Preventing Mobile App Notification Overdose

Written by on April 6, 2016

At Hotline, we always think hard about how we can help our customers (businesses/product owners) engage with their mobile app users better. Recently there has been some discussion going on about abuse of the push notification channel, and how notifications could be smarter and more relevant with context.

Here’s our take:

Today: Onus on the Product Owners

The product manager or marketing person on the team building an app usually end up controlling when to notify a user using push. Maybe its an update/announcement, a marketing message, or a notification triggered by an event that needs user action.

While some of these *need* users to act immediately, some of it is merely communication to the user that has no urgency associated with it. For example, there is no need to tell an active user of your app about new features you added on the same day you pushed out the update.

Segmentation: Offers some personalization, better context

Tools like ours offer ways to segment your users smartly. For instance, we let you send a message on an app update only to users on a previous version who haven’t used your app in the last X weeks (say 4). Probably as a way to tell those users who may be lapsing that you have improved the product.

Segmentation is a strong way to make sure your notifications are relevant to users. Here are some examples:

  1. Send a message on a feature change only to users who have tried that feature before.
  2. Send a marketing message or promotion after considering the location, demographic info, and usage patterns of that user.
  3. Prompt a user to tell you how to improve the app if it looks like you are losing that user. ( He/she hasn’t used your app in a while after trying it a few times.)
  4. Survey only a small % of customers to get their inputs/feedback rather than push to everyone.
  5. Ask users if they are interested in offers before you start sending them any.

You can also see how many users engaged with your push message – received it, read your message, and even reacted to it (since Hotline is a 2-way communication channel, people can also respond/react to your communication). You should only target those who read your message for the next message of similar nature.

Segmentation doesn’t solve it all

An overambitious PM who wants to increase engagement can still do damage. Segmentation doesn’t prevent him/her from sending too many messages.

We need a way to keep a tab on how many messages are going out to each user to avoid frustration from too many push message too often.

A control mechanism needed with multiple kinds of limits?

A recent conversation with a customer gave us some good ideas on a control mechanism for pushing messages to users.

We discussed 2 kinds of limits:

Per user per month – Depends on the kind of app and category of messaging. We need a rule like “You shouldn’t be sending more than 4 messages a month to users relating to announcements, offers”. This way you make sure you prioritize sending messages relevant to them.

% users a message can target – Force segmentation by adding a limit on what % of your users can get a specific message from you. Not more than 10% – so you figure out which 10% that message is relevant to.

We’d love to hear inputs/thoughts on these and try out some of these with our product.

Not all notifications are equal

Some notifications deserve to appear the banner when using the phone, some just to be there in the notification center for when you get to other notifications there, some to alert you with a sound pro-actively.

Can we impose limits on how many of each kind of notification an app can use?

What about the transactional/event-triggered notifications?

There are notifications based on events that require user attention or communication. This includes receiving a new mail, a tweet mentioning you, letting you know its your turn in a game, etc.

While these do sound like necessary evil, there are still rules that can help.

Time Windows for Messaging: It would be great if we had defined time windows when we care for these notifications and times when we just don’t need some of them:

  1. I don’t want to know if its my turn to play in Ruzzle unless its between 9-11PM,
  2. Don’t tell me about new articles I can read on your news app at 3AM.

Tweets, Email, Whatsapp: Just deal with it?

The best outcome of the Gmail tabs (promotions, social) has been that we don’t get push notifications anymore for most of the spam that goes into these folders!

Sinofsky makes a good point on modes like “don’t notify while driving”.

Android does a decent job of clubbing together a bunch of notifications and providing actions right from the notification screen.

When we’re dealing only with notifications related to people reaching out to us, it’s tough to draw any lines on which ones matter and which ones are OK to ignore.

Finally, the onus is still on the product owner to ensure the best experience. The platform cannot impose rules given the diversity of apps and use-cases. If you care for your users, and don’t want them turning off push or just deleting your app, you need to give more thought to how you use push notifications.

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