10
min read
November 21, 2022

Push Notifications: What you need to know and how to use them effectively

In theory, push notifications are really quite simple: they are messages that are sent from apps to their users, that appear on the screen of the user's smartphone. In the U.S., smartphone owners receive an average of 46 push notifications per day from the apps that they have downloaded on their device. Pushes can increase in-app engagement by up to 88%, while 65% of users will return to the app within 30 days if notifications are turned on. 

In order to use push notifications effectively, it is essential to understand which types of pushes exist, what the difference between them is, and how to use them correctly.

Push notifications can be divided into several main categories depending on who receives them, who is sending them, and why. Let's look at the three main ones: transactional, informational and marketing pushes. 

Transactional 

Transactional pushes are sent to users automatically as a result of their actions or interactions with the product, these are known as triggers. They are complementary to in-app sessions and deliver content to users that does not appear in the interface, but is closely related to it. 

Examples: 
  • User X enters card details into a payment system and receives a notification with a code. 
  • X buys an item with his card and receives a push notification informing him that he has been charged the order amount.
  • X orders food delivery and receives a push notifying him that the courier is on the way.
  • X instructs a character in a game app to collect gold within 24 hours, and is notified a day later that the task has been completed. 

Simply put, transactional pushes inform (e.g., notify the user about their payment, or that an online store accepted their order) or require actions online/offline (to enter a code to pay for the order, to meet the courier, etc.). Their format is standardized: for example, a debit message will always contain information about order amount and money recipient. 

Informational

These pushes are generally sent manually, meaning that they are delivered to customers regardless of their actions or interactions with the product. Typically, informational push notifications are used to communicate a significant change within the product, and are sent to the entire audience, or to large segments of the audience with broad targeting (e.g., all spanish  users of the app). Informational push notifications should only be used to communicate significant events, in order to mitigate user churn due to receiving irrelevant or intrusive information.

Examples: 
  • A company releases a brand new version of its app or makes a global product redesign and notifies subscribers about it.
  • A company has changed its monetization model or rates and tells users about it. 
  • A gaming app informs all of its subscribers that the game has been updated, new maps have been added, and characters' abilities have changed.
  • An app informs its audience from the U.S. about the launch of a new community for U.S. users.

Transactional and informational push notifications have something in common: they are sent without targeting narrow segments, are used primarily by product teams, and affect product metrics. For example, a transactional notification could communicate the conversion of a payment request to a successful payment. Whereas an informational notification could communicate with the percentage of users using new or changed functionality in an updated version of an application. 

Marketing

Marketing or Adhoc push notifications are used for in-app promotional activities. They deliver specific marketing messages to the audience, encouraging them to try the advertised functionality. 

Examples: 
  • A foodtech app sends its users information about discounts on specific product groups. 
  • A banking app notifies its customers that there are new categories for cashback. 
  • A gaming app informs its users that in-game item chests have become cheaper.

Marketing push notifications usually do not have a standardized format. Some companies send discount notifications with promo codes and emojis, others detail the terms of promotions or, on the contrary, limit themselves to basic information. Some businesses prefer rich content and upload photos of marketing creatives to notifications.

The effectiveness of marketing pushes is measured by business metrics rather than product metrics. Marketing push notifications drive traffic to apps and trigger customer actions that lead to either immediate purchases or increased engagement and funnel progression. 

Marketing pushes can either be triggered or sent manually. Today, most apps use manual sending and miss the opportunity to be more effective through precise trigger-based targeting. Marketers generally self-select audiences for targeting, and as a result, typically overlap these audiences and duplicate the communication received. The low relevance of these notifications reduces their user engagement, and diminishes future metrics. Operating systems may even reject future pushes from the same app.

Now let's take a look at the other types of pushes to see how they relate to the previous ones. 

Geolocation

Geo-targeted push notifications are the most complex when it comes to communication with users for informational and marketing purposes. They imply using different methods (Bluetooth beacons, MAC addresses, SDKs inside mobile applications, WiFi networks) to track clients movements and send them relevant notifications at the right moment.

Examples:
  • User X goes to a grocery store and receives a push notification about discounts within that store.
  • User Y arrives at the airport and receives a push with an invitation to the gift store and information about its location (terminal and floor).
  • User Z visits a cosmetics store, receives a push from the Apple Wallet and opens a discount card for the store directly from it.
  • In the navigator app while driving User A receives a push informing him that a faster route has been found. 

Geo-location push notifications affect business metrics (e.g., conversion from sending a push to click or from click to activation) and perform well if the user's location can be tracked accurately, so that the relevance of notifications to the customer is high. But geo-positioning technology is still in a ‘gray area’ as operating systems privacy and security policies hold it back. 

Currently the only applications that can constantly track users’ geo-position are maps. In the case of other applications, be it a flashlight or a utility app, the operating system is  likely to not allow tracking, and will constantly suppress it or notify the user that the application is suspicious. 

Feedback collection

This variety of push notifications are used to gather feedback about the app or its individual features, in order for the company to evaluate its service quality.

Examples:

  • A housing aggregator sends a push asking an individual to rate an apartment.
  • An app asks its user to rate it in the Google Play or Apple Store.
  • An app sends a subscriber who has stopped at some point in the customer journey a push notification with a link to a feedback form. In it, the person describes what problem they encountered and why they did not move on. 

Feedback push notifications are suitable for hypothesis testing. Before launching a new feature, the company can send its users invitations to take part in beta testing of new functionality, implement a deep link with a flag into the notification, and transfer users to a screen that is closed to others.

Pushes from this category can be sent automatically (in the case of requesting a rating) and manually (testing purposes).

System

This category includes push notifications sent by operating systems. There are several main types: 

  • Pushes from social services — medical and government agencies, the Ministry of Emergency Situations or weather centers, among others.
  • Pushes from Apple Wallet when points are credited under loyalty programs. They come on behalf of Apple Wallet, but the points are awarded by those companies whose cards are stored in the e-wallet.
  • Provisional push notifications. These are sent to all users who installed the application regardless of whether they registered in it, but only once. The purpose is to invite users to subscribe to standard notifications. 

The peculiarity of the latter type of pushes is that it does not require an identifier — a push token. This means that push notifications can be sent to the notification center without the user's permission. They will however, not appear on the lock screen though. 

The sheer reach of this push category could work well to increase the number of subscribers. However, Apple and Google introduced this technology only last year, so it has not yet appeared in any push tools. Right now, only certain major e-commerce players, such as Lamoda and Joom, are using it.

Triggers within push notifications

A trigger may not be a single event (as in the case of transactional push notifications), but an entire sequence of actions that the marketer defines and tests him/herself. 

Examples: 

  • A company assists a user in onboarding, outside of the interface with push notifications. If the user fails to complete training within two days after registration, he receives a notification with information on how to continue onboarding or skip it entirely. In this case, the user's failure to complete their training is the trigger. 
  • The user goes to a marketplace app and places items in their cart. If the items are not purchased within a certain period of time (e.g., 24 hours), they receive a push notification with a reminder to purchase. If the user does not respond to it, a new notification will be sent a day later (or within another specified time period). The absence of a purchase after the previous push will trigger a new push notification. 

Target metrics for trigger messages are the same as for marketing push notifications — leading the user to conversion to the next step: product purchase, passing a level, and so on. Triggered pushes require regular A/B testing as changing conditions and optimizing metrics are important. For example, in the case of onboarding, you can send notifications after one, two or three days to see how the percentage of people completing the training changes. 

Today, trigger pushes are the most popular with marketers. 

Personalization

Customer-focused (granular / user-centric) personalization can be implemented in different types of pushes. Variable parameters, called macros, are substituted into messages for each user.

Examples: 
  • In transactional pushes, the user's name, order number and information about reaching a particular level within the game appear. Alternatively, the notification leads to a personalized landing page with order information or a map of the courier's location.
  • A private jet booking app sends its user a marketing push with information regarding promotions at his/her favorite airports.
  • An online store app sends a targeted message to a customer who has searched for products from a particular category with an offer to purchase the specific item. 

The first message is personalized as it has the name of the attacker. The second message is not as it uses Chief reference familiar to all players

Personalization is most often utilized in marketing. In some categories, like informational push notifications, it is not needed as news about global updates usually needs to be communicated to all users. When it is necessary to send a push in multiple languages, different campaigns are usually created for each country or language. 

The use of personalization in push notifications also depends on the app's maturity. Small startups often lack competencies and resources to create complex macros.

Summary table

To show the difference between all types of push notifications we have prepared a comparison table: