Don’t ruin push notifications for your app and you users

Use them to grow and engage your user base

Recently, there have been discussions across the internet of how to use push notifications effectively, and I wanted to share my insights on the subject.


What are mobile Push Notifications?

Push Notifications can display a message, play a distinctive sound, or update a badge on your app icon. Push Notifications (PNs) are to mobile what emails were to the web, a very powerful channel to communicate with the user to engage the user and to drive retention. PNs can be a very powerful tool and from experience can drive double digit increase in daily retention.


Example of push notifications from Foursquare

On this post, I will only focus on messages and not sounds and badges.


Why not send as many push notifications as possible?

Many Apps burn this channel for themselves (and others). Gaming apps are one of the biggest culprits of this.
1. It pisses off customers and ends up being a bad user experience. In the worst case users might delete your app, it is easier than turning off notifications
2. It becomes ineffective as users start ignoring them. Developers that send fewer notifications see higher open rates
3. Once a developer abuses this channel, it is hard to go back as users will be trained to ignore


First, maximize the number of users that turn on notifications

On iOS, users have to be prompted to turn on push notifications and if the user presses “Don’t Allow”, the app cannot prompt them again. The user would then have to go into OS level settings to turn them on (don’t expect users will do that!)

Permission popup example from twitter

Most apps make the mistake of presenting this prompt at the start of the first session. Why would a user say yes? They have not:

  1. Decided if they even like your app / get utility from it
  2. Understood the content and cadence of this channel

Some developers like to show the prompt in session 1, day 1, some on session 2, day 1 and some even beyond day 1. Even though higher up the funnel is important, it should be after the user has had an aha moment and derived value from your app.


What are some notification use cases?

1. New users (time based trigger) — that downloaded your app and did not open it or stopped early. You can send time based notifications e.g. day 3 from install if the user never opened the app. It is more effective, if the notification helps them get over a difficulty e.g. adding the first twitter friend or social proof is used e.g. Your friend Jason is online on facebook right now

2. Older users (time based trigger)— that might quit and need a little nudge e.g. users that have not returned to the app in 2 weeks

3. Engaging active users (event based trigger)— This is the most effective use, because these users care about the event and they do want communication regarding the event. As a developer you can really use this to drive healthy engagement to your app, and to even upgrade usage. You will see monthly users becoming weekly users and weekly users becoming daily users.

Best practices for effective push notifications

  1. Instant gratification — Users tend to read push notifications soon after they arrive due so if there is an instant action or result of responding changes are they will e.g. reminder notification 10 min before a meeting in a calendar app
  2. The right time — Sending notifications in the middle of the night will not be as effective and possibly annoying if a user is asleep and does not put their phone on silent
  3. The right place— Sending location aware notifications e.g. a deal for a latte when a user enters a Starbucks
  4. Social proof — Referencing the users friends in message, there is nothing like social pressure e.g. Jake & 6 other friends have commented on your photo
  5. Segment users — Figure out what notifications, different persona types of your app care about? Developers can let users define what type of notifications they care about in their apps and/or automatically determine this. An example of the latter using Linkedin could be, if a user is following President Obama and the president shares content on Linkedin, a notification could be effective
  6. Having distinct sounds with notifications for users that do not mute their devices
  7. On Android, developers can add custom images to push notifications and make them stand out from text only ones

Metrics for Success

  1. How many users turn on push notifications at the first prompt (and how this changes over time)?
  2. How many push sent and the open rate
  3. Whether an app was launched via push notification

Don’t forget to a/b test your assumptions!


Want to share your thoughts or discuss this topic in more depth? Feel free to reach out to me.