Nov 23, 2015 · 8 min read

Charting the Innovation and Growth of Mobile-First Engagement

A view from the frontlines

I’ve always thought the term “mobile marketing automation” failed to capture the full potential of the mobile opportunity. It’s a feature-focused description pointed narrowly at a business’ bottom-line. Clearly, that’s a critical area of focus, and one that Urban Airship supports and continues to innovate. But mobile marketing automation doesn’t set the right tone for the strategic focus required for success in mobile today.

I carry my smartphone to get things done, creating an experience that’s personal to me — my ultimate utility. I certainly don’t do it so a brand can market to me. Even with more passive mediums like TV and the Internet, consumers are rejecting advertising as a cost of the content, turning to DVRs, streaming services and ad blocking. The bar for what is seen as welcomed versus unwarranted is even higher on mobile.

What I really want is engagement that matters to me, delivered right when I’m ready for it. I get that by either taking the time to search for it or by being served in the moment by the apps I’ve installed.

At Urban Airship, we think “mobile engagement,” while not perfect, sets a much better strategic North Star, because it implies an active business focus to serve not just sell. True engagement implicitly requires getting to know your users too, at an individual level, so that when it does come time to sell, it will feel more like a service and increase the likelihood of purchase as well.

Since the beginning of apps and mobile engagement, Urban Airship has set the pace of innovation, providing marketers and developers the broadest set of capabilities to operationalize and integrate mobile within their workflows through our UI and real-time APIs. Customers have achieved amazing results:

  • ABC News now sees a third of all app opens resulting from notifications, many of which are personally curated through story-starring in its message center
  • The US Open achieved a 32% conversion rate on last-minute ticket offers using everything they knew about users to target the campaign — geofenced location, historical beacon proximity and in-app behaviors
  • Rhapsody and BandPage helped musicians achieve response rates 50X higher than banner ads and 10X higher than Facebook ads by using in-app behaviors to pinpoint levels of fandom and target band-specific offers

Mobile offers an unparalleled level of context and insight to engage users on what matters most to them, when and where it really counts. In fact, just last week we made major strides in unlocking the value and actionability of mobile data, with the introduction of Urban Airship Insight and with Urban Airship Connect becoming generally available. Through these two data solutions, Urban Airship will enable companies of all sizes and levels of sophistication to extract massive value from mobile data and close the insight-to-action gap by fueling user-centric actions across any channel and any business system.

Mobile is the front door to business — with app usage pegged as being 5 to 10 times higher than the web — offering the best view into what customers care about and what they are most likely to do next. In addition, users increasingly expect mobile to serve them throughout their total experience with your business. Realizing and meeting this need is only becoming more critical with mobile’s influence on offline purchases doubling annually for the past three years, and the central role mobile plays in orchestrating omnichannel experiences.

Of course, it’s not like apps are without challenges. Getting discovered is a massive one. Alex Austin wrote an excellent post on the adoption barriers in Mobile App Developers are Suffering. Even once you’ve got the download, keeping the user is the next immediate challenge; our research shows 70% will leave within 30 days if you don’t reach out and engage them. And let’s face it, not all of your customers want your app. A recent study found only 22% of grocery store shoppers with smartphones download and use grocery store apps. So, while app-in-hand customers are likely your most valuable, potentially the 20% driving 80% of your revenue (Pareto’s Principle), large swaths of your customers are left unengaged. There’s no app for that. There are however, mobile wallets that offer dynamic and sustained engagement opportunities, unleashed by a simple click to add an offer to a device.

Check out our history of industry-first innovations including mobile wallets at the end of this post.

The Push Notification Paradox

You know what other word I’ve never been fond of? Push notifications. Ugh! It sounds technical and tactical and, well … pushy. However, its sheer ubiquity and rapid assimilation into the zeitgeist (warning: pre-roll ahead) means we probably can’t change it. In fact, the humble and horribly named push notification is entrenched in the very fabric of mobile. It’s the connective tissue between the screen in our hands, the smartwatch on our wrists and the growing network of sensors all around us including, the ones in our homes, cars, neighborhoods, store aisles and countless other devices.

Perhaps what I really don’t like about the word is that it sounds like a blunt lever. Need more app engagement? Send a push. Need more sales? Send a push. Trip a geofence, send a push. Every smartphone user sees examples of bad push every day, and it’s a topic we rallied against for years.

Not every push deserves a shove. There’s a wealth of engagement opportunities that open up much broader reach, and there are potentially more appropriate formats that are helping businesses go from good push to great mobile engagement. In particular, in-app messaging and mobile wallets can offer right-sized engagement. For example, allowing users to consume rich content at their convenience with in-app message centers versus stopping them in their tracks with a notification that audibly lights up their home screen. Mobile wallet loyalty cards and coupons, just two types of wallet items, offer reach beyond those who download your app with much lower barriers to getting on the device. Wallets can also support app-like engagement, reminding users, updating wallet content with new offers and automatically displaying passes when needed.

“Push notifications” as a term is too generic and galvanizing. It sparks love/hate reactions and do-or-don’t decisions, when instead the conversation should start with how you can design engagement to streamline key user journeys and serve up exceptional customer experiences. Man … I’d love to change that word.

Of course, all of this probably appears a little disingenuous for us to complain about, given the fact that we drive mobile engagement for 4X more customers than all of our primary competitors combined. It’s exactly this market presence that offers us a great vantage point to observe trends, and we spend a lot of energy sharing our observations to help advance the industry through things like quantitative and qualitative benchmarks on opt-in rates, engagement rates and targeting improvements. Similarly, while the following charts only show push notification and message center send volumes delivered throughout our history (we offer other messaging types), it serves as a great proxy to understand how rapidly the mobile engagement opportunity is growing.

Push Notifications Sent Over Urban Airship’s History

Now that’s a hockey stick! The curve is so steep you wonder if we did anything for the first few years. When Urban Airship began in 2009, apps were in their infancy — people wondered if they’d really take hold. We ended up powering the very first commercial app to use notifications, a new capability introduced in iOS 3. It took us just over two months to send our first million notifications and just over two years to hit 5B. That grew by a factor of 20 two-and-a-half years later when we hit 100B. The next 100B took 12 months, and the 100B after that took six months. That’s some serious acceleration, and another sign of just how mainstream push notifications have become.

As more and more apps compete to gain attention with push notifications, we expect a couple of things to happen. Average notification opt-in rates will drop as users get pickier about which apps they’ll allow the privilege of reaching them directly. We saw a 2% drop from 2013 to 2014 going from an average opt-in rate of 45% to 43%. Soon, 2015’s data will be in.

We’ll also see an even greater uptick in the volume of in-app message center messages delivered, as more apps seek to actively engage the 57% of their audiences not opted in to receive notifications. It’s already happening — volumes are up 180% year-over-year — as you can see below. Some industries like retail are getting 5X more opens of in-app messages on average than the typical push notification.

Message Center Volume Ramps Up

A Couple of Changes for the Rapidly Growing Opportunity

We will continue to see more and more industries and types of buyers look to mobile engagement to solve core challenges and seize key opportunities. Mobile is powering interactions the Web never could: driving sustained interactions with customers (and other stakeholders), mobilizing business operations and building brands through exceptional customer experiences.

With an expanded portfolio and a broadening market opportunity, we’re simplifying our product naming. Our core mobile engagement platform is now Urban Airship Engage and our mobile wallet management solution is now Urban Airship Wallet.

We want it to be really simple to do business with us, from simpler naming and a more modern visual identity, to the complete services we surround you with during onboarding, ongoing management, special technical projects and strategic consulting. We even want to make it easy for you to leave us if you choose, as we’ve found multiple times that doing this makes it a lot easier for you to come back when you’re ready. Also, we’re just nice people.

Second, we’ve heard you, and we are now offering pricing transparency on our website. We still want you to engage with our account management team, who can help determine the right products and plans for your use cases, as well as offer volume discounts and special bundle pricing, but now you have a self-service starting point.

We will continue to accelerate our pace of innovation, bringing you capabilities that dramatically broaden your mobile engagement reach, like Wallet, as well as innovations that unlock new opportunities for your business, like Connect and Insight. When the mobile platforms introduce new capabilities, you can count on Urban Airship being the first to support them, helping you get to market faster with things like interactive notifications, new rich Android notification formats and smartwatch experiences.

We also remain committed to an open omnichannel approach that elevates your ability to easily and instantly act with user-level insight flowing freely between your systems, rather than walled gardens that restrict your abilities to the size of their footprint.

Come to think of it, perhaps “mobile engagement” doesn’t even cut it. After all, when every customer is mobile, mobile becomes THE customer experience — or at least the one constant in every customer relationship.

Mobile Engagement

Observations and ideas to unlock the full potential of mobile-led engagement


Written by

CEO of Urban Airship. Helping brands drive loyalty, engagement and revenue in mobile apps and beyond.

Mobile Engagement

Observations and ideas to unlock the full potential of mobile-led engagement

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