9 Rules for Sending Good Breaking News Push Alerts

Part of my job at the digital arm of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is to send breaking news push alerts to the ABC’s app. Every time I do so, Flurry analytics show me the expected spikes in sessions and active users (especially on Android, where the chart shows a vertical leap in response to each alert).

That can make it tempting to send more and more and MORE alerts, with my itchy trigger finger hovering over the BIG BUTTON in search of any alert-able news. But constant interruptions would risk betraying the trust of those users who invited us onto their phones — something they might never forgive us for.

With that in mind, I developed ABC News’s 9 Rules for Sending Good Alerts.

1: This is only for big breaking news

· We won’t send app alerts for every story that warrants a breaking news strap on our website, or every newsflash on the international wires, or every live news conference on our 24-hour news channel. There are several of those every day, and if we started sending several alerts a day then our users would soon be throwing their phones off a bridge, or — even worse — uninstalling our app

· TEST: Would you tap someone on the shoulder to tell them this news? Would you text someone to tell them straight away? If not, the news probably isn’t alert-worthy

· TIE-BREAKER: If it’s genuinely line-ball and the seconds are ticking away, consider this: the alert will appear on a personal device. What is the personal impact or emotional connection this story provides?

ABC app alert for the siege in Sydney’s CBD in December, 2014

2: Don’t send the alert until an article page has been published

· That should be within a minute or two. Don’t worry about racing Twitter; this service is for people who aren’t already looking at a screen

· Waiting that extra time will give users somewhere to go for more information if they tap on the alert, which is more useful. And you can use that sliver of extra time to work on perfecting the alert text.

3: Get the most important bit at the front

· Different operating systems can truncate the alert text after as few as 40 characters. Frontload the text so that every user sees something meaningful and understands instantly why we’re intruding on their device.

· Don’t waste precious characters by putting “BREAKING:” at the start of the alert — if it wasn’t “BREAKING” we wouldn’t be sending it at all.

4: Users CAN tap for more, but they shouldn’t NEED to

· Even in a developing story where details are limited, we should give enough information in the alert so that users know what just happened without needing to read the article

· This is about saving people time and effort — even the time and effort of tapping for a full story. (But if they want to read more, Rule 2 means we have them covered)

It’s also noteworthy that news orgs are prepared to send alerts several minutes after news has broken.

5: You only get one shot, so make sure it’s right

· We’ll need to send a separate alert to correct any mistakes

· Be warned: you’ll never have as little confidence in your spelling as when you hover over the “submit” button on a push alert

6: Send the most definitive line you have

· In general, we don’t want to send an alert for “reports” something has happened. See rule 5 — do you really want to have to send another alert to say you were wrong?

· TEST: Would you tap someone on the shoulder to tell them something might have just happened?

7: Only use a picture if it is part of the breaking news event

· No generic photos. Assume everyone already knows what police tape looks like

8: No sport

· The clear feedback from our testing was that users resented receiving notifications about sport, or sportsmen

· We do make exceptions to this rule — eg for Australia winning the Cricket World Cup

· TEST: Someone wins Wimbledon every year…was this match special even to non-fans?

9: No wake-up calls

· If you’re going to wake someone up with a news alert, it had better be for something like “Hey, your house is on fire!” Almost everything else can wait.

The single goal for all these rules is to provide the most valuable service to users. We’ll review them, refine them, and in some cases retire them as the service evolves.

In the near-future we’ll be looking at ways to increase the levels of personalisation, immediacy and relevance of our alerts, as well as expanding into new devices.

But whatever new directions we head in, our ambition will remain the same: when you see the ABC logo appear on your phone, you’ll know it’s something worth your time.