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Digital Digital Strategy
11 minute read

Push Notifications For Growth: 5 Steps to Success

Mobile push notifications are a great way to drive activation, retention and loyalty. But they require a strategy to really win in mobile. There’s no other channel like it. Used if correctly, push notifications drive activation, nudge users through onboarding and engagement flywheels, create the stickiest retention and lead to stronger customer loyalty and higher-value customers.

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You’ve seen it happen time and again across industries: a new digital challenger enters a space with a hot app and quickly rises up the app store charts, with great reviews and tons of usage. What’s the secret — great design, the right features, a huge ad blitz?

It turns out that the secret strategy behind organic audience growth is creating your own messaging channel with push notifications. These alerts are sent directly to a user’s device at a scheduled time with a rich message payload. And when a user taps a notification, they’re brought directly to the relevant screen within an app — the shortest path from message to activation ever seen across any marketing channel.

Because they’re fully digital and easily triggered, push notifications capture the marketing Holy Grail: sending the right message to the right consumer at the right time with the right offer, all with 1:1 personalization. There’s no other channel like it, and used if correctly, push notifications drive activation, nudge users through onboarding and engagement flywheels, create the stickiest retention and overall lead to stronger customer loyalty and higher-value customers.

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Notifications require a strategy to be effective.

So why doesn’t everyone use push notifications? Because while push is such an attractive channel, it’s sensitive to misuse. Hastily assembled or poorly thought-out push strategies can annoy users, causing them to lose interest or block notifications altogether. These bad behaviors start when marketers don’t take the time to earn the push notification enablement, requiring all users to enable push as the first action. They then overwhelm the user with asks without first offering value in return. 

Marketers may also use too many notifications, interrupting the user and giving them extra work to dismiss the non-relevant message. Compounding that, with the ability to offer retargeting, push notifications can repel users if the content feels too invasive or too targeted. It’s important to have a clear push strategy to avoid these pitfalls and earn access to the most valuable conduit between you and your customers.

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There are 5 steps to a great push strategy.

With the above in mind, building a solid push notification strategy requires five key steps:

  1. Earn the notification
  2. Create a messaging cadence
  3. Different flows for different folks
  4. Stick the landing
  5. Keep your eye on the ball

Earn the notification

If the first misstep is demanding push enablement too early, what’s the correct strategy? Let’s look at a new use of a common phrase: registration. In traditional printing methods, registration refers to the ink colors of a print all lining up correctly to create a beautiful image. In UX strategy, registration has a similar meaning — making sure the actions we’re trying to encourage line up correctly with the user’s intent. We want to ensure that the request to enable push notifications is in registration with a peak moment in user delight, intent and utility.

A simple example is with a food delivery app. The perfect moment to ask is after the order is placed. The user is now in a mode of uncertainty — not sure if the order went through, if it will have the right items or if it will arrive on time. Enabling transactional updates via push notifications is a great way to provide assurance, a sense of certainty, peace of mind and control to the user. It gives users a sense of trust and transparency, allowing them to manage their time as the delivery arrives. That certainty is extremely valuable to the user, and a great moment to encourage the enablement of push notifications.

The other key is that this type of transactional notification is purely valuable to the end user. There is no call to action, there is no expectation of follow-on behavior. It’s a one-way value exchange from the app and service to the user. In this way, it banks user value.

Once earned, the channel can slowly be turned into a messaging channel. 3-5 minutes after the food is delivered, a “Did your order look right?” push notification can offer interactivity, a “yes” or “no” button to let the user know you’re still there and still cares and sets the precedent that a two-way relationship is possible here.

Thirty minutes later, a “How was your meal” survey might be in order. And then the next day a “Thank you for ordering, here’s a coupon for next time” message opens up the relationship for value exchange.

The idea is to front-load the value exchange in favor of the user as much as possible in registration with their expected use cases and user delight. And once opened, it’s important to conceptually maintain the “bank balance” in the user’s favor, always offering value before sending an ask or call to action.

So what steps should you take to start a push plan? Think of it as telling the story of a new user who has downloaded the app for the first time. There’s probably a “golden path” of onboarding that may look something like:

App Opened > Welcome Message Viewed > Menu Viewed > Cart Item Added > Checkout Started > Delivery Option Selected > Order Confirmed > Delivery Status Shown > Delivery Confirmed

Within that flow, there are a few good options to set up a messaging story. The best option is to wait until order confirmation to ask the user to enable push notifications. Why? Because that action is in registration with the users’ expectations of being informed.

  • Ask at the right time.
  • Ask for the right reasons.
  • Create value before you extract any.
  • Honor the relationship.

Create a messaging cadence

The superpowered approach for push notifications is to group them in a cadence. An example would be starting a cadence with an awareness message to drive interest, then a tip or news story to trigger engagement and lastly an offer to drive activation. 

These cadences can be chained together and varied for a yearlong content calendar. For example, if you’re using push for a grocery app, there’s a weekly schedule of holidays, get-togethers, sporting events and seasonal food items that each could merit their own push cadence.

Taking it to the next level, these workflows can be tailored to different cohorts — sending BBQ cadences only to people who’ve purchased charcoal and ribs in the past. By tying messages to interest and behavior, you’ll see an increase in engagement and activation in these campaigns.

Lastly, one-to-one behavioral cadences can be used to help nurture a user through a funnel. Consider the purchase funnel above:

App Opened > Welcome Message Viewed > Menu Viewed > Cart Item Added > Checkout Started > Delivery Option Selected > Order Confirmed > Delivery Status Shown > Delivery Confirmed

A returning user may add items to a cart, and then get distracted by a text and background the app. This can trigger the start of a return nurture push campaign, with a series of possible pushes designed to engage with that exact user based on their state in the funnel. So a “Don’t forget — your cart is waiting for you” push can help convert those missed sales opportunities. This can also become part of a cadence — an awareness message about the cart, then a suggestion of follow-on items that might be of interest based on what’s in the cart (“Did you forget to add hotdogs to go with the hot dog buns?”) and lastly an offer to drive urgency (“Complete your order in the next ten minutes and we’ll throw in the ketchup for free”).

Message cadences like these have driven e-commerce based applications to the top of the app store and to the top of the category for preference and revenue. 

Different flows for different folks

An important piece of the puzzle to remember is that not every user experiences and interacts with push notifications in the same manner. Here are a few examples of the varying tactics you can implement when testing the success of push notification implementation:

  • Map your customer journey so you can use automated push notifications to respond to user behavior to increase goals of conversion, engagement and retention.
  • Use app-focused goals in your conversion funnels — account creation, key action, purchase and return, based on the user’s current state, and customize the workflow to their past behavior.
  • Enable engagement flywheels — like getting a text message, replying and then checking for new messages.

A basic flywheel includes four steps: a trigger, followed by a responding action, which results in a variable reward and encourages investment. A simple example is a push notification delivering a mystery scratch-off coupon. The user enjoys the action of scratching the virtual coupon to reveal the prize — $.50 or $5.00 off an important item to them — which they collect by “clipping” the coupon and adding the item to their cart. T-Mobile Tuesdays is an example of this type of promotion.

  • Data-informed triggers — Many loyalty programs employ a simple model of their customer called RFM: “recency, frequency, monetary.” Recency is a measure of the last time the user opened the app, usually measured in days, but for some this could be weeks. Frequency is how often a user opens the app in a certain period — this could be multiple times per day for a messaging app or once a month for a banking app. And lastly monetary is an indicator of the value of a customer.
    • By setting RFM triggers, push workflows can be set to activate when a user dips below their usual RFM threshold, bringing them back or encouraging them to engage more deeply.

Stick the landing

Just like in gymnastics, if your routine is perfect but you falter on your landing, you’ll lose points. Keep this in mind as you close the loop with users.

  • Use deep linking to perfect the push handoff — Push notifications are unique from ads and email because they direct a user directly to a sub-screen within an app. A simple version of this would be a Facebook notification about a comment on a post. Tapping that notification should open directly to the post itself, placing the user in the immediate context to take the next best action. This is called deep linking and enables a rich, tightly integrated app experience.
  • In-app messaging screens simulate deep linking for more simple apps. Many apps don’t have user-specific functions — a sandwich app’s menu is generally the same for everyone — so in-app screens allow for a deep linking type of experience. A customized “landing screen” triggered by the push notification allows for that same registration experience that helps create a cohesive activation funnel for the user. In simplest terms, tapping on a coupon or offer notification should open a screen detailing that offer.

Keep your eye on the ball

Keep your eye on the ball and where you’d like to take it. Slam dunks don’t happen overnight and take practice and experimentation.

  • Measure, measure, measure — Being a fully digital channel, push notifications provide near-instant, detailed feedback on campaign performance and response. This gives marketers incredible insight into what’s working, why it’s been working and what they should do next. It goes so far beyond open rates — good instrumentation should be able to monitor the entire engagement funnel, showing how a push notification led to increased app usage, more sales or activations and even tie to activity offline in retail or brick-and-mortar experiences.
  • Experiment and grow — With no cost to create as many workflows as you choose, experience variation is as simple as tweaking variables. A/B testing, multivariate testing, cohort balancing, daypart variation — the possibilities may seem endless, but tying tightly to the funnel and goals, marketers can quickly optimize experiences for a full spectrum of users, not just a single golden path.

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It’s as easy as counting to five.

Following these five simple steps, you’ll earn the right to have a valuable, deep channel of interaction with your customer. You’ll keep the channel exciting by creating a cadence of automated messages that hold user attention and drive engagement. Using experience variations you’ll make every user feel at home with 1:1 messaging. And you’ll follow through with a terrific in-app experience that pays off on the promise of the notification.

The best part? You’ll be measuring all of the results so you can optimize and improve the performance of your messaging.