021: 

  • The average smartphone in the U.S. receives 46 daily push notifications* 
  • 81% of Americans own a smartphone*
  • The average smartphone user checks their phone 63 times a day*
  • 44% of iOS users vs 91% of Android users opt in to push notifications*

These stats prove that push notifications are not only reaching people multiple times a day, but that Americans literally can’t put their phones down. This means that mobile marketers can and should utilize push notifications to encourage engagement and retention. 

In this in-depth guide, we cover everything you need to know about push notifications, including the types of notifications, why opt-ins are essential, mistakes to avoid and steps to success, and industry-specific case studies to inspire your short- and long-term strategies. We also encourage you to head to our infographic featuring all our tips to increase engagement.

The Difference Between Push Notifications and SMS

Push notifications and SMS are both great ways to engage with customers, but they have different methods of delivery and communication objectives. One of the main differences is the delivery method. With push notifications, a customer must download your app before they can receive a notification compared to an SMS that they opt-in to. 

Here are other ways to help you distinguish between push notifications vs SMS text messages

Push NotificationSMS 
Delivery MethodApp installedOpt-in
AudienceApp users onlyAnyone who has opted in to receiving SMS 
IntentPromotional, educational, and location-basedUrgent, time-sensitive or transactional 
ExampleA surprise sale on flights to sunny destinationsAn update on food delivery purchase

Now that you understand more about the differences between push notifications and SMS, let’s look at what you would use SMS notifications for versus push notifications. 

Send SMS Notifications For:

  • Banking alerts 
  • Weather warnings 
  • Flight delays 
  • Appointment reminders 
  • Event cancellations 
  • Billing reminders 
  • Delivery or tracking notices 

Send Push Notifications For:

  • Latest deals or discounts 
  • Content recommendations or suggestions 
  • Action reminders 
  • Announcements 
  • Educate users on a new feature

How Do Push Notifications Work?

As mentioned above, a push notification is a message sent by an app to a user’s phone. Push notifications  can only reach users who have installed an app and opted-in to these messages. 

As you probably guessed, push notifications differ for iOS and Android users. An iOS push notification will first appear on the lock screen. Once a device is unlocked, the push notification moves to the Notification Center and a user can engage or delete the notification. 

Android users have a little more control over their push notifications. You can set priorities, group push notifications into types, and determine how notifications appear on your device. The differences also extend to how users opt-in to these messages. 

The iOS platform is designed as an opt-in model that requires customers to agree to receive push notifications before they are sent. Android users are automatically signed up to push notifications and require a user to manually opt-out. 

Push notifications are a great way to reach customers in real-time due to the increase of mobile users and the amount of time that we spend on our phones. As our Inboxes become as busy as we are, it’s easy to understand why businesses prefer push notifications. However, app push notifications are not the only option. There are three other types of push notifications that businesses should consider and include in their strategies. 

4 Types of Push Notifications

Whether you are in a web browser or using your wearable device, there are push notifications designed for that device or platform. Here are four types of push notifications, including mobile, to test in your next campaign.

1. Mobile app push notifications: generated via an app downloaded on a user’s mobile device. Displayed in three locations: lock screen, banner and notification center. 

2. Web push notifications: delivered to users through desktop or mobile web that appear at the top or bottom right-hand side of the desktop or mobile screen. 

 

3. Desktop push notifications: appear only on a user’s desktop and are activated primarily by products installed on a computer.   

 

4. Push notifications on wearable devices: notifications that appear on a wearable device that are synced with the notifications on their mobile device. 

 

Opt-In: Not an Option

Looking at how Android vs. iPhone users differ when it comes to push notifications, there is a noticeable difference. Our recent push notification report found that 44% of iOS users and 91% of Android users opt in to push notifications. We know what you’re thinking: how does a user’s operating system affect their push notification experience? 

  • iOS: As you’ll see below, users must choose to accept notifications when first launching a new app. Whether a user finds your app from the App Store or through social media, if you’re hoping to increase your opt-in rate via iOS, you’ve got one shot so make it good

 

  • Android: users are automatically opted-in to push notifications. When a user downloads an Android app, they’re informed that the app has been given permission to send push notifications. Users can see the notifications while their phone is locked and unlocked. 

 

While it’s important to know how notifications differ per operating system, it’s even more important to strike the right balance in terms of frequency and intent with your push notifications. Be honest and clear with users from that first notification. Let your customers know what they can expect from opting in. Here’s an example: 

If you are a Fintech app that sends out real-time news regarding bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, let your users know via push notification. In terms of frequency, there is not a one-size fits all approach: test how many is “too many” and scale back if necessary. Give your users everything they need to make an informed decision about whether to opt in or opt out. 

8 Types of Push Notification Campaigns 

1. Time-bound Push Notifications 

By creating a sense of urgency through time-bound notifications, you are offering a friendly reminder for recipients — especially if it coincides with an important calendar event. Reminding a customer that Mother’s Day is only a week away, with a tempting offer for flowers, puts your brand front-of-mind when it’s time to purchase. Other examples include: 

  • Limited offers 
  • Seasonal flash sales
  • Expiry dates to purchase

One rule of thumb: be sure that your push notification includes clear and consistent expiration details for users. Whether they capture the offer in time or are late to it, you don’t want to confuse or mislead users. 

2. Reminder Push Notifications 

Similar to time-bound notifications, people occasionally need reminders for important moments. Reminder push notifications work great for industries such as health and fitness that might remind a user it’s time to set an alarm for their morning run or encourage them to take time away from their desk to meditate. 

For these notifications, it’s about highlighting why taking these actions will add value to their lives. These notifications are also useful if a user added a product via your app and left without making a purchase. 

3. Triggered Push Notifications 

Did you know that you can set triggers based on a user’s actions and behavior? With triggered push notifications, you are essentially capitalizing on a buyer’s journey. With these notifications, you can design campaigns influenced by a user’s real-time behavior in the app. 

Here’s an example of a triggered campaign: 

  • New user of an exercise app: send a push notification the day after a user launches the app to invite them to set up bi-weekly reminders to exercise 
  • Existing user of an exercise app: send a congratulatory push notification shortly after the user achieves a workout goal or new personal record

Whether you send a message about an action or inaction, triggered push notifications are a must-have in any marketing strategy. We recommend A/B testing copy, CTAs, and the best times to send a push notification to your users. Once you’ve identified the dos and don’ts of your campaign, you can even set up recurring campaigns that repurpose successful messaging. 

Whatever you do, don’t send a push notification immediately upon launch. It can come across as intrusive and doesn’t demonstrate value. 

4. Transactional Push Notifications 

Although transactional push notifications aren’t the most glamorous, they are essential in any marketing strategy. Customers care about updates, especially when it comes to transactions, regardless of the size of that purchase. 

These notifications aren’t just for one-time purchases, either. You can use them for subscriptions, recurring bill payments, order status updates, and more. 

5. Abandoned Cart Push Notifications 

With online and app shopping, only two people really know if a shopping cart has been abandoned: the brand and the customer. In this event, it’s important to know why an item has been left in a cart. Perhaps the shipping fees are too high, the delivery time is too long, or they simply got distracted? 

Since there could be various reasons why a customer abandoned a cart, why not create several types of push notifications to serve their needs? Offer free shipping, alternative items that have an earlier delivery time, or another relevant offer to convince them to head back to the app and complete their purchase. 

Once you’ve created your optimal abandoned cart strategy, be sure to monitor metrics, such as the number of people who completed a purchase from a notification. 

6. Rich Push Notifications 

The majority of mobile users are visual shoppers and learners, so why not take advantage of rich push notifications? By adding in video, GIFs, and audio, you’ll create a more interactive experience for users to engage with. 

Marketing copy CAN be effective alone, but rarely in a push notification. Especially with B2C products where customers expect fabulous visual assets. Let’s imagine that you are a fast food brand. Do you think customers will be more likely to tap on a notification with simple text and a link, or a notification with vibrant images of delicious food with a link to relevant menu options? 

Brands should also consider using emojis in notifications. Our research found that including emojis results in an average 9.6% improvement in CTRs.

Bottom line: add context to a push notification with a visual asset rather than relying on just copy. 

7. Informational Push Notifications 

Weather, travel, and finance. What do these industries all have in common? Users want the latest news before they step out the door, head to the airport, or invest in a new company. Use informational push notifications to deliver news alerts and updates on these interests. 

Here’s a recommendation for these types of notifications: even if millions of other users will receive the same notification, be sure to tailor the wording for each user. Instead of ”latest weather report,” why not use “Local weather for [user’s location]”? Users will appreciate this extra detail, even if it’s a momentary notification during their busy day. 

8. Interest-based Geolocation Notifications 

When you think of interest-based geolocation notifications, what is the first thing that comes to mind? It might be dating apps like Hinge and Bumble or a fast food restaurant app. Either way, these notifications are great for location-based needs. 

As an example, if you are a food delivery brand, why not send a notification shortly after a customer has completed their order? Something like “Thanks for visiting the X branch of Y. Please rate your recent experience for $5 off your next order.” 

Push Notification Metrics for ROI

Here’s something to keep in mind: not all push notifications are directly or even immediately linked to ROI. However, every push notification is important. Once a user returns to your app via the push notification, there is a wide range of methods and features to captivate them. 

According to our survey, 28% of people uninstall apps due to excessive advertising and notifications. It’s about finding that “sweet spot” and when you do, these four metrics can paint a helpful picture of how your users actually feel about your app and notifications. 

1. Conversion Rate 

A conversion rate is the percentage of users who undertake a specific action on your mobile app that fulfills a desired goal or business objective. 

If your conversion rate is high, it means that the offer in your notification, and the path to obtain it, is clear, interesting, and effective. If your conversion rate is low, it could be for a number of reasons, including that pages are not optimized or not enough users are interested in your offer. 

2. Clickthrough Rate 

This is the percentage of users who completed one click from a notification. 

According to our study, the average CTR across all verticals is 2.25%. When you look at platforms — iOS vs. Android — the numbers are a little different. For iOS, the average CTR is 2.52% compared to 2.05% for Android. 

3. Opt-in Rate 

The percentage of users who opt-in for push notifications 

As mentioned above, Android users are more likely to opt-in for push notifications than iOS users. It’s likely that your app operates on both platforms. It’s therefore essential to understand how people use your app and that they know what to expect from your push notifications. 

4. Browser and Platform Distribution 

The distribution of users who access notifications on desktop or mobile devices 

What is the percentage difference between your desktop and mobile users? Do your customers access notifications via desktop or mobile? Ensure that you have a good understanding of these numbers so they can inform your notification strategy. 

4 Steps to a Winning Push Notification

Like everything else in life, push notifications operate best if you put in the work. This applies across the board and for the full customer journey — from crafting the messages to sending them to your audience. Here’s how you can win at the push notification game.

1. Create compelling content 

It isn’t enough to just serve a customer a push notification. You have to be compelling with your content. 

First, identify the main reasons why a customer would use your app. Answer their questions through your content and ensure that the message is clear and to the point. However, don’t give everything away within your notification. Utilize FOMO and a sense of urgency to create relevant, timely copy with clear actions. Users will feel compelled by the content and will act. 

2. Optimize the opt-in and opt-out 

Push notifications are all about inviting a user to engage but you must have their permission. By providing an opt-in and opt-out message, you are giving users a choice, which they want and deserve. Having said that, these messages will also weed out uninterested users, giving you room to target interested customers who are much more likely to click and convert. 

Depending on your business and app objectives, time your messages based on industry benchmarks, and always let your users know how easy it is to opt out and that it can be done at any time. This generates a level of trust that users need and deserve. 

3. Social proof is in the notification

Push notifications are important but in order to really work, you need an omnichannel strategy in place. Whether you have multiple social media platforms or just one main channel, such as LinkedIn, ensure that your notifications point to where your audience engages the most. 

Users need to see an active community, whether it’s on the website or on social media. The social proof of your app’s value also exists within the other campaigns and channels that you invest in. Make sure that everything aligns and complements the other platforms to avoid confusion. 

4. Utilize your existing customer base 

While getting your push notifications just right is important for new users, please don’t forget about your existing customer base. It can be easy to forget about the customers that you’ve already acquired on your path to new ones, but the mistake in only sending offers and notifications to potential or new customers is that your existing customers feel cheated. 

It’s also important to note that messaging for existing customers should be different from the messaging you send new ones. However, make sure that the content is just as valuable. 

5 Mistakes to Avoid

Here are five common missteps that marketers make with push notifications:. 

1. Not Tracking the Correct Metrics 

While click rates are important to track, please do not become obsessed with this number. As mentioned above, all push notifications are important, but you will not always see immediate success. Instead of relying solely on CTR to guide your push notifications strategy, determine which actions are the most important for your brand.

Is it form completions, purchases, or free trial signups? Second, use your analytics platform to determine how many of these actions are being completed via push notifications. 

2. Not Sending Onboarding Notifications 

A user has downloaded your app — congratulations! Now it’s time to create a dedicated welcome user journey map that guides and educates new customers on how your app works. We recommend leaving notification “breadcrumbs” at different times with content that highlights a different USP. A holistic view of your app is a great way to show value from all angles. 

  • Start by extending a friendly welcome push notification to set the tone of your app. 
  • Highlight the value that your app will bring to a user in that welcome message.
  • Showcase those key features to give users one more reason to engage with your app.
  • Nudge new users to complete their profile with a push notification that includes an incentive to make the most of the app.
  • Send customized discounts to users who showed purchase intent.

3. Not Sending the Right Number of Notifications 

    It’s not a one-size fits all approach or magic number. There are a number of variables to consider and what is “right” for your brand/industry might not be the best way for another brand or industry. Having said that, it might take a few tests to understand what “too few” and “too many” looks like. 

    Rather than worry about frequency, we recommend concentrating on quality. Once you have a firm grasp on your audience, their priorities, and needs, that quality will come naturally. Push notifications are designed to engage with users, so make sure that your notifications reflect that. 

    4. Not Automating Notifications 

    Have you ever received a notification at an odd time or at a peak work time? Poorly timed push notifications will most certainly lead to opt-outs and annoyed users.

    To avoid this friction, ensure that your audience segmentation includes preferred times of day as well as preferred days of the week. This is especially important if you have audiences in different cities, regions, or countries. A user based in France won’t want to receive a notification at the same time as a user in California. It might seem obvious but it’s an easy mistake to make. 

    On the flip side, a well-timed notification can be exactly what a user needs. If you send a “15 Songs to Energize Your Workout” push a couple of hours before a user heads to the gym, it can be a great way to earn a loyal following and engage with users on their terms and timeframes. 

    5. Not Personalizing Notifications 

    Users don’t just deserve personalization, they expect it. Not meeting this request will lead to frustration and bad user experiences. 

    In your user journey map, make sure that you have details on the different interests and actions for users. Segment them into categories or groups based on behavior and characteristics. By offering personalization, you show the user that they are valued and that your app adds value. 

     

    Push Notifications by Industry 

    From January to June 2020, our data science team analyzed and identified mobile trends to help marketers understand what kind of growth to expect in the context of COVID-19. Based on AppsFlyer and CleverTap data, we were able to determine the fallout for mobile brands. 

    Overall, marketers in thriving industries like Health & Fitness and Grocery sent more campaigns to capitalize on the rise in user interest. Education, which was also a thriving industry, increased campaign activity by 20% at different times, and as a result, these apps saw an increase in CTRs of more than 3%. Here is a snapshot of push notification CTRs for the Education vertical. 

     

    While industries sent more campaigns and CTRs increased across Q1 & Q2 2020, the wider context is that industries are tailoring their push notifications to align with today’s priorities. There’s no doubt that behavior and priorities have changed and evolved in the last year. 

    Let’s look at five industries that got the message on push notification best practice. 

    1. Food Tech

    Example: DoorDash

     

    Take this opportunity to explain the benefit of notifications, e.g., ongoing offers and real-time status of an order. Here are some other ways to send push notifications to customers: 

    • Confirm payment and thank customers for their first order 
    • Ask for a review of their delivery and food experience 
    • Invite them to browse nearby restaurants and discounts

    When you plan out your campaign, we recommend sending discounts, restaurant recommendations, and trending offers on Days 1, 3, 5, and 7 to get users back to your app. Then on Days 10, 15, and 30, send exclusive discounts to encourage more users to return to the app. 

    2. FinTech

    Example: Coins

    This mobile wallet and digital currency exchange service utilizes multiple channels, like in-app messages and push notifications, to encourage users to return to the app. Through personalized incentives and discounts via push notifications, users only have to tap on the notifications to open the app and claim their offers. 

    The result? Through this campaign, Coins saw more than 5x higher CTRs than the FinTech industry average*. As highlighted above, customers expect personalization and this is definitely true in the FinTech industry. Remember that the app experience is not just when a user is in an app. It encompasses everything from that first download to every message and touchpoint. Increase your personalization in your push notification and see CTRs increase as a result. 

    3. Media & Entertainment

    Example: Apple TV

    Who doesn’t want to know when a new episode of their favorite show is available? This push notification is short, simple, and generates excitement — and possibly FOMO — for the user. However, something is missing that could add an extra layer of engagement and excitement: visuals. Apple TV could have turned this into a rich push notification. 

    Here’s an example of how this could look: 

    As you can see, this combines two great tactics: a visual of a relevant show image and a personalization to that particular user. It doesn’t pressure the user to “check it out now” but rather alerts the user to the fact that a new episode is available to view. 

    Overall, a great example of how a rich push notification can deliver exactly what a user needs to head over to their favorite streaming app. 

    4. Travel & Transportation

    Examples: Hopper and Expedia  

    Don’t miss an opportunity to encourage users to enable push notifications at the onboarding stage. This iOS notification includes a list of how the user will be notified e.g. alerts, sounds and icon badges. A great USP of a travel app: real-time alerts of fare increases or decreases, especially during the vacation planning phase. 

    You could even go one step further like Expedia did here. 

    By asking users for access to their location, particularly if you are a travel app, you can use this information to inspire and customize your push notifications. If a user lives in Austin and agrees to share that location information during app launch, you could send them flight offers out of their home airport. Additionally, if a user purchases based on your flight offer, you could also create trigger push notifications based on their future location when they take their trip. 

    5. Ecommerce

    Example: Valentine’s Day offers

    Remember when we mentioned time-bound notifications? A popular calendar event like Valentine’s Day is a great way to showcase how and when these notifications work well. 

    When you think of Valentine’s Day gifts, food is probably one of the first ideas that comes to mind. That’s because it’s a day to treat yourself and others. With that in mind, why not serve up a wide range of push notifications, like a rich push notification with a delicious visual as well as a personalized time-bound offer that customers will love? 

    These examples highlight how effective customer segmentation can be for brands. If you know that a user enjoys red wine, why not send a push notification with a discount for a new bottle on or around their birthday? By understanding a customer’s preferences, your personalized offers will be too tasty to resist. 

    Mobile marketing success is not necessarily about getting it right the first time, or even every time. Ultimately, for push notification campaign success, it’s about creating and implementing a strong push notification strategy that engages and retains customers. 

    Push notifications are great tools to put products and services front-of-mind in a fun way while achieving user growth, engagement, retention, and conversions. 

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