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The mobile app content ecosystem part 3: push notifications

So far in this series, we’ve covered:

Now it’s time to turn our attention to the first “P” in our handy “APPS” acronym: push notifications.

Push notifications: good or evil?

Most of us know what push notifications are. They can be useful, as in the case of Lyft telling you that your ride is arriving, or your bank telling you that your deposit posted.

Here’s an example of a notification from Life360, an app that tells me where my family members are. In this example, I can see that my husband made it home safely after picking up the kids at school. I’m happy to get these kinds of notifications.

content ecosystem push notifications blog 1 Life360 sends useful push notifications.

Unfortunately, not all push notifications are this helpful. Users didn’t enjoy this odd notification from the activity tracking app Withings, which says, “What do you think of your body?” content ecosystem push notifications blog 2 This notification from Withings isn’t quite so helpful. Source: @Babylonian on Twitter.

What makes this notification unhelpful?

  • It wasn’t targeted to the user, so it didn’t resonate with him.
  • It’s not actionable—it doesn’t entice me to read further or open the app.
  • The tone is strange. Is it a question or a veiled statement?

If push notifications can go so wrong, they might risk prompting users to uninstall the app. So we might think, “Maybe we just shouldn’t send push notifications. Wouldn’t that be less risky?”

Not quite. Recent research by Urban Airship, a push messaging platform, found that apps that don’t send any push notifications will see user retention drop to 5% in the first 90 days.

To be clear, that’s not a drop OF 5%. It’s a drop TO 5%. Yikes.

If they don’t receive push notifications, 95% of an app’s users will never return.

On the other hand, Urban Airship found that apps that did send push notifications saw retention rates up to 10 times higher than apps that didn’t send any. Clearly, while sending push notifications may pose some level of risk, not sending them poses a far greater risk.

So how do you increase retention with push notifications, while mitigating the risk of users abandoning your app due to annoying or unhelpful notifications?

It’s simple: send the good kind.

Use push notifications for good

How do you create the good kind of push notification? It starts with collaboration with your team.

Let’s get a little more specific by taking a look at two specific types of push notifications: promotional and informational.

For promotional messages, personalization is key

Promotional messages are triggered by the app, not a user action.

Prompted by a business need, apps use promotional notifications to:

  • Sell something
  • Try to get the user back into the app
  • Try to get the user to take another action that benefits the app maker

You might think this always results in a terrible experience for users—and it can, when not done well. But when done well, promotional notifications can help and even delight users.

To create useful promotional notifications, first talk to your business stakeholders — your marketing and product teams — so you really understand the business goals driving the notification. Who is the audience for the promotion? What messaging makes the most sense? What actions in the app do these stakeholders want to prompt?

In a previous blog post about the UX of push notifications, I used the example of a banking client who might want to promote a new type of savings account. The question we ask our stakeholders is: is the account meant for existing customers (who would have the bank’s app), or is it a product designed for new customers (who wouldn’t have the app)? If the answer is the latter, then it makes no sense to use a push notification to promote the new savings account product.

But sadly, gathering stakeholder input does not, in itself, guarantee helpful messaging.

To truly provide useful push notifications, you have to personalize them.

For example, Netflix does a great job noting their users’ interests and tailoring messaging to them.

content ecosystem push notifications blog 3 Netflix sent this notification about House of Cards Season 2 to a loyal viewer of that show. Source: Andrew Chen.

And Sellbrite reports on a personalized push notification that generated 9x the click-throughs of a non-personalized promotional notification.

content ecosystem push notifications blog 4 The notification that shows an item waiting in the user’s cart generated a click-through rate of 28%, compared to 3% for a generic promotional message. Source: Sellbrite.

The possibilities for personalization are myriad. Here are some ways to segment your audience, to get you started:

  • By user type (customer, prospect, loyalty club member)
  • By location
  • By the screen in your app the user last viewed
  • By most recent purchase
  • By product added to cart (but not purchased)

Informational messages: know your product map

You have to carefully craft promotional notifications to make sure they’re helpful to users. With informational notifications, it’s a little easier.

That’s because, since informational notifications are triggered by a user’s action, by definition these messages tend to be more timely and relevant to the user.

When I ask folks about their favorite push notifications, in most cases they’re super-helpful messages like:

  • “Your ride is arriving”
  • “Your deposit just posted”
  • “Your child arrived home from school”

content ecosystem push notifications blog 5 Prompted by a combination of user behavior and real-world information, Waze messaged this user with an update about his commute. Source: Andrew Chen.

So how do you identify which events should trigger a transactional notification? Talk to your design or user experience team, who should know what events in the app should trigger a message.

At WillowTree, our design team creates product maps for our apps. Ever heard of a sitemap for a website? A product map is essentially the same thing, but for an app. The product map can tell you what screens exist in your app, and how they relate to each other.

content ecosystem push notifications blog 6 Partial view of a product map our design team created for a client.

You have to have a product map in order to know which app screens your notification will drive traffic to.

To return to the banking example, we could create a notification that tells a user their certificate of deposit is maturing, prompting them to renew it. But if the app has no screen for renewing a CD, we need to adjust the call to action—or probably more likely, prompt them to contact the bank in a different way, such as email.

All notifications should follow voice and tone guidelines

When it comes time to write your notifications, don’t neglect to follow your company’s overarching content strategy. Make sure to reference your voice and tone guidelines. And if you don’t have voice and tone guidelines, there’s no time like the present to create them!

In her book Content Strategy at Work, Margot Bloomstein describes how to develop a messaging architecture for your organization. You can use it to document whether your tone is friendly or formal, conservative or irreverent, for example.

Not following your voice and tone guidelines can lead to some unhelpful (at best) or embarrassing (at worst) messaging.

content ecosystem push notifications blog 7 A customer interested in home improvement received this SMS message, which he found a bit unsuitable because it didn’t match the sending company’s brand.

Above all, respect the user

As I mentioned in a previous post, I highly recommend letting users turn off push notifications from inside the app.

Yes, this means that customers will have the ability to disable your push notifications. Don’t let that scare you—you’d rather have them do that than uninstall your app altogether.

Here’s an example of what a simple preference center might look like for a bank. Divide notifications into types, and give the users some level of control over the messaging they receive.

content ecosystem push notifications blog 8 For a banking app, we might allow users to enable or disable push notifications in three groups: Account Notifications, Product Promotions, and Tips & Tutorials.

Allowing users this level of control to disable push notifications means that a user who wants to engage with your brand but only wants certain types of notifications isn’t left with no alternative but to either turn off push notifications at the OS level, or uninstall the app completely.

Bonus: Get attention with rich push notifications

Last year, Apple announced that iOS had added the ability for apps to send “rich push notifications” containing images and video (And soon after, WillowTree’s Will Ellis detailed the process for sending these notifications.)

For its part, while Android has long allowed developers to send images in push notifications, it has not yet added video capability.

To make a splash and get users’ attention, think about helpful ways you could use video and images in push. If you’re creating a banking app, rich push notifications might not make much sense. But if you’re a media or entertainment company, it might be the perfect way to entertain and inform users.

Embedded content: An entertainment company could put video in push notifications, to help drive engagement with its app. (Source: Pulsate)

Here are the formats that iOS and Android currently support, aside from text. (Source: Urban Airship.)


  • Video
  • Audio
  • Animated GIF
  • Images


  • Images

The Urban Airship article about rich push includes more helpful tips, like how to include a thumbnail image in your video notification, so that users who can’t see the video will have something to fall back on.

Thoughtfully considering how push notifications would best fit into your user experience is key to an effective mobile app content strategy.

In the next post in this series, we’ll address the second “P” of “APPS”: product content.

Editor’s note: This blog post is the third in a series about the mobile app content ecosystem:

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