Push It Real Good

Push It Real Good

November 11, 2013

Push notifications seem pretty simple to most of us now. Anyone who has used Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram or any number of popular mobile apps in the past few years has received push notifications on a daily basis. Amazingly though, for all its simplicity, Push is a technology that is very new and very, very distruptive. It's estimated that Push-based messaging applications such as WhatsApp have already lost Telecoms companies more than $23bn (£15bn) of SMS revenue in 2012 alone (according to separate estimates by research firm Ovum).

Before we jump into discussing how Push messaging can benefit your apps, and in turn your clients, it's important to understand the fundamental difference between Push technology and the more common "Pull" mechanisms. Pull technologies are initiated by the client, i.e. your computer or your device, and make a request to the server for data. In order to do this in the context of a mobile application, your app has to be active and running. Additionally, your application has no idea at the time of making a pull request whether there's even new messages or data to be retreived, meaning you have no idea at the time of the data call whether that request is going to be redunant or not. Compare this to Push technology (often more accurately called a Publish/Subscribe model), in which the data is Pushed to the client (your device) by the server. This has both the added benefit of ensuring your client app never makes redundant calls to the server and neither does your client app need to be active and running at the time of receiving a message - the mobile device operating system handles this for you. This makes Push technology inherintely more useful and powerful for receiving messages and notices that Pull technology. So what's the best way to get maximum mileage out of Push technology then, and what does it cost?

First, the good news - Push is free - up to a point. Most of the major Push service providers such as Urban Airship, Appcelerator Cloud Services, PushWoosh and others have very generous free limts starting from 1 Million notifications per month, right up to unlimited notifications (but a maximum cap of a million devices) for PushWhoosh. After that costs can vary, but typically range from around $100 - $1,000 per million messages sent, depending on the provider. So Push is a relatively affordable technology, particuarly for startups and smaller apps, but what's the best way to get maxium mileage out of it and build customer loyalty?

  1. Always ensure your push notifications are both timely, and relevant. For example, a restaurant application that provided a daily message with some new and relevant content to it's users would be welcome, particularly if this was well timed to arrive on a users phone around lunch! A bad example might be pushing messages for things users don't want at inconvienent times - the mobile equivalent of a PPI call at 8pm during the family meal.
  2. Don't overload your users. It's important to remember that a user will have many applications installed, all of which could potentially be pushing messages to them constantly throughout the day. Don't overload your users by pushing messages to them constantly (unless you're a chat app, in which case it's relevant).
  3. Pick the right provider. Not all push technology providers are created equal - some of them may cost more but are significantly faster and more reliable than others. When building Loyalzoo at Tipsy & Tumbler tried a number of providers before settling with Urban Airship who consistently had the best push speeds out of everyone we tested. Although more costly, the time-critical nature of the messages we send mean that the user experience would have been signficantly poorer using some of the other providers.
  4. Remember - push notifications are never guaranteed, neither by Google or Apple! Don't go sending messages that are absolutely, legally critical. Always make sure you have a backup messaging avenue (such as email messaging) for highly critical messaging.

Push notifications can be a great way to both drive customer satisification and ensure your apps are engaged with past the initial install date - a fate suffered by many other products and services in the app market. By making sure your push messages are both relevant and add value to the customer experience, your apps can be given a huge boost in usefulness and customer retention.