The Right Way To Send Push Notifications| By |Tom Farrell

Last week I wrote about the need to be skeptical about some of the wilder claims concerning success in push campaigns. You know the sort of thing: “this one secret trick will increase your engagement rates by over 70%”. I’m not necessarily saying there is no value in some of these approaches, but I firmly believe success is usually driven by the more fundamental design decisions within any given campaign.

In my previous post I spoke about relevancy, and for me that serves as a reminder that ultimately push campaigns are about communication, about conversation – about talking to individuals. Technology is rarely the reason that a conversation is more helpful, persuasive or effective. Instead, it is understanding the other party, saying the right thing, and saying it at the right time that makes all the difference.

With that in mind, I’d like to propose a few general principles that you might want to follow when building push notification campaigns. As I say – these are principles. This is not a random assortment of techniques (“use the word “you” in the text!”, “keep messages to 100 characters or less”, “wait seven days before sending a reactivation push campaign!”) but instead a way to find the right path for your business, and the best way to communicate and build relationships with your customers.

I hope you find these ideas useful. Many of them are not new, but then re-inventing the wheel is not the point. Rather we are reminding marketers seduced by technology what the wheel looks like!

Rules For Successful Push Notification Campaigns

1. Maximize Push Opt-In Rates

This might sound obvious, but in the digital age if you want to speak to someone, you need their permission first. In the world of push, that isn’t necessarily easy. The user has to make an active choice to accept notifications, and with many marketers using push to send unfocused and unhelpful messages, the default answer is often “no”. With only a limited number of opportunities to ask for these permissions, it doesn’t take much for that response to become permanent.

That’s almost certainly why push opt-in rates often hover around or below the 50% range – which means you’re already cutting your potential audience in half and severely limiting the potential of the campaigns and messages you create.

The main cause of poor opt-in rates? Asking for permissions using a default dialogue and at the default time (usually when the app is first opened). There’s two things wrong with that approach. Firstly, a default opt-in request offers no indication of why the user might want to receive push notifications. And second, asking for permissions straight up, before a user has any sense of what the app involves, or what notifications it might be sending, is asking to be refused.

But of course to look on the bright side, it is relatively straightforward to fix these issues. Here’s how:

  • Give users a little time before asking for opt-in. This is, of course, something of a balancing act. On the one hand, you will want to ask for permissions as early as possible, before you start losing users. On the other – right at the start of the app experience is almost always the wrong time. This is something to test, but the principle should be that permissions are requested when the user has a decent feel for the app and some understanding of how push notifications might be used.
  • Use a two-step process when asking for permissions. Rather than rely on a default messages, show an in-app campaign to relevant users that explains how notifications are used and clearly states the benefit to the user. In a media app, as shown, it might be to stay on top of breaking news. In financial services, it could be to deliver balance alerts. When users are confident that notifications are helpful and relevant, they are far more likely to opt-in to receive them.

Push Notification Opt-In Campaign

2. Target Your Push Campaigns

This comes back to relevance. The closer a push campaign gets to spam, the less effective it becomes. Untargeted campaigns to millions of users, that are potentially relevant to none of them, aren’t just ineffective – they are actively inviting your user base to delete the app (lets put aside the fantasy that these users will diligently turn off push in their settings, because that isn’t what happens).

At the heart of relevance is targeting. It’s about ensuring that you use the fantastic data – from multiple channels and sources – that is at your disposal. And by doing so, deliver messages that mean something to the recipient, and are effective as a result.

It’s understandable that marketers want to send messages to lots of people. That’s what we do. We like activity and it is very hard to break the belief that more messages to more people equals more effectiveness. But other than in very specific circumstances, if you’re sending a message to the entirety of your user base, something has almost certainly gone wrong.

Let’s take one obvious example. Imagine the mobile app of a news channel. Perhaps they would feel that any user of that app who has opted in to push notifications should receive breaking new alerts? Well, maybe. But what if this specific alert relates to sports – and the user has never visited the sports section despite having spent over 2 hours in the app? What if it promotes a story the user has already seen? What if it’s the middle of the night local time and the user has never used the app at this time?

If you’re not asking these questions (and many others like them) and creating more sophisticated segmentation based on the answers, you may very well be in spam territory. That’s going to kill the effectiveness of your campaigns, but as we’ve noted earlier, the consequences can get significantly worse that that…

It’s also important to remember that targeting is an active, real-time activity, that can take into account data from multiple sources. Another example from the not-too-distant future: if you’re a cab-hailing app then it’s possible to know that a) it is raining and b) that your user is at home with a restaurant booking in twenty minutes time.

That knowledge isn’t based on the slow-moving process of creating customer ‘segments’ and campaigns addressed to them, but rather on the real-time handling of data with the intention of making push notifications – like a simple “need a cab?” – appear at just the right time.

3. Don’t Forget A/B Testing

Push notifications – even interactive push notifications – don’t have a huge amount of space to get their message across. And if that content isn’t compelling, the user won’t click and the opportunity to engage has been lost. On that basis, ensuring that your content is just right is incredibly important.

Unfortunately, content is probably the focus of more misguided advice than any other area in mobile marketing. The market is flooded with well-meaning recommendations for increasing engagement rates. We noted these above: ‘use images’, ‘use emoticons’, ‘always personalize’ etc. In many cases these techniques certainly can work. But there is frequently a sense that many of these recommendations prioritize what is possible over what is desirable. Remember ‘splash screens’ on corporate websites? That’s what I’m talking about.

So if random ‘facts’ aren’t the answer, what’s the smartest way to deliver compelling content that gets the job done, and gets the user from an initial glance to active engagement? A/B testing.

A/B Testing Of Interactive Push Notifications

A/B testing interactive notifications like these can help any business make the right content decisions

Organizations often have problems with creativity (and creative people – I can say that because in my more poetical moments I fancy myself to be one). Whether a push notification, for example, is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is a matter of opinion, after all. But in another sense, it isn’t. ‘Good’ can be defined by answering the simple question:

“does it deliver on my business objectives?”

Seen in that light, whether the highest-paid-person likes it is irrelevant. Competing content is simply tested against real user data with the ‘winner’ being the message that works most effectively.

One important caveat, and one I alluded to in my post last week: remember to measure effectiveness using the metrics that really matter to you. Click-thru rate, for example, is a poor metric unless all you care about is page views within the app. Instead, take the time to run content A/B tests that measure success against the ongoing engagement, retention, and revenue associated with each audience.

And as a last note, when looking at metrics do make sure to do so for the entire audience that saw the notification – not only those that clicked it. There is a ‘halo effect’ associated with push notifications and they can influence these metrics even when they haven’t been clicked.

4. Think About What Happens Next

A push notification campaign is only an invitation to a particular experience. In very few cases is clicking on the notification an end in itself (if it is, you are probably using the wrong success metrics). Given this is the case, it is vitally important to optimize what happens next, and ensure the notification itself is well integrated with that experience.

Too many push notifications engage the user, deliver the all important click… and then dump that same user straight back to the ‘home screen’ of the app. At this point they can be forgiven for wondering what happened to the fantastic offer or content they were told about moments ago. The trail then goes cold as the user struggles to find precisely the incentive that led them back to the app in the first place.

As a result what may on face value look like a superficial success – remembering what we said about click-thru rates – is anything but. However, it’s easy to make sure this doesn’t happen to your push campaigns: simply ensure that a click deposits the user in a meaningful place in the app that maintains the ‘context’ of the initial message. In other words – create integrated mobile marketing campaigns.

To give the most obvious example, a push notification prompting a particular purchase should aim to lead the user right to the store, and indeed the item, that has been offered for sale – as shown below. Even better, the content should be changed to remind the user of the specific offer they responded to and keep the trail warm.

Push notification linking to rich content within the app

To do that, of course, you’ll probably need to be able to edit the in-app experience dynamically in order to construct and deploy the relevant content without requiring app-store approval (that process being far too time-consuming to support rapidly deployed campaigns). This requirement does mean that effective deep linking isn’t just about entering a link – but with the right platform in place, it is more than feasible.

A further alternative is to create in-app messages or campaigns (think pop-up screens) that trigger as soon as the app opens in response to the specific click in the notification. In this instance, highly targeted messages can be created that continue the user on their journey and – more importantly – help ensure the user gets to the end goal that really matters to you. Simple.

5. Ensure Push Is Part Of A Multi-Channel Marketing Strategy

It is a commonplace observation, but it is nonetheless true. The man or woman in the street interacts with a ‘company’ or brand, not an app or a website. Although push notifications can of course be effective in mobile-first or indeed mobile-only businesses, for those operating in multiple channels then push should exist as just one aspect of an integrated multi-channel strategy.

What does that mean in practice? Well, to give an obvious example, it means that if a push notification is intended to remind a shopper that they have left something in their cart on mobile, make damn sure they haven’t already completed the purchase on the website. So multi-channel marketing starts with sharing data, and sharing it in real-time, across desktop, mobile, back-end systems and indeed bricks-and-mortar branches.

In push terms, it also means:

  • Considering which channel is most appropriate for any given communication at any given time, and
  • Making use of push based on non-mobile events, and even when driving non-mobile outcomes

Let’s take those two ideas in turn and briefly expand on each of them. Push is, of course, just one way of speaking to your customers. There are others: email, SMS, above-the-line advertising, even a good old-fashioned voice call. Many modern 360° marketing campaigns make use of all these channels in some way.

Perhaps more importantly, in any given tactical situation, one may be more effective than the other. If a particular customer consistently ignores push, and opens email, then learn from that and speak to them via the channel that works for them. And of course in the same way, if email isn’t working, use push as a fall back – but be led by your customers themselves

The second case makes use of the fact that the mobile phone is a personal device. We carry it with us everywhere we go, and as a result it is a channel that enables communication based on time and location, in addition to what we already know about any given individual. That in turn makes it a great way to talk to users – even about things not strictly related to mobile.

Let’s imagine a user who has visited a bank branch. As part of a customer service initiative we want to collect feedback on their experience. With mobile, we can deliver a push notification inviting that user to a simple mobile-native survey experience. We get live, in-the moment (and hence accurate) feedback, all by using push, even though the interaction itself was not on mobile. The possibilities of this type of ‘geofence marketing’ are legion – and the results are engagement rates that put more traditional channels to shame.

A Location-based Push Campaign

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