Push notifications play a powerful role in engaging users with your app. When used intelligently, push notifications improve app engagement by 88 percent. Yet, there's also a tremendous opportunity to turn users against your app with push notifications.

That same Localytics study? It found that over half of app users think push notifications are “annoying.” These notifications tend to ignore user goals, dismiss context, leverage the wrong tools, among other mistakes.

We created this resource to make sure your push strategy provides the most value to your users. Read on to understand the opportunities push notifications provide for engagement and user experience. You’ll also learn the fundamentals and some advanced techniques that go into designing a better push strategy.

Why Craft a Better Push Notification Strategy

Before diving into the specifics of creating a push notification strategy, let’s take a look at the primary advantages push strategies provide app creators. In this section, you’ll learn how well-crafted push notification strategies can do wonders for re-engaging users and increasing your app’s inherent value.

Re-engage Your Users

A Braze study found that on average fewer than 25 percent of users return to an app the day after they download it. That percentage continues to decline every day after the first. Push notifications can help reverse that trend.

Day-after-day user retention rate (Braze).

Push notifications give you an opportunity to interact with users when they're not in your app. Your notifications appear right in their eye-line as they pick up their device, making them powerful tools for driving users back into your app experience. Notifications have even transcended smartphones. Users now see or hear them on the web and other smart devices like watches, digital assistants, and displays.

R1: 1-800-flowers uses a discount to entice users to complete their purchase.

With push notifications, you give your users a direct line back into your app. They only need to tap the notification to go straight into your app, leveraging a single-step pathway to re-engage. Pairing push notifications with deep links lets you go a step further. Deep linking drives your users into a specific screen within your app experience, further simplifying the journey and getting them closer to the action you want them to take.

For example, say a customer abandoned your app after putting a pair of shoes into their shopping cart without checking out. You could send that customer a push notification with a reminder to return to the app to complete the purchase. On tap, the notification would send the customer back into his or her cart, shoes at the ready, to check out.

Better yet, you could follow 1-800-Flowers’ example (R1) and provide more value by tempting the customer with a deal for the purchase in the push notification. On tap, the customer would return to their cart with a discount to apply to their purchase.

R2: thredUP builds urgency with a well-timed reminder.

Fashion resaler, thredUP, takes a similar approach to try to re-engage customers who abandon their shopping carts. Once a customer puts a clothing item in their shopping cart, thredUP holds it for them for 24 hours. If that customer doesn't check out within the time limit, they release the item for someone else to buy.

Because thredUP sells used clothing, the chances that a customer will find another item just like the one sitting in their shopping cart is slim. thredUP reminds customers of that fact by sending the customer a push notification (R2) shortly before the 24-hour deadline. The notification reminds customers about their pending purchase and builds urgency to prompt the customer to action.

Improve Your User Experience

While some products treat push notifications as way to drive unengaged users back into the app experience, others rely on push as a core part of the experience itself. These products use push to give their users exactly what they want when they want it, even if they're not in the app.

R3: Dark Sky Weather provides all the forecast info you need at a glance.

Consider the important role push plays in service-oriented apps like Uber and Lyft, banking apps like Chase and Capital One, and payment apps like Venmo and PayPal. These products use push notifications to alert users to important, time-sensitive information like estimated driver arrival, low account balances, strange transactions, and new payments. Since their users aren’t likely to wait around in the app to get this critical information, these apps send notifications to catch their users’ attention when it’s important.

Dark Sky Weather is a good example of using push notifications to create a better product experience. Instead of asking users to go into the app to check the weather, Dark Sky's push notifications bring the forecast to users when they need or want it most.

The app serves up local weather information in a push notification (R3) that appears on the device lock screen. Everything users want to know is there in the notification; they don't need to tap it and go into the app to get the info. Dark Sky even allows users to create their own custom push notifications. (More on that later.)

How to Create Your Push Notification Campaign Strategy

Now that you understand the benefits, how do you go about planning and creating push notifications for your app? This section runs through the four key steps to crafting an effective strategy for your push notification campaign. We examine these steps in relation to how we crafted one of several push notification campaigns for Jellies, a kids video app.

Step 1: Identify the Problem and Goal

The first step in creating a push notification campaign is identifying its purpose. Is there a problem you're trying to solve or a goal you want to meet? Once you understand the problem or goal, you can define success.

For example, are you noticing that users aren't taking the actions you want them to take? Are they leaving your app? Are they leaving your app at a certain point in your user experience? These are all common problems that push notifications can help solve.

Our goal was to convince parents to return to Jellies to add new topics.

Jellies gives parents more control over what their children watch. In the app, parents add video topics to their library in Parents Mode. They then activate Kids Mode and pass the device off to their children so they can watch the pre-approved topics.

Eventually, we began to notice that even though we added brand new videos all the time, some parents didn't return to the app to interact with the new content. Our goal was to convince those parents to revisit the app on a regular basis and add new topics to their libraries.

Step 2: Understand the Context

To craft an effective push notification campaign you need to meet users where they're at. This means understanding what's important to your users, where your users are coming from, and the potential obstacles in their way before you can design a solution.

At Savvy, we dedicate significant time to user discovery. Our three-step process hones in on what's needed to provide real value for users. For push notifications in particular, we use discovery to understand our users' mindset, receptivity, and needs.

  • Mindset: That is, what are my users' challenges? What do they want? For Jellies we realized that parents are busy, they're focused on other concerns and while they want their children to watch good quality videos, they aren't looking to police every moment of their child's screen time.
  • Receptivity: Under what circumstances are my users most receptive to push notifications? We knew that Jellies parents would want to be contacted directly rather than through their children. Parents choose Jellies because the app is free of ads and we don't try to sell anything to their kids. That's a mission we take very seriously. We wanted to be sure not to break that trust by targeting children with our push notifications.
  • Needs/Value: When will my users find the most value from a push notification? Jellies adds new topics to the app every week. We wanted to send out notifications soon after the new topics hit the app so families could immediately start watching.
Step 3: Create Relevant Parameters

Your push notification campaign needs to target the right people with the right message at the right time. This makes your push notifications relevant, and more effective.

To make sure your push campaign is relevant, establish these key parameters based on the context you discovered (above).

User Segmentation and Trigger Criteria

User segmentation means sorting your users into groups based on shared characteristics. Trigger criteria allow you to further group your users by defining what actions (or lack thereof) they need to take before triggering your push campaign. Combined, these parameters help make sure you're sending your push notifications to the right users.

We wanted to target parents who start their free trial or Jellies subscription and add at least one topic to their library but don’t return to the app to add additional topics. This user segment had the following trigger criteria:

  • An active free trial or subscription
  • At least one topic in the user's library
  • Active within the app in the last two weeks, but did not add a new topic within those weeks.

Message Type

What exactly do you plan on sending your users? Many of the common types of push notification messages fall into the following categories: informative, geolocated, and check-in.

Our push notification informed parents about new content and prompted them back into Jellies to take advantage of it.
  • Informative: These are your product announcements, reminders, and alerts. They’re used to inform users about important information like new likes or messages, traffic updates, order statuses, or new app features.
  • Geolocated: These messages revolve around the user’s current location. They alert the user to new opportunities or information based on geographic parameters. For example, discounts at a nearby store or new shows at a nearby venue.
  • Check-in: Important for re-engaging users, check-in messages interact with your user to keep your brand top of mind. These messages tend to focus on inspirational, feel-good information, like celebrating a progress goal or remembering a happy memory. They help strengthen your product’s relationship with its users.

To make the most of your push messages, be succinct, provide value, and prompt the user to take action. You may also want to consider personalization (we talk about this more in-depth later) and adding richness with images, emojis, and gifs to make your messages stand out.

For Jellies, we went with an informative reminder that we’re constantly adding new topics to the app and a call to action to return to Jellies to take advantage of the new content.

Send Schedule

That is, when should your users receive your push notification? Use user discovery and research, behavior data, and experimentation to understand the best times to send push notifications to your users.

For this Jellies push notification campaign, we decided to use behavior data to inform our schedule. Instead of sending only in the morning or evening, we timed the message to go out close to the same time the user was last active in the app. This made it more likely that the push notification would reach the user at a more convenient and actionable time.

Remember that your users probably don’t live in the same country or even hemisphere. This makes it critical to ensure that you send notifications based on a user's time zone instead of a blanket send. Failure to do so could mean that while your users in the United States get your notification at a relevant time, your European or Asian users might get their notification in the middle of the night.

Step 4: Activate and Collect Data

The next step is to start sending your push notifications and see how users respond! We use several tools to send and track results for push. Each tool offers something a little different and is more valuable at different stages of the product lifecycle.

  • Firebase Cloud Messaging: This tool offers a basic UI for crafting messages and allows us to send them across platforms. We often pair it with another tool to create more custom messages.
  • Leanplum: Push notifications are just one of many engagement solutions available to Leanplum users. We like it for its robust message creation options and use it to craft custom, rich push notifications.
  • Mixpanel: This is a good option for sending basic push notifications. It offers an intuitive UI that makes it easy to set up campaigns. Mixpanel also excels as an analytics tool and is great for exploring grouped user activity and behavior trends.
  • Intercom: This tool provides some message creation options (yes: titles, text, deep links, no: images), but we prefer it more for its deep-dive analytics.

Use your analytics to discover whether users are interacting with your push notifications. If you’re finding that most users are dismissing your notifications without further action, consider whether your messages are relevant enough and whether you’re sending them at the right time. You might also try crafting a more interesting and value-driven call to action or including rich elements in your message.

Often it isn’t enough to draw users back into your app. Chances are you want your users to do something specific once they re-engage. If your users tap on your push notification but don’t complete the action you want them to take within the app, your user journey could be confusing or not compelling enough. Focus on providing value, and consider utilizing deep links to simplify the user journey.

Implementing Advanced Push Notification Tactics

Once you’ve established your foundational push notification strategy, consider ways to make it even more impactful and valuable for users. This section dives into how to make more advanced push notifications work for your product.

Add More Personalization

Personalization makes your push notifications more relevant to users. Done right, personalization recognizes and connects with your users on a deeper level while still feeling natural. At the very least, personalization will help your push notification performance. In fact, 4 percent more users open personalized push notifications than non-personalized, according to Leanplum.

Use personalization in your push notifications for a higher open rate (Leanplum).

Your personalization tactics can be as simple as adding the user's name to the message and as complex as sending a push notification with a special offer when a user enters a specific location (like when walking past a store). For example, Netflix leverages viewer data to send personalized push notifications that let users know when there's a new season available of a show they've watched.

Personalization can be tough depending on how much information you collect from your users. Obviously, the more data you have at hand, the more you can personalize push notifications. That said, too much personalization can have an unintended effect.

In general, users understand that certain apps collect their basic information. They expect their banking app of choice to know more about their financial habits than, say, their rideshare app, and their rideshare app to know more about where they like to go and when than their banking app.

Users tend to become uneasy when it's clear that an app is collecting more information than they anticipated. If you can see your user asking, “how did they know that about me?” chances are you've gone too far.

Put Users in Control

One way to provide more value for your users while making them feel better about it is to give users full control over the push notifications they receive.

A Localytics study found that users prefer to receive push notifications based on preferences they shared with the app rather than their in-app behavior. The study asked users how they would feel if they saw a product in an app and later received an offer via push notification for that same product. Over half of those people said that would “make them feel nervous, harassed, or annoyed.”

Dark Sky (mentioned earlier) is a great example of user-controlled push notifications at work. The app empowers users with powerful customization options, giving users full control over what kinds of push notifications they get and when. Users get a few pre-made notifications to toggle on and off and further customize. They also have the ability to create a brand new, custom notification unique to their needs.

This approach allows users to know exactly what they're getting, when, and why. Notifying is no longer a question of privacy invasion or irritation. If they decide they want something different, they can change their notifications at any time.

Prompt Push Permissions the Right Way

None of the above is useful if your users don't allow your push notifications in the first place. Being strategic about how you prompt for push permissions is especially important for iOS apps.

According to Accengage, 91.1 percent of Android users allow push notifications. Now compare that to 43.9 percent of iOS users. This is because Android users must manually opt out of push, while the opposite is true for iOS. The onus is on iOS app creators to convince users to opt in, usually early on in the app experience. Android users typically don't bother opting out unless an app's push strategy is really irritating them.

Push notification opt-in rates for Android vs. iOS (Accengage).

In our experience, context, transparency, and value are key to setting your push permission prompts up for approval:

  • Context: Don't prompt for push notification permission out of the blue. Time it to align with when your user would naturally encounter and understand the value of receiving a push notification.
  • Transparency: Tell your users exactly what they should expect from push notifications.
  • Value: Explain why your users should allow push notifications from your app.

In iOS, you can't prompt someone again to allow push notifications if they already said no. That makes the above best practices even more important. It also means you need to go the extra step to make sure your user will say yes.

We sometimes include a soft-ask modal before the official permissions prompt that explains what push notifications are and why they're valuable. We also ask the user if they're interested in receiving push notifications. If they indicate interest, we show them the official prompt. They're more likely to tap "Allow" on the iOS dialog at this point because they've shown intent on the notifications primer screen.

If the user indicates they’re not interested, we don't show them the official prompt. Instead, we try again in another contextual scenario after some time has passed and it feels relevant. This gives the user more opportunity to understand what the app is about, start to trust the app, and begin to see the benefit of push notifications. It also gives us multiple chances to convince the user to allow push notifications.

We talk about this in-depth in How to Create Better User Permissions Requests in iOS Apps. Check out that resource for more information and for guidance on what to do in the event that your user denies your official push notification request.

Concluding Note

Push notifications play a powerful role in providing a much more valuable experience for your users. Keep your problem (and goal), context, relevance, and value at the heart of your strategy to create a push notification campaign that resonates with users. Once you send it out, monitor the results with analytics tools and adjust your push parameters to improve on the new data. Advanced push notification tactics will help you connect with more users and see more impact from your campaign.

For more information on push notifications, permissions requests, and other product strategy, check out the Savvy Apps blog. Also, please connect with us on Twitter and Facebook for updates, including announcements when we release additional educational resources.

Savvy is a Mixpanel and Leanplum partner. We do not receive any financial benefit from the partnership and are under no obligation to mention them in our content. These partnerships give our customers better access to the Mixpanel and Leanplum teams if desired.

June 26, 2019
Written By:

Zach Satko

Zach is a product manager at Savvy Apps, with an eye for detail, a love of new technologies, and a passion for finding the best GIFs.