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The Keys to Smart Behavioral Push Notifications

Imagine getting woken up by a push notification telling you that President Obama eats seven almonds as his nighttime snack.

Not exactly the breaking-news alert you signed up for.


The New York Times was recently called out for their push notification experiment that sent mobile users who’d opted in to receive urgent alerts from the publication quite the opposite.

Push notifications are a tempting channel for mobile marketers, what with app users just a swipe away. But as more and more apps turn to push notifications, the channel has become saturated.

Let’s have a little almond snack and then dive into how to use push notifications carefully.

The Roots of Push Notification Effectiveness

After conducting extensive research on their efficacy, Forrester Research called push notifications “the ideal tool to combine mobile marketing’s unique benefits: intimacy, immediacy, and context.” But the “ideal tool” can only work those magic benefits if two things are true: people are opted in and haven’t uninstalled the app (which has an 80% and above chance of happening).

Like email and SMS, users have to agree to receive push notifications. Opt-in rates vary widely across verticals. For example, business apps have a relatively high rate. It might feel mandatory to receive urgent Slack notifications from your team versus notifications about all the new shoes. (Note that Android users respond to push notifications more than twice the rate of iOS—20 vs. 8 percent—because they are defaulted to opt in.)

Push notification opt-in (across Android and iOS) Source: Urban Airship

The Art of the Ask

You wouldn’t ask someone you’re meeting for the first time for a big favor. That’s the time to get to know each other. Timing is key to navigating relationships and requests.

Let users in on the value they’ll get out of your app before asking them to opt in to push notifications. This is especially relevant to your iOS users, who need to explicitly allow push notifications before receiving them.

Social photo-sharing app Cluster does this particularly well. They fold the push notification opt-in process into their broader onboarding flow. The completion of a key onboarding action like sharing a photo or sending out an invitation for someone to join the group triggers the request for push notification permission.


This way, Cluster makes sure people get to an aha! moment in their first-time user experience, which makes saying yes to push notifications easier and far-reaching. When users have indicated some meaningful engagement, having seen enough value (or potential value) in the app to upload photos and invite friends, they’re more likely to want to engage with Cluster. They can clearly see how they’ll get more value out of the product notifications too.

Target Notifications Based on Behavior

Broadcasting one-size-fits-all push notifications, like batch-and-blast email, can harm the consumer perception of your brand and product. It’s no wonder that push notifications have a reputation for being irritating. In fact, in an interesting survey Localytics found that over 50% of app consumers find push notifications an “annoying distraction.”

While the practice of broadcasting push notifications is on the decline, it’s worth restating the value of personalizing messages based on user behavior. A study about triggered push notifications found that the effectiveness of push notifications based on behavior is 2,770% better than the batch-and-blast approach, with a “726 percent higher click rate and a 420 percent higher post-click conversion rate”!

Tailoring your messaging to individual user actions is the kind of personalization that helps deliver value. That gets people back into your app, boosting mobile app retention. Here are a couple of ways to get started:

Segmenting by user actions

Ticket retailer SeatGeek sends push notifications about events you might like to attend. But they don’t just blast notifications at anyone who chose a bunch of pre-determined genres and interests. As SeatGeek marketing analyst Nick Adkins explains, the context you know about people should shape your messaging approach:

If we’re smart about how we send pushes, each notification serves as an opportunity to inform users and find out what they care about (and hopefully drive some revenue). … If we notice patterns in users’ behavior, then we can send them information about events they’re likely to find of interest.

Seatgeek push notification

Nick explains what SeatGeek’s strategy would be for a targeted one-off push notification about tickets for Opening Day at Wrigley Field, based on past behavior. They would send something like this push notification to users who had:

  • Purchased a ticket to a Cubs game
  • Clicked out on a ticket to a Cubs game
  • Tracked the Cubs or a Cubs game

Netflix uses a similar approach based on their data on what users have watched. They deliver notifications when a show they know you’d liked and seen releases new material.

Netflix push notification

Nudging Inactive Users

Duolingo‘s push notifications are a great example of getting specific. Every user sets goals during onboarding for how many experience points (XP) they want to gain per day. When they don’t achieve that goal, they get a friendly push notification (featuring Duolingo’s owl mascot) reminding them to come back into the app to complete their goal.

Duolingo goal reminder

Onboarding experts Appcues explain that this is particularly effective because it applies the psychological principle of commitment/consistency. Committing and setting goals themselves, as Appcues writes, “has a massive impact on a new user’s eventual success with the platform.”

Persistent inactivity, even in the face of nudges, is a reliable sign of disengagement. Duolingo’s approach of making sure their push notifications remain useful and motivating stands out. When they realize their messages are failing to move you, they stop pushing reminders.

Duolingo push notification checkin

What’s really remarkable about Cluster’s strategy behind asking for push notification opt-ins is that in basing the timing on app behavior, they also priorize the customer experience. Cluster co-founder and designer Brenden Mulligan describes how their approach was built on increasing “users’ comfort and trust”, and explains, “We asked ourselves, what value would our users get out of push notifications?”

The discipline and intelligence to not immediately ask for an open channel to contact people, to stop sending push reminders that don’t work like Duolingo, or to even simply not blast people with the same generic message is all too rare. Each push notification is an opportunity to deliver information that people care about—and behavior is a reliable indication of what they care about and when.

Urban AIrship ActionWe’re tickled pink about our new Urban Airship Action for adding push notifications to triggered campaigns! Learn more about the new Urban Airship Push Action!