Brands Are Learning How to Master Push Notifications Like Publishers

From content to promotions

Marketers are seeing a new opportunity with branded apps. Getty Images
Headshot of Lauren Johnson

On a typical morning, the first thing people do is check their phone and see a screen full of push notifications filled with breaking news, social alerts from Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram and occasionally, a few messages from brands.

Publishers and social platforms like the New York Times, the Washington Post and Twitter have mastered mobile push notifications, often devoting teams to crafting the brief breaking news messages that get pushed out to millions of users who have downloaded their app.

Now brands are starting to take a page from publishers’ playbooks.

“Breaking news is a very different use case because you’re entering a value relationship,” said Sophie Kleber, executive creative director of product and innovation at Huge. “With brands, it’s a little bit trickier to learn some of that stuff, but there are niche moments in which that applies.”

According to IBM, push notifications sent during Thanksgiving and Black Friday weekend increased 128 percent year-over-year while email and SMS marketing was only up 7 percent. Additional stats from Branding Brand and Leanplum back up why brands are bullish on push notifications: Marketers sent 2.7 times as many push notifications on Black Friday to push out sales alerts and consumers interacted with those notifications 2.6 times more than typical push notifications.

Take Chubbies, a retailer that sells shorts and other men’s apparel, for example. Three months ago, the brand revamped its app to include exclusive merchandise first—like a discounted outlet of products and shipping deals. Push notifications aren’t geared at solely driving sales and conversions though. Instead, a team of eight people (writers, merchandisers, email marketers, designers) write and manage pithy pieces of copy—similar to a tweet—that prompt someone to open the app. Roughly 33 percent of Chubbies’ visual designer’s time is spent on push notifications, while the brand’s head of email marketing dedicates 25 percent of time to push.

“Sure, we can use them to drive a product, a promotion, a sale or something like that, but more often than not, we find great engagement with just funny one-liners like the notion of a tweet in push form,” said Tom Montgomery, co-founder at Chubbies. “Push is a solid content opportunity for us and one that we are still experimenting with and have found a decent amount of success with. [It’s] just simple, funny content that people wouldn’t expect to receive from a brand.”

As email inboxes get crammed with holiday promotions from brands, push notifications are one way that companies can cut through the clutter with a message that’s prominently visible on smartphones. At the same time, Google sorts branded emails into a promotional tab, making them harder for consumers to find.

“We think of it like an email channel but a little more fleeting—typically on email you’ll have a few hours to see clicks, engagement and revenue coming in,” Montgomery said. “With push, you’ll typically see it coming in the hour or two after the push because a phone is just a faster interaction.”

Personalized messages

For 1-800-Flowers, troves of data are collected about what people look at, how often they open the app and what they’ve bought in the past. Users’ contacts stored within their phone are used to segment and personalize push notifications and the app.

By accessing users’ contacts, the app powers one-click checkout that automatically fills in address information. The app can also detect whether someone has set up Apple Pay as their preferred payment option to restructure the checkout page with Apple Pay at the top. There’s also a newsfeed feature that’s like a mini email inbox to push messages about specific products or offers.

According to data from Braze—the tech company that powers the brand’s app—engagement with an app spikes 166 percent when consumers receive messages through two or more channels. And when those two channels are in-app features and push notifications, “users are engaging at a rate that’s over 200 percent higher than users who are just targeted with push notifications alone,” said Marissa Aydlett, svp of marketing at Braze.

1-800-Flowers has done some work around personalizing push notifications based on the delivery date and shipment method of an order. For example, if someone repeatedly buys multiple products, the copy on a push notification might promote a free-shipping program called Passport. There’s also a science to timing a push notification, which Shah said is 10 to 20 minutes after someone closes the app.

“Now that we have seen you coming back multiple times, we think that if you’re already buying multiple gifts, here’s an easy way to save across our family of brands,” said Amit Shah, 1-800-Flowers’ CMO. “There’s an avalanche of messaging from brands and most of it—which we call really personalized—is nothing better than, ‘Hello, Lauren,” Shah said.

Here’s one example of the granular attention that brands are putting into push messages: There’s a nuance between writing ‘hello’ instead of ‘hi’ in the copy. ‘Hi’ is more conversational and may be more likely to prompt someone to open the app.

“We have enough learning now that we know in what use case and what cohorts of users respond better when we have that nuanced difference,” Shah said.

For years, folks have imagined a scenario where consumers are walking by a Starbucks and get an offer for their favorite drink that causes them to buy a coffee. By and large, that situation has never played out, so brands are starting to get more creative in how they rethink push notifications for the branded apps that they’ve poured huge investments into over the past few years.

“We’re at a little bit of a point where we’ve played in the space with everything that we can do and now we have to rein it back in with what’s actually important to a user,” Huge’s Kleber explained. “Just because you can do it doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing to do.”

@laurenjohnson Lauren Johnson is a senior technology editor for Adweek, where she specializes in covering mobile, social platforms and emerging tech.