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What Is a Push Notification - Explained in Unicorns

It’s pretty safe to say that most people have a love/hate relationship with web and mobile push notifications. On the one hand, they keep us updated with the information we willingly asked to be updated on. On the other hand, for people like me, that constant activity on my phone is annoying and distracting. 

My friends tease me, but I can’t go to sleep or do anything, for that matter, when I have a little red dot in the top right corner of an app on my iPhone. Once I’ve checked out that notification, only then I can move on. Nevertheless, I need those notifications, so I can’t turn them all off. 

In this article, we’ll talk about the types of push notifications, look at the push notification examples, and learn how they work on iOS, Android, and web. 

What does push notification mean?

Definition: A push notification is an automated message that is sent to the user by the server of the app that’s working in the background (i.e., not open.) Another way to describe it is a push notification is a message that’s displayed outside of the app.

Push notification is other than pop-up you might see on a website or when you’re in a mobile app. Pop-ups are only activated if you’re using the app or website, whereas push notifications don’t require the app to be open.

There are also pull notifications, which are activated manually by the user. For example, on my phone, I check email manually, and push notifications are turned off because I want to check my email only at given times and not be constantly interrupted by the ding-ding sounds. 

  • Push notifications: initiated by the central server or publisher. 
  • Pull notifications: initiated by the client or receiver. 

Push vs Pull notification

The primary advantage of the push notifications is the fact that, unlike email, push notifications don’t get trapped by the spam filters or 

If done correctly, push notifications have the power to improve user retention and engagement ratio. However, if done wrong, they can appear so annoying and interruptive to the customers that instead of an increased engagement ratio, you’ll have an increased abandonment rate. 

A couple of useful terms that you might see in this article:

  • What is a notifications API? It is used to configure and display notifications to the user. 
  • What is a push API? It is the place where you subscribe to your app to the push service and get push messages in the service worker. 
  • Push notification service is the platform where you configure the notifications, and that sends them out. We’ll talk a bit later about how does a push notification service works. 

Where are push notifications applicable?

There are several cases when your business can benefit from push notifications to your potential or existing customers:

abandoned card push notification

Abandoned cart notification (“Hey, you’ve added this pink unicorn plush toy to your cart - would you like to proceed to checkout?”)

FYI Push notifications

For-your-information (FYI) Notifications (“In case you’re wondering, those pink unicorn plush toys have been manufactured from organically-grown cotton.”)

Reminder push notification

Reminder Notifications (“Christmas is around the corner. Don’t forget about shopping for that pink unicorn plush toy.”)

geolocation-based push notification

Geolocation Notifications based on interests (“The store where you can purchase your pink unicorn is 5 feet away from you.”)

time-bound push notifications

Time-bound Notifications (“You’ve got only 44 hours left to get the pink unicorn of your dreams before the price goes up.”)

rich push notifications

Rich Push Notifications (“Pink unicorns - learn more about their production or purchase yours today.”)

A brief history of push notifications

Apple and Google are the leaders of the push notifications feature. 

In 2009, Apple launched the first-ever push notification service - Apple Push Notification Service (APNs). Google didn’t stay behind for too long and launched its Cloud to Device Messaging service (C2DM) in 2010. 

Rich notifications with images and calls to action appeared in 2013 on Google’s service, and then Apple added interactive buttons to their service in 2014. 

In October 2014, Google acquired Firebase; it merged with Google’s push notification service and became known as Firebase Cloud Messaging (FCM).

history of push notifications timeline

Types of Push Notifications

Push notifications can be divided by purpose or by device they are sent to. 

By purpose, we can distinguish three main types of notifications: 

  • Transaction notifications. They are used to notify about events happening. For example, it can be a shopping update about a package or that an e-commerce transaction (paying for goods) was complete. 
  • System notifications. New product features announcements or holiday discounts fall under this category along with notifications that, for example, you need to update your password on a website. 
  • User notifications. These are the notifications that cause the most trouble and annoyance if they feel spammy. User ads are used to inform about new messages, emails, or special offers from a website. These notifications require users to opt-in (or have an opportunity to opt-out.)

There are three major types of push notifications based on the device: 

  • Web push notifications
  • Mobile push notifications
    • iOS push notifications
    • Android push notifications
  • Desktop push notifications

How does a web push notification work? 

Web publications are a great instrument to allow users to opt-in for updates from the website they visit. On the website owner’s side, web push messages allow re-engaging with the clients with relevant content. 

When the user visits a website, it sends a message to the GCM push service. That, in turn, sends a request to the service worker on a web browser. These services check whether the user has signed up for the updates before. 

If there is a relevant website update, the service workers also send push messages to those users who have already signed up for updates. 

web push notifications how does it work

Web notifications are especially useful for social networks platforms and news websites. You can also utilize them for e-commerce sites when you have a system of flash deals, for example. 

How does mobile push notification work?

  • How does push notification work in Android? On Android, the push notifications are sent (and received) by default.
  • How does push notification work on iOS? On iOS, they are blocked by default. Therefore you would need to opt-in your users. In the long run, this is more effective, especially considering the GDPR rules - you get the opt-in from the customer, which gets you on the safe ground. 

Because of different policies regarding the notifications, iOS, and Android users treat pushes differently. Compared to Android users, iOS users are less likely to open a notification. However, if they do so, they do it much faster than Android users. We suggest considering the differences between these two mobile platforms when planning your approach to push notifications.

Most of the iOS mobile apps feature a standard message about notifications when the app is first opened after the installation. However, if you change the wording there to make it look more enticing to stay up to date, the customers would be more responsive to it. Median opt-in rates range from 33% for games to up to 70% for travel & charity apps. 

android ios push notifications how does it work

In terms of the actors involved in the process, there are three main ones:

  1. Push notification service (iOS, Android, WindowsPhone, and FireOS all have their own services)
  2. App publisher (they enable the app with the push notification service)
  3. Client app (the app that gets the incoming notification)

How does a desktop push notification work? 

Desktop notifications appear only on the users’ desktops. Unlike the web notifications, these are driven mainly by the software installed on the computer.

Compared to web and mobile notifications, desktop notifications are more challenging to set up and require developers’ help.

Best practices of push notifications

  • Keep it short - if you overwhelm your users, their approach would most likely be TL;DR. If you want them to perform some action or to learn about a feature, say it in half-a-tweet’s length. 
  • Make the title and content specific - no need for lyrical digressions.
  • Keep important information on the top and to the left - people read left to right in most of the languages, so the info on the left gets automatically more noticeable. (Unless, of course, you’re targeting Arabic and Hebrew speaking people.)
  • Make the desired action the most prominent - if you have two options, make them want to click the more obvious button with “No, thanks” (for example) in gray color. Still visible, but not as attractive. 
  • Keep your messages to a polite number - make sure that your push messages are not annoying and not too frequent. If possible, give your customers an option to customize how often they would like to get messages from you (for example, as soon as an article is published or one per day, etc.)
  • Automate your notifications - automating your notifications gives you the option of delivering the messages to your end customers at a decent time in their time zone (among other benefits), which maximizes the probability of them seeing it. 
  • Send onboarding messages - introduce your service to your users by sending a timed series of notifications, inviting them to explore different parts of your website or app.
  • Study your audience - everyone is different, so don’t assume that the “spray-and-pray” approach would work. Try to adapt the messages to your target users and use segmentation.
  • Measure your notifications’ performance - track metrics such as conversions and returning users, not just click rates (since sometimes people click on a link accidentally.)

push notifications best practices dos and donts

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Key push notification statistics

  • Average smartphone user in the US receives 46 app notifications per day
  • E-commerce, media, publishing, and blogging sectors take up 40% of web push notification senders. 
  • Android users opt-in more readily (91.1%) than iOS users (43.9%). However, Android users are automatically added, while iOS device owners have to opt-in personally. 
  • Tuesdays are the best for push notifications - reaction rate is the highest on this day (8.4%)
  • Emojis and personalization can increase the open rate by 5% and 9% accordingly. 
  • 31% of users don’t like push notifications at all. 
  • 18% of users always find notifications helpful.

Conclusion

Push notifications are a wonderful marketing and user engagement tool. Follow these basic best practices to make sure your business voice is heard, but not annoyingly so.

Need help with integrating push notifications service into your business processes? HUSPI can help.

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