Optimizing notifications in games

Doing more with less — how to use fewer notifications and improve the performance of your game

Ryan Richmond
Aug 15, 2018 · 8 min read

Push notifications today have become an integral part of a mobile game’s user engagement strategy. They have exploded in popularity as they are an effective way to reach your active and lapsed user base with updates on new content, live ops, and other in-game events. This makes them uniquely valuable to assist you, as a developer, in both retaining and engaging your players. Given their effectiveness, it is essential that you use this tool responsibly and effectively to help drive strong performance in your games.

During my time in the games industry, I’ve been able to see how notifications are designed from the ground up and used in a variety of mobile games. At Google Play, I’ve had the opportunity to look at platform wide notifications data and have been able to both confirm and disprove some commonly held beliefs around push notifications. In this post, I’m going to share with you the most impactful learnings from my analysis and will suggest a few best practices to help you make the most of your push notifications.

Before I go any further, I want to note that I’ll be talking about general trends among all games on Google Play and some of these may not directly apply to your individual games. I would recommend that you conduct A/B testing to confirm that any changes will benefit your game before a global rollout of any of these changes.

Using push notifications well: a definition

It’s a common perception that games using push notifications well enjoy higher retention and engagement rates. The challenge here is that what constitutes “using push notifications well” does not have a common, agreed upon definition. So, let’s look at my high-level definition:

Using push notifications well means improving your title’s performance by notifying your users with relevant content that they will find useful. Titles with notifications of this type will have higher interaction rates with their notifications.

While this definition is relatively simple it provides a clear and useful metric: the percentage of push notifications interacted with by expanding the notification details or opening the app through the notification. This is the metric that I’ve used to measure which games have the highest performing notifications. One thing to note is that this definition is, admittedly, very game-centric and may not be applicable to other types of apps. For example, weather apps can typically deliver all of the value of their notification without requiring people to interact with the notification via expanding or opening the app through the notification.

The goal of push notifications ideally is to communicate the right things at the right times to your audience. If someone decides not to interact with a notification it could be an indication that either the content or the timing was not right. Therefore, these notifications may not be providing meaningful value to your game’s players and should either be limited or revamped. The remainder of this article will highlight the impact of following these guidelines.

The impact of using notifications well

My goal for this analysis was to show the impact of using notifications well. I first looked at correlation trends between the percentage of notifications that were interacted with and standard install retention on days 1–28 across games on Play. You can see below, there is a noticeable positive correlation between titles with high interaction rates on their notifications and retention on days 1–28. This correlation also grows stronger as you compare interaction rates with even longer-term retention.

I also looked into the correlation trends between interacted push notifications and the return rate of the entire daily active user (DAU) base for top games on Play to gauge notification impact on engagement. This metric is called DAU return rate and it tells you the percentage of yesterday’s DAU that played again today. High DAU return rates indicate that your users are interacting with your game and enjoying its content every day. As you can see, games that use notifications well also enjoy a positive correlation with DAU return rates.

High % of notifications that are interacted with drive stronger DAU returns

If you’d like to learn more about why DAU return rate is a powerful KPI, take a look at Adam Carpenter’s post Why focusing on tomorrow brings back players in the long run.

When push notifications go bad

Effective push notifications can provide immense value to your players, ultimately helping your game’s performance. Unfortunately, not all notifications will be useful to them, and this can cause friction. One of the most obvious ways this friction is seen is through high notification opt-out rates. While there are a lot of factors that can lead to a player deciding to opt-out of notifications, one of the most obvious, straightforward reasons is that the player feels overwhelmed with notifications. The chart below on the left shows that sending more daily notifications is correlated with higher opt-out rates for games. Therefore, developers may want to review each additional notification that they send their players and consider removing notifications that have lower interaction rates from their games.

However, what is really interesting is that the increased volume of daily notifications is also negatively correlated with Day 1 install retention. This indicates that, as developers, you may have a lot to gain by reducing the number of notifications that you send your players, especially in the early user experience.

Android has always provided people with friendly features to manage notifications, such as grouped notifications; We are taking these friendly features even further in Android P. In Android P, viewing how many notifications each application sends and managing which applications have permissions to send push notifications will be 1-click away from every notification (Callout #1 below). People who click on “Manage notifications” will be brought to a new screen where they can switch (Callout #2) between showing the applications responsible for the most recent notification or the applications responsible for sending the most notifications. Each screen presents a toggle (Callout #3) for each application which allows a person to opt-out of notifications for any application of their choosing.

Additionally, detailed information (Callout #4) regarding each application’s position on the screen is shown to give them more details about that application’s push notification patterns. It is our hope that by surfacing this information to Android users, they will become more aware of where their time is being spent, and understand which applications are sending an excessive number of notifications. Consequently, I expect titles with an unreasonable number of push notifications to experience higher opt-out rates once Android P roles out to their users. Developers should prepare for this by becoming more mindful of their users’ time, working to ensure that they are not overwhelming them with generic, low value push notifications, and by exploring the best practices laid out in the next section.

Best practices for push notifications

So, how can you improve your use of notifications and offer your players the best experience possible, while also improving your KPIs? When working with developers, I recommend the application of these best practices:

  • Review your game’s current notifications. Do this by looking for those that are no longer useful or not performing well. Remember, it’s about sending notifications that people value not about simply sending more notifications.
  • Continually test the effectiveness of your notifications. Competition in the mobile world is increasing and it’s no longer acceptable to leave old notifications in place just because they were successful in the past. As with all things you do as a developer you should be constantly iterating and trying to improve your notifications.
  • Create/update your push notifications strategy. Think carefully about the notifications that your game uses by following your game’s strategy whether that be retention, engagement, or re-activation.
  • Empower users with Notification Channels, which are a requirement for notifications in Android O. Giving your users the choice about what kinds of notifications they receive not only builds goodwill but also enables users to segment themselves for you. Both of these factors will potentially reduce the risk of them opting out. If you’re interested in learning more about the benefits and strategies of user segmentation take a look at Alyssa Perez’s article: User segmentation approaches for games.

There are a multitude of factors that go into making a game, and a plethora of factors that go into designing a successful notification strategy for a game. As developers in a competitive landscape it is no longer acceptable to design push notifications around gut instincts and intuition. It is my hope that this data exploration will prove useful in helping you understand the importance of using notifications well and the consequences of push notification overuse. By following the best practices I’ve shared in this article, along with consistent testing and iteration, you will hopefully be well on your way to improving your game’s performance through better notifications.

What do you think?

Do you have thoughts on notifications and engagement strategies? Let us know in the comments below or tweet using #AskPlayDev and we’ll reply from @GooglePlayDev, where we regularly share news and tips on how to be successful on Google Play.

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