Push Notifications – A Short History

It may come as a surprise to some that the push notification as we know it has existed for less than 10 years. But that short span of time, actually more like 8 years and indeed less in terms of broad adoption, has seen some huge changes. From the early days of text only messages asking users to perform the most simple of tasks (“come back”) we’re now in a world of interactive notifications managing a whole plethora of operational and promotional communications.

But whilst it might feel like we’ve come a long way, the vast majority of today’s push campaigns are still in the marketing dark ages. Specifically, you might say that we are still in the ‘novelty age’, in which the ability to do something sometimes overrides considerations about how effective or meaningful that activity is. As a result, many organizations have forgotten what good marketing practice looks like in their desire to adopt the latest and greatest features and possibilities available to them.

At the same time, a whole library of supposedly helpful advice on the characteristics of successful push notifications has emerged. We’ve been as guilty as anyone else. Practitioners are asked to believe that simply by adding emoticons to a message, or experimenting with custom tones (just two examples, there are countless others) we can see ‘engagement rates’ soar by 70, 80, 90% or so. How exciting is that!

So what’s the problem?

Dial Up The Skepticism

As marketers, and indeed as human beings, sometimes it pays to take a step back and apply some common sense to these claims. To take the emoticons example, is it really credible that adding these icons to our push notifications will lead to long-term uplifts in the metrics that actually matter to our business? I doubt it, or at least I suspect any gains will be marginal.

That isn’t to say that emoticons aren’t a great way to communicate with users. In many cases they are just what the doctor ordered, and it’s certainly worth experimenting with their use, as you would with any other form of content. But we should always remember that in many cases novelty itself is what drives any temporary uptick. To focus on a specific ‘feature’ like this is to miss the point. Ultimately, push notifications are a form of communication. They are a way to talk to customers, users: people. And when it comes to talking to people, the right approach hasn’t changed in over a thousand years and it won’t change just because a pioneering software vendor claims otherwise.

What matters is relevance.

The Importance Of Relevance To Push Notifications

As I have noted before, the mobile phone represents both a fantastic opportunity and an awesome responsibility for marketers. Yes, the ability to ‘tap a billion people on the shoulder’ is the type of reach and power most marketers dream of. But people who tap others on the shoulder one two many times are liable to get a punch in the face. The penalty for sending too many poorly judged notifications isn’t just being ignored – it’s more terminal than that. In most cases it is a deleted app.

So relevance is perhaps more important than ever, but it has always been at the heart of effective marketing. We are still talking to people, and attempting to influence their behaviour. And the same rules apply as always did, namely:

  • Learn from behavior and tailor messages accordingly
  • Ask yourself if this particular user would really benefit from this particular campaign
  • Deliver your message at the right time, and when the user is most likely to find it useful
  • Check how the user responds and learn from that response

We do this every day when we communicate with friends, family and colleagues. And it is the approach that we should aspire to as marketers. With the advent of mobile, we truly have the data to make this approach possible, and next week I will expand on these points with some practical examples and suggestions for the creation of truly great push campaigns. But first – that one metric that it’s time to put out to pasture.

Placing your right hand on your heart, please repeat after me:

I Shall Never Use “Click-Thru” Rate To Measure Push Campaigns Again

Let us remind ourselves of that wonderful metaphor for the push notification: the ‘tap on the shoulder’. Now I am pretty confident I can get anyone to turn around when I tap them on the shoulder. I am also confident that what I say next makes all the difference to my future relationship with that individual. Or even whether a future relationship exists at all.

Still think click-through rates are the right way to measure your push campaigns?

To spell it out – any fool can get attention. It’s what happens next that counts. The correct way to measure push campaigns is against the action you want the user to take – whether that’s the purchase of a particular item, registering for a specific service, or simply spending more time in the app in future. It’s not hard to turn over a new leaf and start measuring what counts. Your campaigns will be all the better for it.