The Power of Push Notifications

By Iain Russell | April 12, 2021

Iain Russell is Head of Performance Marketing at Moneyhub, a fintech app helping users achieve and secure their financial goals. Iain started in subscription marketing for Future Plc, leading him to run an in-house app marketing team after the iPad descended in 2010. As a mobile marketing wizard with over ten years of industry experience, Iain currently works on new user acquisition, engagement and retention for Moneyhub’s money management app. 

Learn more about Mobile Hero Iain Russell.

“Push is to be used for no marketing of any kind.”

As we prepared to launch digital magazines on the iPad in 2010, these were the words directed to me by a lead developer. He wasn’t wrong, these were Apple’s terms and conditions at the time. But it was madness to ignore the opportunity as a marketer. Like someone from a TV bank commercial advertently reminding viewers to check their account balances, “push notifications” represented a gold mine for user engagement. 

However, where do you draw the line on what is marketing or not with push notifications? At the subscription marketing company I worked at, we needed to alert users of new available issues. Over the next year after Apple’s first iPad release, there were heated discussions on what we could and couldn’t do. 

I did not want to lose the competitive advantage we built as a first mover in the area—by delivering our digital magazines onto Apple Newsstand for the initial launch, we instantly had a forty percent market share globally! With Apple’s ‘questionable’ push regulations, there were even a couple of complaints from Mac|Life magazine readers. But in my eyes, ignoring this new channel was both impractical and foolish. 

In this blog, I share my history of working with push notifications as a direct marketing channel. I cover the barriers I faced, the development process, and how to make improvements leading to successful engagement and monetization results. 

Setting up and the first big hurdle

We initially partnered with Urban Airship (now known just as Airship). The company was one of the first businesses in the UK to provide a push notification service and help serve new content in apps. These were very early days—the first hurdle for a publisher globally providing content was determining an optimal time to send the push that would work well in various time zones. If done incorrectly, we would wake people up in Australia in the middle of the night (people back then didn’t know how to pause notifications or turn on silent notifications). It was a period long before the ‘Do not disturb’ feature we take for granted on mobile devices.

As a result, sending push notifications at the local user time became the first customization option. For example, a new issue notification is always best around 6pm for subsequent downloads and purchases in terms of engagement. Sending this around the world at local user times provided a huge uplift and effectively doubled engagement.

Establish a waiting period between notifications, and stick with it

Roll forward a couple of years, and we developed software to serve content into our magazine apps and handle push notifications ourselves. I could now segment and target based on user activity—crucial in any subscription business where you tailor messaging based on the user lifecycle stage, from trialist to active subscriber to lapsed subscriber. I scheduled notifications in advance to avoid a ‘type and send now/later in the day’ situation. If you want to ensure a streamlined process, develop a healthy habit of scheduling beforehand. 

The significance was incredible. Notification opens and engagement within our apps shot up. Push notifications became known as ‘the money button.” The new challenge was managing enthusiasm from the business to send push notifications every single evening! 

I recommend waiting at least 48 hours between users receiving a new notification. It is important to establish precedence early on to avoid users viewing the messages as spam and turning off push notifications. 

Personalize, personalize! 

Users permit you to engage in-app and on mobile devices that they carry around every day. Do not take this chance lightly. Push notifications are a personal medium—think creatively and utilize personalization to achieve impactful results. Of course, do not forget your original fallbacks, and remember to balance a mix of personalized and standard push notifications.

Wherever I went next—from media to banking services, to healthcare and now into fintech—I always focused on push notifications as a fundamental part of the marketing and engagement strategy, unifying it with other channels. 

I start by ensuring we ask users to opt-in at the right time during onboarding, testing pre-prompts (not always necessary), setting up automated/scheduled notifications, and sending manual messages. Try tapping into a hot topic or seasonal holiday—I personally love a good pun!

Don’t forget about preferences

Letting users set their own rules is equally important. I highly suggest integrating notification preferences within your app so users can tailor the type of messages received. Here is a light list to get you started: 

  • Important service announcements
  • Messages triggered by specific actions performed
  • Notifications relevant to how they use the product
  • Other services or products users select to be alerted on

At Moneyhub, we are proactively working on a notification center. Until completed, I carefully use our CRM system to tag users based on their stated feedback preferences. Ultimately, this temporarily helps tailor future push notifications. Although we do not have a complete solution yet, we are preemptively listening to customers’ suggestions and concerns and providing immediate solutions to improve engagement. In the long run, a value exchange develops as your app becomes more relevant for the target audience and the users grow meaningful engagement in-app. 

Lastly, but not least, determine benchmarks and strategize

The standard benchmark for direct opens from push notifications is between two and three percent. Through careful targeting over the past few years, I have hit seven to ten percent. An excellent tactic to drive significant results is calling out further information in-app. Surprisingly, not many apps to do this. Combining a push notification with an in-app message lets you save additional information once the app is opened, rather than trying to cram in excessive copy to the push notification. Integrating this strategy is not always the best course of action, but particular messaging—like new features—can benefit from the initial tease and drive users back into the app to find out more.

It is not rare to double hourly active users in an app with a well-timed push notification. But there is still more to improve effectiveness. Keep on testing optimal timing, copy and deep-linking—just as you would with any other direct marketing channel. There are various tools available today to help us unlock the power of push. Alongside other mediums, push notifications must be strategically utilized as a cornerstone of marketing activity for user engagement and growth. I leave you with this, tread carefully and have some fun personalizing. This little window on a mobile device is a very special place.

That’s a wrap from Iain. Now, you are armed with the knowledge (and power) of mobile push notifications. Want more helpful tips? Read the latest blogs and join the Mobile Heroes Slack Community to chat with over 2,000+ mobile marketers.