When push comes to shove: How to strike the right balance around app notifications

Shane SchickIt didn't take long before mobile developers started to see some pushback on push notifications. A recent post on TechCrunch offered Sarah Perez the opportunity to make the kind of populist rant that will hit home with anyone whose smartphone has gone off one too many times in a five-minute period. Citing a range of app types that can use push notifications pushed by Urban Airship, Perez singles out social media mobile apps as a major drain on users' patience. The endless alerts on who has liked what and who has followed who has just become too much, she argues, and the impact is worse than developers may realize.

"The problem with push notification abuse is not just that it's annoying when you're interrupted by something that has no meaning to you, it's that it creates an environment where users become suspect of the whole push notification mechanism itself. I'd argue we're already there," Perez writes. "If you've said 'no' to an app upon first launch when it asks your permission to send push notifications, then you basically agree. Users can no longer trust developers to use the system properly, so we're opting out of notifications entirely."

Ultimately, however, Perez has little to offer as a solution other than to push less, and push in a way that's more relevant. That can be a difficult balance to strike when you're dealing with the mass market, where individual consumers may have vastly different ideas about what deserves a notification. Here are a few more practical ways to address this potential problem head-on:

  • Push when you've got permission--The clearer you are about what will be sent out, the easier it is to manage expectations. Take a lesson from the desktop side by looking at how LinkedIn details how much e-mail you'll receive when you join a LinkedIn group. I almost always opt out of the daily e-mail digest many groups offer, and if my inbox could thank me for it, I'm sure it would.
  • Push when you've got data--When content is related to a user's previous activity, there tends to be greater uptake. For example, if you know a user has used a music-sharing app to download a song or get information about a particular artist, he or she might be interested in a notification about that artist's upcoming album or CD, or even about artists in a similar genre. You can only do that if a user shares some of his preferences up front, of if he has used the app long enough to gather meaningful data. When meaningful notifications arrive over time, it reflects a more personalized experience, much like the way we tend to want to spend more time with a friend the longer we know and understand them (and vice-versa).
  • Push what's insanely popular--There is a reason people pay attention to what's trending on Twitter, Facebook or similar services. You have to figure out the right threshold for "insanely popular," but if it's something that has proven useful or entertaining to a vast majority of your audience, it may be worth offering it more directly to the portion that has otherwise missed out.
  • Push to show you care--No one minds a notification if their account has been hacked or compromised in some way. Likewise, push if there has been any update to the app that will change the way personal data is collected, shared and stored. Push notifications are a responsible way to show users that they are ultimately in control of their app experience.

Though Perez is right that users can easily obliterate an app rather than simply changing their preferences, it might be better for developers to think less about losing users and more about how the right approach to push notifications can build loyalty and engagement. It's also important to recognize that what drives people crazy today may not seem as intrusive tomorrow. Yes, there is a limit to how often people are willing to be interrupted and distracted. But the history of technology is proof that limits were meant to be (gently) pushed.--Shane