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Getting Pushy With Consumers

Brands are using push notifications to target mobile users on the run

Illustration: Chris Danger

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For many of Black Entertainment Television’s hundreds of thousands of mobile app users, the cable channel’s Hip-Hop Awards on Oct. 9 will be like a virtual Oscars party. Before the show begins in Atlanta, BET’s app users will be able to submit their guesses on the order in which music stars like Usher and Rihanna will appear on stage. After the curtains open, BET’s smartphone app will send them “push notifications,” telling them how well they’re guessing. BET tested this digital contest, called The Lineup, in July for the BET Awards, tallying 150,000 participants.

“It drove a lot of engagement with viewers,” says Brandon Lucas, BET’s vp of mobile.

The push notification is a tactic beginning to take hold among brands that want to maximize the personal consumer connection afforded by mobile apps. Essentially, push notifications are opt-in text alerts that automatically surface on the home screens of smartphones. When consumers turn push notifications on within an app and then tap a marketing message when it surfaces, they’re often led to a mobile page with an offer from the brand at hand (literally).

Brands can use push notifications to target users by location down to the street level as well as by their app users’ demonstrated interests. While the notion might seem invasive on its face, marketers are counting on digital natives and older tech-savvy consumers growing comfortable with such tactics as smartphones become more pervasive and users’ expectations change. For TV networks, push notifications can remind consumers that a show is airing minutes before it starts. “The big difference between traditional text alerts and push notification is that [the latter] is a more seamless way to connect consumers to the content,” Lucas said.

BET has even begun selling sponsored push notifications for the likes of Coca-Cola. “The core message wasn’t about Coke, though,” said Lucas. “You don’t want it to become overly promotional. You’ve got to strike a delicate balance so you don’t annoy users.”

To facilitate push notices, the cable net uses the mobile technology firm Urban Airship, which also lists ESPN, Airbnb and Walgreens as clients. Walgreens uses push notifications to let customers know when their prescriptions are ready. “It’s employed by some retailers to send out daily deals,” said Brent Hieggelke, Urban Airship’s CMO. “Retail has really come on strong.”

So has StubHub, which plans to use push notifications to send out ticket price alerts. “We want to make things easier for people to get their tickets on the fly,” said Joellen Ferrer, StubHub spokesperson.