How Media Organizations Use Push Alerts to Reach Readers

WSJ, NYT, LAT and The Washington Post treat them like stand-alone products

pink background with a person holding a blank cellphone that has blue and pink text boxes coming out
Increasingly, publications are using push alerts to reach new and old readers alike. Photo Illustration: Trent Joaquin; Source: Getty Images

Push alerts aren’t just referral channels for media companies. Instead, publishers consider them stand-alone editorial products and use their scale and reach to build strong, direct, habit-forming relationships with readers where they’re consuming information—on their phones.

Not all media businesses are doing it the same way, but they’re operating with a similar set of standards for how they send alerts or what they say when they do, according to a weeklong Adweek analysis of push alerts from four major media companies: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.

These publishers’ investment in push alerts comes as more readers use them as a news source. Twenty-two percent of Americans said they came across news stories from a push alert, according to Reuters’ Digital News Report 2020, up from 13% in 2015.

“It’s like tapping someone on the shoulder,” said Dan Watson, digital editor at the LAT. “Push alerts are one of the most fragile relationships we have with readers.”

The publishers sent push alerts with different frequencies.
Photo Illustration: Trent Joaquin

Creating a stand-alone product

Publishers said they employ a team of editors to write push alerts, a process that often involves multiple drafts and copy editing.

“We’re really thinking about notifications from a journalistic perspective,” said Jennifer Hicks, deputy chief news editor at the WSJ. “Our notification strategy is often derived from the underlying storytelling experience.”

It’s not uncommon, for instance, for push alerts to undergo several rounds of editing at the NYT. “We haggle over alert language,” said Eric Bishop, deputy editor and overseer of push alerts at the media company.

A successful push alert would be a stand-alone piece of editorial content, said Mary-Katharine Phillips, a media innovation analyst at tech company Twipe, with enough information included that the reader doesn’t even need to click through.

As an example from Aug. 1, wording over a story on overcrowded housing underwent several rounds of edits after a NYT editor approached Bishop with the story. The initial suggestion was: “Crowded homes packed with low-income workers have been ravaged by coronavirus, even in Silicon Valley.”

The many drafts a single push alert from The New York Times undergoes.
Photo Illustration: Trent Joaquin

Ultimately, the NYT pushed out, “Overcrowding has defined many hot spots of the virus. In Silicon Valley, it swept through a three-bedroom house with 12 people, mostly service workers.”

“I think it was the best option because it told both the bigger story … and also zoomed in on the particular experience of one home, with details that draw you in,” Bishop explained.

Reaching all readers

There is also the potential to reach new and returning readers with push alerts. A 2016 study from the University of Texas at Austin found that 58.5% of users open a news app after reading its push alert. None of the companies Adweek analyzed required a news subscription to receive notifications, and most pushed stories were available to read for free on publisher apps.

Editors at the media companies Adweek spoke to said they were not primarily concerned with the alerts’ clickthrough rates or the percentage of users who tap an alert to open the app, both of which impact monetization as most publishers rely on in-app ads to generate revenue.

“In the newsroom, we’re not thinking about advertising or monetization when we send notifications. We’re thinking about the news value of each alert,” Hicks said.

In addition, push alerts tend to be unreliable at directing users to publishers’ apps. Without providing specific figures, Watson said a successful push alert might get a clickthrough rate of only a few percentage points, with search and social media more effective at directing readers to the app.

Rachel Winicov is an intern with Adweek for the summer of 2020 focusing on digital media, ad tech and social media. She is a rising senior at the University of Pennsylvania, where she studies classics. Rachel is from Philadelphia, Pa.