What is a push notification?
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What is a push notification?

A push notification is a short message that appears as a pop-up on your desktop browser, mobile home screen or in your device notification center from a mobile app.

Push notifications are typically opt-in alerts that display text and rich media, such as images or buttons, which enable a user to take a specific action.

Organizations use push notifications as a marketing or communication channel, but they can also be used as a security mechanism.

The origin of push notifications

Push notifications were first equated with "Danger," but not in the typical sense of the word. While working as the Director of Design for Danger, the forerunner to Android, Matias Duarte and his design team developed push notifications in 2008.

In 2009, Apple released its push messages, or notifications, through its cloud messaging service, APNS (Apple notification service). The Apple-engineered service is now prevalent across iOS devices, from iPads to iPhones, as mobile push notifications for mobile users.

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There are two types of push notifications: web-based and app-based
  1. Web-based notifications, also termed “web-push” notifications, can appear on your desktop or mobile device. Any site can send a push notification through supported operating systems (OS) and browsers. Notifications can open on different areas of a screen or view, dependent on your browser or operating system type. 

  2. App-based notifications are what most users deem a push notification (although web push notifications are as common). This type of notification is created in-app. From a user's device, whether on a mobile or desktop device, a recipient must typically opt-in first. These notifications or alerts are usually pop-up windows on mobile devices. Apps offer these options as a way to either create greater in-app user engagement and open-rates, or to compel a lead to take a specific action.
How push notifications are used

A push notification is a type of channel that works to leverage communication. Marketing is the main way developers and organizations create and use push notifications. However, push notifications are also regularly used for civic communication and, less often, for security authentication.

  • Marketing: A push notification in marketing can be a powerful channel to increase sales and customer retention and to provide data for more insightful marketing metrics. As a marketing strategy, a notification is a channel where users can take an action in the sales funnel. Messages can help bring a customer back to an abandoned cart with a pop-up text message or in-app message. It can also serve to reengage a customer. In mobile marketing, a notification can build brand awareness with well-timed, segmented messaging. Data shows that consumers are less likely to opt in to notifications on social media and retail, with only 6% opt-ins1. However, when done with thoughtful, data-driven preparation, marketed push notifications can reduce customer churn and increase click-through-rates (CTR) to a site or app.

  • Civic communication: In the last few years, recipients engaged with utility push notifications more than any other type. While recipients might uninstall or opt out of other types of notifications, this type had the highest number of engagements, at 37%2. Local government and utility agencies use push notifications as safety alerts for severe weather, outages, traffic alerts, community-drivers, such as missing person alerts and local government updates.

  • Security authentication:  Finally, push notifications are also a type of security authentication. They are used as an authentication factor for identity-authentication to gain data or site access. Apps and sites with more sensitive information, such as online banking or healthcare sites, can use push notifications as an identity authenticator.
Benefits of push notifications

There are several benefits to using push notifications. However, these are tightly tied to how well an organization plans and executes its use of them. Click-through rates for push notifications hover around 2%-3% as a standard average across industries. To gain high engagement and user satisfaction, strategic timing, personalization and segmentation are key guiding posts for well-performing push notifications. 

There are many reasons organizations benefit from using push notifications. These include:

  • Results in higher open-rates than email

  • Automates marketing campaigns and communication

  • Is similar to SMS messaging (short message service), a device, browser or app does not need to be powered on to send a notification

  • Generates increased user satisfaction and enhances user experience

  • Creates opportunities for more user interactions and sales

  • Achieves real-time responsiveness

  • Enables user-centric customization for opt-ins and opt-outs

  • Provides behavior analytics that can inform content strategy

The most significant benefit for push notification recipients is that the channel is a user-centric medium. Recipients can receive information on their terms and in their preferred space. They can also change device notification settings or unsubscribe to notifications. This latitude of options counteracts notification fatigue, but also compels app publishers and organizations to create the most relevant content for a recipient.

Moreover, automation remains a key benefit for organizations, particularly where there is a need for immediacy, such as in delivering news, public service information or for use-cases such as a highly personalized sporting event update or real estate alert.

How push notifications work

If you've received a notification for a flash sale, travel deal or traffic update, that alert came from a push server that enables it.

Push notifications can be cloud-based or app-based, and are built to work with a server that provides the notification. An API can enable push notifications from cloud services as app and web push services. Once an organization requests a push notification, an API calls this service and sets the message in place to be delivered. 

A push notification arrives on your mobile home screen or your lock screen. It can also appear as a notification on your app icon, or on your desktop home screen when launching your browser and also while in use.  

Organizations send push notifications with text and most commonly with rich media such as emojis. Some, but not all, include a clickable link or a call to action (CTA), which prompts a user to take an action like finishing a check-out or engaging directly with a site or app.

However, push notifications do not perform democratically or evenly across browsers and operating systems. While the most popular mobile and desktop browsers support push notifications from Safari, Firefox, Chrome and Android, the delivery and experience are dissimilar across these browsers.

For Android users particularly, some rich media are unavailable for users who are less likely to perform regular phone updates. Furthermore, opt-outs on Android devices differ from iOS devices in that a user must opt out with a few manual steps, though Android has made this process easier in recent years.

Understanding the differences in device, browser and operating system limitations and permissions is important for organizations seeking to execute push notifications successfully.  

Types of push notifications

There are many ways of applying push notifications, but these are irrespective of marketing strategies and are conventional to the channel in general.

These include: 

  1. Reminders such as in-cart actions, sign-ons and next-step actions

  2. Updates, including news-related or relevant brand information

  3. Deals like calls-to-action (CTAs) for sales, specials or subscription opt-ins

  4. Authentications like security-based, one-time pass-codes

  5. PSA notifications such as civic information and weather alerts

For marketing campaigns, the key to a strong push notification campaign includes well-executed segmentation and personalization. Organizations can lower user message fatigue and tolerance by monitoring the frequency and type of notification, as well as how it has been personalized for the user.

Moreover, organizations see better results when notifications are segmented based on behavior patterns and user interests. As an example, a telehealth notification for every patient due for dental check-ups, sent from a health insurance platform, is a valuable way to support a patient’s health and make it easier to book an appointment.

Personalization extends from segmentation and includes content and timing that is unique to a specific user. A notification revealing a price decrease on an item viewed and saved on a site is one way to increase sales for e-commerce. 

Push notification applications

Almost every industry and sector have adopted push notifications that are tailored to their customers and audience. However, higher CTR is found in need-based spheres, such as finance, health, weather, traffic and also in hospitality.

What's more revealing in a successful campaign is how well a push notification meets a highly specific need, and how immediately that occurs. These are significant drivers for increasing conversion rates. It is more difficult to achieve higher engagement rates in retail and social media, where 81% of smartphone users turn off these notifications3.

Additionally, organizations that create push notifications with an emotive context, represented with emojis, often receive higher engagement rates than when they send plain text notifications with headlines, even when relevant information is included in both.

Finally, while much has been written on push notification strategy and marketing campaigns, security authentication is equally prominent in its application. Organizations, such as banking and healthcare, use push notifications for authenticating identity, delivered via a secure application.

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1 Statista, July 2021, Distribution of push notifications among smartphone users in the United States (link resides outside ibm.com) 
2 Statista, July 2021, Distribution of push notifications among smartphone users in the United States (link resides outside ibm.com)
eMarketer survey June 2021, Most US smartphone owners won’t hesitate to limit push notifications (link resides outside ibm.com)