Before online marketing was a profession, people didn’t need spam blockers, there was no blackhole list, and CAN-SPAM literally meant a can of Spam. Today, we just accept spam as a part of email and bad email campaigns tend to see open rates of less than 3%. Fortunately, apps have brought us new engagement channels, such as push and in-app messaging, which free us from the evil of spammy, untargeted, impersonal marketing. Unfortunately, many people simply think of these channels as mobile extensions of web messaging, which creates poor engagement and will ultimately condemn them to junk mail’s notoriety.

Bad marketing gave email a bad reputation, and made it harder for the rest of us to get the most out of this channel. Please, help me save push and in-app messaging from this fate.

Push Is Not Email

“Check out today’s deals!”
“Don’t miss today’s news stories!”
“We miss you, come back!”

We’ve all received these pushes. A fun experiment is to install many apps on a phone you don’t use and let it sit. You haven’t engaged with these apps so they have not had an opportunity to build a profile about you and therefore, most of the messages you will receive will be like those above: impersonal emails, bordering on spam, that have been shrunk to fit into a push message. Of course, there are some exceptions, but by and large apps that send push messages to everybody like this are missing the point.

What Push Is

Push is a direct line of communication from an app to a customer. They arrive on the customer’s phone in real time. They compete for attention with every other app that is sending messages. And because interacting with these messages brings the user back into the app, push notifications compete for attention with whatever task the user is already performing. A good analogy is to think of push as a text message from the app to the customer.

The Best Push Messages

Great push messages are an extension of the app experience outside the app. It should be difficult to tell if the message is a marketing outreach or the app simply doing its job. Consider a message from a taxi app notifying you the car is one minute away. This is personal – it relates to your car. It is actionable – you will walk outside. It is a quick interaction – you don’t even need to launch the app to get value. It is worth the interruption – you don’t want to miss your car.

Signs That Your Push Messages May Actually Be Bad Emails

Given the real-time, personal nature of push, it is important to send relevant and actionable messages. Below, are some common patterns that tend to indicate this isn’t happening.

  • Your audiences are very large. Large audiences are usually indicative of poor targeting. If this message is relevant to everybody, then most likely it is too general.
  • You are worried about the optimal time to send. Push messages should be part of a real-time interaction. The correct time to send the push should be right now (or as soon as a person takes an important action). If the message can be delayed then is it actually adding value?
  • Your messages are not deep links. A push message should have an action that can be taken and swiping on the push should bring the user to that action. Without a clear action, such as replying to a message or adjusting a bid, what purpose does bringing the user to the application actually serve?
  • Your messages are not based on user actions. If app usage is not part of your segmentation and targeting, then how do you ensure that heavy users get a different message from users who are likely to churn?
  • Your personalization is “Hi FirstName.” Your users will show their preferences based on how they use the app. If a user consumes certain content, they most likely want to receive more messages about this content. This is personalization.
  • Campaign success is ‘engagement.’ If your goal is simply to get users into the app then a push message to the effect of, “I have kidnapped your family, open me to get them back,” will likely drive a lot of session starts, but you can imagine the impact it will have on churn. While not so dramatic, driving users to an app without a clear goal often has the same result. If the user intended to use your app, they would already be doing it – so don’t drive them to the app just to have them leave again.

Push messages provide a chance to build a relationship with a customer. Every push should be considered not as an individual campaign, but as one of many interactions with your customer. Does your next push message make the customer’s use of your app more personal and efficient or, will it drive opt outs and uninstalls?

In-App Messages Are Not Mobile Pop-ups

Unlike push, in-app messages are only received when a user is in your app. This means they have already committed to engaging, but rather than reward them with a personal, bi-directional experience, they are often presented with static images on landing pages and banners that feel like the pop-ups (which browsers automatically block for us on the web).

Why In-App Messaging Has Such Potential

In-app is more than just messaging. Pop-ups with text and images are not in-app messages. Instead, in-app messages are a native part of the app experience and they should take advantage of:

  • Targeting – In-app messages benefit from the same segmentation that push can benefit from, making it possible to target new users or churn-risk users differently from power users.
  • Context – In-app messages can be triggered based on actions users perform in the app. Because this happens immediately, they can be a direct response to what the user is currently doing thus creating a very relevant experience.
  • Two-Way Communication – In-app messages are a great opportunity to get information from the user, such as feedback or preferences, which can be transmitted to the app for immediate use.
  • Testability – In-app messages can be changed very quickly, making it possible to test new experiences on small audiences with quick revisions to create the best end result.
  • Engagement – In-app messages usually happen in webviews which have access to HTML and Javascript. This makes it possible for them to be interactive and engaging with videos, navigation and tie-ins back to the app.

Examples Of Good In-App Messages

The following are examples of in-app messages which can improve the user’s experience and create value. All of these are done using HTML and Javascript and are sent as in-app messages, which means they do not require launching a new version of the app:


  • NPS Surveys – This is a great way to get quick feedback that can improve the product, as well as react in real-time by providing users with a response based on their score.


  • New Feature – While the content is simple, the magic here is in targeting. Users who have not interacted with a feature can be shown a video with a deep link to that feature.


  • Push Opt-in – Once a user opts out of push, they are likely never to opt back in. So before prompting them with a push opt-in request, use an in-app message to explain how push will be used. For users who have opted out, in-app messages are a great way to remind them of the value of push notifications that they are missing out on.


  • Testing OOBE – Getting the out-of-box experience (OOBE) right is critical. You can use in-app messaging to deliver very different initial experiences to samples of new customers to inform this process.


  • Testing Recommendations – Personalization is a great goal, but most people are not sure how to achieve it. Using in-app to test recommendations on different customers is a great way to foray into this space.


  • Short-lived Content – If a weekend event is happening in a user’s area, users can be shown live coverage of the event even if the app doesn’t natively support this behavior.

Just like push is an extension of the app experience out of the app, in-app messaging is an extension within the app. If you use this for simple text strings and popups, then users will learn to ignore them. Real value is created when the user is more successful because of the interaction they had with your message.

Understand Your Channels

There are some other clever ways to engage users, such as with remarketing, but today, the most popular app channels are push and in-app messaging. With these and all future channels, the trick will always be to think of each channel’s capabilities and strengths independently. Instead of asking how to adapt your current engagement strategy to a new channel, instead ask what the channel is capable of and what the user’s expectations are.

At the end of the day, the user installed your app for a purpose – how does this channel better achieve that purpose and how does this channel fit into their journey with your brand?

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