Push notifications are crucial for the success of your app. They can double the retention rate but only if you write concise, useful, and clever messages.

Mobile developers rejoice! And then fall into a despair, because as much as push notifications have become an important medium to engage more users, that trend is recognized by every other mobile app maker. The competition is real, especially now with the new iOS 10 push notifications that allow interactive messages with images and gifs.

Research shows that push notifications are an important factor for the success of your application and increase of a customer's lifetime value. But now, it is not enough to write a good message. The copywriting has become better, the messages have become more action-based and the users are demanding more personalization. They know what they want, and it is up to the mobile developers to deliver.

Uber push notification dialogue

A fact to blow your mind: Push notifications double retention rates!

Retention will make or break your app. According to research by Kahuna Mobile Marketing, the success of mobile marketing depends on how many users opt-in for push notifications. It says that "The higher the opt-in rate, the more willing customers are to receive messaging, and the more effective your marketing messages will ultimately be."

It is important to understand the stats and to take them very seriously. Kahuna’s data shows companies can expect a 45% retention rate for 30 days by using clever notifications. To achieve that, every app needs to build genuine trust with its users, especially if it needs permissions for push messages. Once users agree to alerts, the app can start the user journey leading them from beginners to power users.

Retention rates for apps that use push notifications

Ultimately, it helps if you are building an app in an industry that has above-average opt-in rates, like travel & transportation, real estate, and even sports. These industries are valuable for customers because they deliver urgent information, like when is the train coming or the final result in a game.

Leisure apps are lagging behind, and that is understandable. If you want to do something during your free time, you would want to do that at your own time and your own pace.

But there is a solution for industries with lower opt-ins. The lower rates can be fixed if you don’t follow blindly the successful case studies from other industries. Understand the rhythm of your customers, and send them notifications once per week, instead of once per day. Learn about your users, what they want, what you can offer them, and be personal in that communication.

Great personal and timely push notification

Great! Now please explain: What are push notifications?

Let me try to be a bit poetic: Push notifications are the windows to your app. And now let's be real again: They are the first thing users notice about your app, your offers, and the value you promise to them. If you have a clever push strategy you will get more loyal customers, better retention, more active users, and higher session times for your app. And to build that awesome strategy you would need to start at the beginning.

Push notifications are neither email messages nor in-app messages. There are similarities, except that push notifications are designed to interrupt a user's activity to share some valuable information or persuade the customer to take an immediate action.

App developers need to understand that all different communication channels can be used along cross-channel data to get a user’s interest. For example, send an email to those customers who haven’t opted-in for notifications.

BBC news notification for Donald Trump

To paraphrase Mr. Trump: “Push notifications are great. Really great. They are the best!” But they are also pushy! Push notifications can be invasive, outside the user control; and more often than not, they are really annoying. The app makers are the ones who are deciding when, how, and what will be delivered on customer’s phone screens, and customers have little say in how apps are invading their privacy.

The challenge mobile app developers need to solve is twofold: firstly, they need to persuade customers to opt-in for alerts; secondly, they need to continuously deliver push notifications that are actually valuable.

Around 60% of users do opt-in on Android, and 45% on iOS, but most users who have been spammed and lied to and annoyed by terrible push notifications will reluctantly agree. Around 52% of app users are finding push messages to be an “annoying distraction”, according to Localytics' research. The reason is that there are so many apps sending so many push notifications, so the first question you need to answer is what makes you different from the rest, worthy of my attention?

Look what happens when a popular Instagram user starts receiving hundreds of push notifications. Why would anyone want this experience?

Your users want to have a great experience with your app. People download apps from brands they emotionally connect with, or they offer great discounts, and have added value for each individual. But most app developers think that once they got the attention of users who opt-in for notifications, that gives them right to spam them. Wrong!

You need to think hard to find the right balance, and it begins with figuring out who your users are, what they want, and how to talk to them. Yes, it sounds easy, but it is actually the hardest part. Getting an answer to these three questions will give you a clear picture what you can do with your push notifications. Take this as an example....

Bad push notification

Find a way to build trust with users before you start spamming them

Customer trust is very hard to gain and easy to lose. But you can build it step by step, taking into consideration every touchpoint when users interact with your app.

First, let them explore your app before asking them to opt-in for alerts. If your app is valuable to them, find the right time to encourage them to opt-in. Tell them when and what you will send them, give them the option to customize notifications and be honest in your messaging. Creating a good onboarding strategy will go a long way for your new users. If they understand the app right away, they would surely want to use it.

Clever notification for onboarding users

What most apps really need is a community of loyal power-users. Referral and word-of-mouth are powerful marketing tools, which is why your end game should be to build a community of high-value users who will increase your ROI by subscribing or attracting more friends to join. According to the Kahuna's report, the first 30 days are critical for converting first users into active users. Push notifications and continual engagement with messages can help you build that trust in the first month.

Be honest in your messages, because most of us are becoming more and more cynical of apps that try to scam us in some way or another. Are you offering something of value? Can your app help me in some way? Are you just trying to persuade me to join your community? Be honest about it, and maybe you'll grab my attention to look at your app, and as soon as I open it then you'll get a chance to make your selling point.

Write short and concise messages. That is enough.

Hemingway hated elaborate sentences. “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know... and then go on from there,” he famously said. And this cannot be truer when writing clever and persuasive push notifications. You only have 90 characters on Android and 140 on iOS, so why do you want to complicate things? Write simple, and write true sentences.

Netflix's short and smart notification

Users spend seconds looking at your message, and they don't have time to think about it and figure out what the hell you are trying to say. Write a concise sentence and get to the point right away. Are you offering something cool? Tell them right away what that cool thing you are offering is and where to get it. If you find writing a hard task, Localytics has some great writting formulas that you can follow for a start, but don’t take them for granted. Every app has its own audience, and every brand has its own tone of voice. Find yours.

Use impactful, power verbs and positive language; avoid generic messages. Use well-known phrases to catch a customer’s attention, even go as far as newsjacking, although you need to be good at this. Instead of saying “Level unlocked. Play now!” use “Fight your way in a new adventure. Meet the new boss!”

London's public transport notifications

Always remember that push notifications are delivered on personal phones. The app talks to an individual user, so the most effective way is to use “you” in direct language. Instead of "Bus 33 is about to arrive,” you can create a better personal connection by saying "Bus 33 is about to arrive. You have 3 minutes to catch it". Smarter apps would use location to determine how far the user is from the bus stop.

As software engineers, you need to remember that Android and iOS are not the same. Android alerts open with a tap, on iOS, they do the same with a slide. Avoid the common mistake of using a generic message to tell your Android users to 'slide' to open an app. It is not a big deal, but you are confusing your user and every small mistake adds up.

Avoid spamming and advertising as you would avoid the plague

Push notifications are not a medium for delivering ads. They are short messages that invite users to check out your app or to give them something interesting. If you worked hard to gain customers’ trust and to persuade them to opt-in for alerts, why would you use that privilege to spam them with ads?

Use push notifications to share important valuable information, introduce dormant users to the new functionalities in the app, offer them something exclusive to make them use your app again and be more active, and try to build some trust. Think about how to become friends with your users, not how to pull money out of their pockets.

For push notifications to work and help you retain users they need to be a part of a long-term messaging strategy.

You need to keep users interested, and that cannot be achieved by spamming advertising messages. If they opt-out, they might as well delete your application.

Spamming notifications are never a good thing

Don't shame your users, encourage them to be better!

If you need to push your customers to use your app, don't start YELLING AT THEM WITH FULL CAPS or shame them. Recently, I’ve seen too many fitness apps reminding me that I am lazy. Messages like “You won't get fit if you don't go to the gym” will not make me say “Yes, the app is right, it knows me best. I am on my way to the gym.” No! That will never happen.

Be more encouraging and remember to use more positive language. Time your push notifications after work hours to remind users that the gym is a great place to relieve some stress. Give them the option to take a break, and maybe set up a deadline for them to decide, but let that decision be theirs. Don't be aggressive in your persuading, but be friendly. After all, we all like recommendations from good friends who care about us.

Users love encouraging notifications

Use social proof that your app actually works. Social proof can be used to increase click rate, as high as 40%. Encourage users to be part of a community that shares the same interest, and tell them that you can help them, make their life easier, and only ask them to make a lifestyle change if they are genuinely interested in your app. You can recognize those who have real interest by how long they've been an active user in the community.

You talkin’ to me? I am the only one here.

Personalization is the most important thing for users. More and more apps are using personalized messages to communicate with their users because they know that personalization depends on a solid segmentation strategy.

And to understand how to distribute the right messages, apps are giving their users more options to customize the alerts they care about. Use personal data, as Antoine Sakho, product manager at Busuu, wrote in his awesome Medium post for designing push notifications that don’t suck.

Your users will let you get to know them only if you let them personalize which alerts they want to receive. Grab their attention and tell them that they are actually in control. Give them options to decide for themselves, and remind them that they can turn notifications on and off within the app.

Personalized content can be a user’s favorite sports team, a pair of shoes they looked at on the app, or their physical location. For example, if you are designing a news app, let your readers decide what matters to them: politics, sports, or lifestyle articles. Then send them alerts that you will be certain they would enjoy.

Personalized push notifications always work

This practice of personalization will tell your users that you are putting in an effort for them. This will build trust that you can eventually exploit for spamming them with ads... wait, scratch that. It is easy to exploit the knowledge about your users, but it is better to use it to deliver engaging messages.

You know where the users are. Follow them!

Using location is one of the key features of personalization. Except it may be creepy that you are following users wherever they go, unless you have something great to offer them. By now, you should’ve made an effort to understand your users, to learn about their interests, and to know the right time to talk to them.

You should tread carefully with location tracking, and use honest hacks that can help. Give your users an opportunity to opt-out from location services, so when they decide to opt-in you will know that they have enough trust in your app. Then use location awareness to deliver something special, an offer they can't refuse. This will build more trust and will make your users be on alert for your notifications wherever they go.

Foursquare push notification

Timing is everything if you are really ready for it.

If you have 20 apps, you'll receive 20 notifications. If you have 100 apps you will turn everything off, maybe even throw your phone away. Alerts are distractions, and most of the time they can harm the users.

Think about this example. It’s 1 p.m., you are at the office, focused on work, and suddenly your phone can’t stop buzzing because of a final offer for an exotic vacation, or an offer for shoes on sale, or 5% off on a new computer, or a new TV show that will premiere in 10 hours, or someone retweeted your tweet from last night, or someone is messaging you on Facebook, and there are many likes on your picture from when you were drunk. How is this helping you?

Terribly timed push notification

Getting the right timing for sending messages should be a priority. You wouldn't want a push notification to wake you up from your sleep at 3:00 a.m. just to tell you the breaking news from another part of the world. Timing shows that you care about your users.

Push messages are attention-getting by nature, which can work to your advantage. Users like to receive time-sensitive information, and you need to figure out if the information you have is valuable for them.

Most apps use push notifications to remind users that they have it on their phones. The goal here is to encourage inactive users to open the app again. But you need to time the new invite perfectly, because these users have already seen your app and lost interest in it. Time it perfectly with a special offer or a cool new feature, and you’ll re-engage them.

Are you 100% sure? A/B test the message again.

Every smart marketer, and even smarter software engineer, will tell you one thing: testing is a way to find success. Don't settle on one generic message. As soon as you understand users’ interests, start experimenting with various messages.

A/B test everything. Do gifs in a push notification work? Are emojis better? Should you ask for action or just send information? Use short or long messages? Use “in next 2 hours” or “in next two hours”?

Awesome push notification

Start figuring out what works. Then test again. And again. In the end, a good test will give you the success rate of your messages and you will easily understand your users and the tone of voice they expect from your app.

Hey, do you even push?

As you can imagine, there are a lot of services that offer cross-platform push notifications. They all have the same goal: to maximize engagement and vary in approach. We won't go into details about them, they are all good and better, but we can list them for you to try and test them. The most popular are Amazon's SNS, Carnival.io, OneSignal, Pushwoosh, GoRoost, Urbanairship, Airpush, Catapush, Batch...

Writing is an art form, but you can do it.

Learning to write short messages is almost like creating art. It is not expected for you to be Ernest Hemingway, but you should follow the best practices and write smarter and more engaging push notifications. It is not easy. It is very hard. But the effort will be rewarded with more engaged users and higher retention rates.

If you liked this article, we’ll promise that we’ll have more for you. Follow us on Twitter or on Facebook. We started Syncano’s blog to share cool stuff with software engineers and mobile developers, and we would love to hear from you. Write to us at [email protected].