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What are push notifications? Your guide to mobile push

With the average inbox containing hundreds or thousands of unread emails and spam filters churning away, getting eyeballs on your marketing messages gets more and more difficult. That’s why push notifications are so powerful: they’re urgent, immediate, and highly visible. But they also come with some hidden pitfalls you’ll want to take steps to avoid. So exactly what are push notifications, and how can they help you engage your customers? Let’s dive into the details.

Here’s what we’ll cover:

What is a push notification?

A push notification is an alert from a mobile app that appears as a pop-up on a customer’s phone (usually as a banner at the top of the screen or on the lock screen), whether or not they’re currently using the app. They often look similar to SMS messages; the difference is that they’re generated by an app the customer has installed. Push notifications are typically short and focused on important, time-sensitive information, and sometimes include rich media like images, videos, and links. This guide focuses on mobile push notifications, but web push notifications also exist; you can also send push notifications to desktop and wearable devices. 

Brands generally use push notifications for three types of communications:

  • Transactional messages, like password resets
  • Important updates, like new feature alerts
  • Event-triggered messages, like abandoning a cart

Push messaging can also add value to a product or service, like gate-change alerts from airlines or game scores from sports-fan apps. Government agencies use push for emergency communications like severe weather alerts, and devices use push notifications to remind people to take critical actions, like installing security updates. This reinforces the sense of urgency that marketers capitalize on when using push. 

Push notification pitfalls

The immediacy that makes push notifications so attractive to brands also creates risks. Sending too many or including irrelevant content will quickly become annoying, because it’s difficult for people to ignore them. 

As a result, customers are quick to opt out of push, or even delete an app altogether, when the channel is used poorly. Mobile operating systems are also evolving to address the overuse of push. Apple requires users to opt-in to receive push, and Google will do so as well beginning with Android 13. 

Both iOS and Android also offer a variety of options for muting or snoozing push notifications, and Apple allows people to delay them or divert them to a notification center. That means your messages may not be seen right away. Thus, the key to getting good results with push is the same as any other marketing communication: send the right content to the right person at the right time.

How do push notifications work?

From your customers’ perspective, the function of push notifications is simple: they opt in to receive them, then the messages just pop up or appear in the notification center. 

From a technical perspective, it’s a bit more complex. The data needs to make its way from the app to the customer’s device:

  • Sending the push: this capability can be built natively into an app, or you can use a third-party tool (like a marketing automation platform)
  • Receiving the push: the device’s operating system (OS) ingests the data and displays the push using its built-in push notification service
Graphic detailing the push notification process

Types of push notifications

Push notifications fall into two main categories: simple and rich.  Simple push messages only contain a title, a brief text-only message, and your logo.

Graphic of a simple push notification with parts labeled

Rich push, on the other hand, can include clickable links, images, and videos, allowing you to create more engaging content and calls to action.

Graphic of a rich push notification with parts labeled

If you’re looking for the type of push notification that gives you the most flexibility, rich push is likely your best choice. But, as with emails, sometimes operating systems block or break images, so make sure your text conveys the core message.

Standard links are a great tool for instantly transporting customers to a website. But they aren’t nearly as effective for apps, because they can only send people to a browser. Deep links, in contrast, take an individual directly to a particular part of an app, even if the app isn’t open when the link is clicked. With thoughtful campaign design, you can combine rich push and deep links to create simple, frictionless journeys that take customers exactly where they need to go in order to get value from your app.

Using rich push in campaigns

Push messaging falls into three broad categories: transactional, promotional, and event-triggered. Each can be part of a unified push notification strategy.

Transactional push notifications can add significant value for your customers. For instance, you could send notifications when a product is shipped and when the item is delivered. You might refine the personalization further by allowing people to opt into certain messages, like delivery alerts, but not others, like shipping notifications. 

Push can be a powerful tool for promotional campaigns too. You might send an announcement about a flash sale, share a location-based recommendation, or give a loyal customer a birthday reward. But it’s especially important to make sure promotional push notifications are carefully tailored to the recipient’s needs and truly time-sensitive. Irrelevant or intrusive notifications, especially if the customer isn’t expecting them, are a recipe for unsubscribes and uninstalls.

Finally, push has great utility for all kinds of event-triggered campaigns. Push notification examples that respond to customer actions include onboarding and adoption campaigns (triggered when someone downloads your app or upgrades to a paid subscription) as well as abandoned cart campaigns with special offers and win-back campaigns.

Benefits of push notifications

How do push notifications work to boost your marketing strategy? Here are some of the top advantages:

  • Grab your audience’s attention. As email inboxes get more crowded, it’s difficult for brands to get noticed. Push notifications are almost impossible to miss, although customers can make them less prominent. 
  • Ensure high delivery. On average, push has higher delivery rates than email. But even though you don’t have to worry about spam filters, the insistent nature of push notifications can easily trigger unsubscribes.
  • Convey a sense of urgency. Messages that feel time-sensitive promote conversion rates, and push notifications help with that. Just make sure that the urgency is real, or you’ll lose your recipients’ trust.
  • Reach customers outside the app. In-app messaging is an important marketing tool, but what if your customer isn’t using your app when you need to reach them? Push allows you to communicate no matter what.

10 push notifications best practices

When creating your push notification strategy, remember your ultimate goal: engaging customers with personalized content that builds loyalty over the long term. Keep these push notification best practices in mind to gain the benefits of the channel’s immediacy while managing the risks of customer disengagement. 

1. Ask for permission

You need customers to opt in. Both Apple and Google (as of Android 13) require it, and getting permission is crucial to avoid annoying people. And think beyond the default opt-in prompt; consider using in-app messages (and personalizing them!) to invite people to opt in to push notifications prior to sending the official opt-in notification. 

2. Remain trustworthy

Customers are often hesitant to opt in to push because they fear they’ll get too many messages. Let people know the frequency and type of content they can expect from you, and keep those promises to build ongoing trust and engagement.

3. Be selective

Push notifications convey urgency, but they can also be intrusive. Make sure your message truly feels important to your customers and that sending it via push instead of a different channel creates value for them. Don’t blow up people’s phones with info that’s not actually time-sensitive. 

4. Get personal

The most effective marketing is highly personalized, and push is no different. Consider each customer’s demographics, behaviors, location, time zone, language preferences, and behaviors to craft campaigns that deliver content that lines up with their needs and desires.

5. Choose your moment

Push notifications work best when they arrive exactly when they’re relevant to a customer. Use location data to connect with customers based on where they are; for example, invite them to drop into a retail location when they’re nearby. And be sure to personalize time zones so you’re sending at the right time for each individual. 

6. Keep it short

In push, more than any other channel, every character counts. Make sure your copy is as tight as possible (aim for about 40 characters). Leave out line breaks and whitespace, and if emojis are appropriate for your brand voice, consider using them to replace a word when it makes sense.  

7. Pay attention to payload

Push notifications are limited to 4 kilobytes of data on both Android and iOS. That includes not just the text, but all data, so keep an eye on image/media file sizes and how you configure your code. 

8. Think holistically

Don’t isolate your push strategy from other messaging. Instead, design cross-channel campaigns that leverage your unique customer knowledge to select the ideal channel for each message and individual. 

9. Test and experiment

Don’t leave push out of your A/B testing. Make sure you’re regularly experimenting and iterating by testing things like length, CTAs, images, timing, performance across different operating systems/devices, and even push vs. other channels.

10. Measure what matters

Don’t measure push performance the same way you do email. Open rates, for example, don’t actually tell you much in this channel. Instead, gauge engagement based on how customers behave within 48 hours of receiving a notification. A great way to do that in is with conversion goals. (Dig deeper into this article on measuring push performance.)

Getting started with push notifications

Mobile messaging is a growing trend for a reason: it allows you to reach customers where they are at just the right moment to deliver relevant content. Whether you’re just getting started or preparing to level up your approach, push notifications are a powerful component of an omnichannel marketing strategy. 

While you can build push notifications into your app natively, using a marketing automation platform has the benefit of bringing all your messaging channels into one place. With, you can create campaigns that combine push, email, SMS, and in-app messages for a holistic customer journey. 

Ready to see it in action? Sign up for a free 14-day trial and start pushing your way to increased engagement.