In September Apple plans to release its new operating system — IOS 16. A year earlier we were introduced to IOS 15, a system that made it harder for marketers to retain users because of limitations related to push notifications.
What changed for push notifications in iOS 15 and what can we expect from IOS 16?
iOS 14 and before: High Frequency, Low Relevance
In iOS 14 and earlier versions of Apple's operating system, marketers, product managers and other professionals were able to send an unlimited number of push notifications to any broad audience. For example, you could select to broadcast to all app users, or even users within a particular country or region. These notifications would then be rendered and displayed on the smartphone's lock screen. This, however, created a problem - channel congestion. More and more messages were pushed to audiences each day and the results were information overload and subsequently user burn out.
The outcome within this contextual domain was caused by a dichotomy in the app world. On the one hand you had apps like fitness trackers and food delivery services, who would send relevant notifications to users that related specifically to actions that they were engaged in. For example, The fitness tracker would send push notifications in regard to calories burned after a workout, or summarizing the day's activity level. The food delivery service would send push notifications informing users as to the state of their order, or when the delivery was on its way. Occasionally these apps would notify users of special discounts or other promotional activities.
On the other hand, however, most apps tried to send as many push notifications as possible, and set up all accessible communication channels. As a result, users in the U.S. received an average of 46 pushes per day in 2018 alone, a number that rapidly increased shortly thereafter.
Due to this, most popular push notification platforms on the market focused on providing simple and straightforward functionality for delivering large volumes of communication scenarios and segments - tools are more suited to sending broadcast notifications to a large audience than personalized targeting with pinpoint accuracy, timing and context.
Resulting in a lot of noise for users, and less than 0.5% CTR for the apps.
In order to mitigate this noise, Apple first introduced the option for users to turn off push notifications from apps that spammed them too often. However, this turned out to not be enough, and so Apple set out to change the game with iOS 15.
iOS 15: Notifications Summary, Focus Mode and Time-Sensitive Notifications
In iOS 15, Apple developers had to rethink the approach to push notifications and introduced three new features:
This feature is enabled by default on Apple devices and means that certain notifications will be grouped together on the lock screen. They go into a summary view and are now only displayed as icons. For example, users can see a summary bar where they have received messages from YouTube, Airbnb, and Spotify, but they won't see the text and content until they click on that bar.
Additionally, important notifications are displayed along with the title and content on the lock screen as in the previous iOS versions. Such essential push notifications are determined by machine learning (algorithms that adjust to the user and decide what can be grouped in summary and what should be displayed as usual).
Generally what this means though, is that rich-content push notifications with images usually fall into the important category, while broad-segment notifications that users don't click on for a long time are more likely to end up in the summary. This makes life harder for marketers, as they now need to spend more time on relevancy and personalization.
This feature implies a flexible configuration of push notifications depending on their context. The user can set the mode to "Do Not Disturb", "Work", "Sleep", “Personal” or create their own. In each mode, you can choose from what contacts and apps to receive notifications, and which ones to skip. You can, for example, set it to focus on work and allow notifications only from your colleagues and corporate messenger, work email, or a task tracker. Advanced users can even automate the mode and turn it on or off when a certain app is open. Additionally, iOS learns the user behavior and suggests modes to them itself.
Apps now need to take into account the context and time of sending a push message and make contact at the right time. Information about enabled focus mode on devices is available to businesses, so this parameter can and should be considered in the targeting strategy.
In iOS 15, Apple has divided notifications into regular notifications that come on schedule and instant notifications, and users can choose which apps can send them instant, time-sensitive notifications and which apps can’t. Time-sensitive push notifications are prioritized and apps can send them regardless of the focus mode. Furthermore, such push messages are displayed separately on the lock screen rather than in the summary. These types of notifications could be an alert for when a delivery person arrives at your door from a food delivery app, or a reminder to take your pills in the morning.
When the user first receives this type of push message from the app, the operating system checks with the user to see if the notification is indeed time sensitive and does have a timing restriction. If the user confirms it, the app is allowed to continue sending such notifications in the future (and even to add other, not time-sensitive content to them). If not, the user can disable the notifications.
The mechanics of obtaining permission to send push notifications haven't changed, but for apps, this marketing channel has become more challenging. Companies that used to send broadly segmented push messages have seen their conversion rates drop by 2-4 times in iOS15. However, those who initially invested their time in targeting, personalization, and timing of delivery have experienced a positive impact.
iOS 16: Count view, Stack view, Expanded List view and other features
In iOS 16, Apple has vowed to redesign the lock screen and the design of push notifications to make them more visible. Additionally, a new Live Activities feature will allow users to pin push notification widgets, such as the results of a sports game broadcast on Apple TV, among many others. The release of Live Activities will include an API for developers.
Users will also be able to choose from three types of push notifications on the lock screen:
The device will hide notifications and simply show the number of received push messages at the bottom of the lock screen. By tapping this number, the user could see a list of all push messages and their content.
A brand new option where all notifications appear at the bottom of the lock screen and do not disturb the user. The messages are stacked, one above the other, with the last received notification at the top. To see all push messages, a user will have to click on this stack.
Expanded List View
Similar to what we already have in iOS 15, this mode will use all of the vertical screen space, and push notifications will be displayed partially in full and partially in stacked view, as was discussed earlier.
It is difficult to predict how iOS 16 will affect the work of marketers and their push conversion rates. Although today push notifications are arranged and filtered by the iOS, and for now remain visible on the lock screen.
In the case of the Count View mode, push messages will be essentially hidden, which will negatively impact the metrics for some parts of push notifications. On the other hand, tapping the Count view mode will open the whole notification center tray to the user, where each message is fully displayed and not summarized, which means that push messages will more than likely be viewed. We know for sure that making push notifications more 'ecological' and relevant is a focus for Apple, which means apps will have to follow this trend if they want to keep using this channel for retention and engagement.
There will definitely be a shift in focus from the "spray and pray" approach, where a company sends out a large number of push notifications to a broad audience in the hope that some users will click on them, to a more targeted and personalized approach. User perception of push notifications will also become more deliberate: people will only click on messages if they're actually interested. The number of contacts may decrease, but their quality will evolve in return. So, if a push message is contextual, is sent at the right time, and is personalized, the overall performance (open rates, return rates, user engagement, etc) shouldn’t suffer much.