The Push Notification Paradox: When People Actually Want More Alerts

Like many things at Breaking News, it started as an experiment.

What if we created a new kind of push notification that our editors send when an early-stage breaking story is about to become a big deal? A “heads up” that something big is happening that’s bound to make national headlines?

We called it emerging alerts, and we launched it this summer.

So how many users would voluntarily opt into yet… another… notification? The fourth type of notification in the Breaking News app (after big stories, followed stories and proximity alerts)?

We were surprised to discover more than 100,000 active users and counting.

Breaking News has always been fast with notifications, but emerging alerts are faster yet, preceding other national news notifications by as much as 30 minutes or more on major stories like the Umpqua Community College shooting, Tainjin, China explosion and the Istanbul, Turkey bombing.

It turns out that these alerts have proven to be popular for people whose business is knowing what’s happening right now. Businesses like journalism, government and law enforcement. For them, the velocity of emerging alerts makes them uniquely valuable and a welcome addition.

Pushing Value to the User

Most apps send push notifications as broadcast-style promotional drivers — a marketing vehicle designed to drive “open rates.” That explains why so many notifications are spammy, generic and annoying.

Instead, we think of notifications as a way to push value to the user. Increasingly, notifications are a standalone consumption experience that thrives on lock screens and digital watches. Just glance and you’re caught up.

“We are witnessing another round of unbundling as the notification screen becomes the primary interface for mobile computing,” explains Betaworks CEO John Borthwick. “[It’s] part of an architectural shift from pull to a push.”

When users opt into alerts, they’re inviting a brand into the most prominent, personal real estate in their digital lives. It’s a deeper connection than following a brand on Facebook or Twitter, and the most valuable notifications are personal and contextually-relevant to the world around you.

For example, Breaking News’ proximity alerts notify people who happen to be physically near a major breaking story. In the case of the Umpqua shooting, we sent a proximity alert warning users in the surrounding county of an “active shooter” 15 minutes after police first arrived at the school.

It’s not that people don’t want notifications; they don’t want useless ones.

The Push Paradox

Our experiment with emerging alerts reinforced a important lesson: offering valuable push notifications results in people wanting more of them. But what about those open rates?

While many Breaking News users get our content primarily outside the app, paradoxically this approach has yielded increased engagement inside the app. The better the notifications, the more people subscribe, the more frequently they visit the app.

In other words, by focusing on “time saved,” we’re actually driving more “time spent.” While surprising, it’s a great reminder that making users happy is still a good business strategy.

(Written by Cory Bergman, co-founder and GM of Breaking News, a mobile startup owned by NBC News.)