The 4 Do’s and Don’ts of Push Notifications

mobile phone on an orange background with push notifications

In a hyper-digitalized society, push notifications are your best bet for communicating with users of your mobile app. The majority of marketing emails are caught by spam filters, and we tend to ignore the ones that make it to our inbox. SMS is clunky and unreliable, can cost both the sender and the receiver money, and is curtailed by various regulations worldwide.

On the other hand, push notifications are versatile, highly reliable, and (when done right) can be tailored to users’ different interests, locations, and demographics to provide them much-needed information.

So where have push notifications gone wrong? Why are they a synonym for “spam” to many mobile users, with Apple CEO Tim Cook infamously urging people to turn off their iPhone notifications?

As with any marketing medium, there is a right way and a wrong way to orchestrate a push notification campaign. First, let’s take a look at certain bad practices that should be avoided at all costs…

Push Notification Don’ts

1. Don’t Send Out Notification Blasts.

It may be tempting to send out notifications en masse to all users of your mobile app. After all, the wider the marketing funnel, the better the end results, right? In fact, this tired, “storm the gates” approach to sending notifications only serves to exasperate users.

Our digital lives are already oversaturated with content, and flooding people’s devices with more noise is just going to alienate them. They’ll end up disabling your push notifications, or – worse – deleting your app.

2. Don’t Send Irrelevant Notifications.

In the same vein, don’t send a notification to a device unless the likelihood is high that the user will find value in it. Individual devices provide us a wealth of data metrics that provide a pretty comprehensive idea of what your user will find interesting, so there is no excuse for sending poorly targeted notifications.

For example, if a person’s browsing history includes vegan recipes and articles about the health benefits of a plant-based diet, don’t send them a discount code for dinner at a steak restaurant.

Similarly, if your user has just used your travel app to book a flight to Paris, it’s likely that their need for flights to Paris has been satisfied. Most people only take one big vacation per year, so pushing them to buy another flight to Paris will probably not achieve results.

3. Don’t Send Notifications at Inconvenient Times.

Timing is another pain point when it comes to sending push notifications. There’s nothing worse than having your phone buzz at an inopportune moment, such as when you’re driving to work, or giving a presentation, or trying to sleep. Data metrics should be able to map out what your user’s weekday and weekend schedules are, so you can avoid timing notifications to go out when they have other priorities.

What’s more, it’s important to take time zones into account. For example, say you, a marketer living in New York, schedule a push notification to go out at 7 pm, assuming your user will be home from work and relaxing. If you fail to factor in the fact that this particular user lives in the UK, they’ll be getting that notification at midnight.

4. Don’t Send Notifications Without the Proper Context

While push notifications are highly reliable, the process of bouncing push tokens between the device, the app backend servers, and global push delivery services such as APNS or Firebase can result in a disconnect.

Notifications can occasionally arrive jumbled, or with crucial links in a notification campaign lost on the way to delivery. Sometimes, if an app is using SMS as well as push, a user can receive the same message multiple times, which will make them feel harassed.

4 different phone screens with a lot of notifications displayed on each

Push Notification Do’s

1. Less Is More

With push notifications, aim for quality over quantity. Remember, your users are probably receiving notifications from all their other apps as well! So instead of 10-20 notifications per day, consider sending only 3-5. But make sure they’re some stellar notifications, with rich content, deep links, and emojis to liven up your content and boost user engagement.

2. Personalize Your Notifications

Personalization is the golden rule when it comes to push notifications. It’s crucial to tailor your notifications to an individual user’s interests so that you can provide value in a way that fits their needs. Luckily, all information needed to customize push notifications is available in your user’s data: think social media profiles, browser history, recent purchases, and more.

So for that user who has recently browsed a lot of vegan recipes, your travel app could send them an invitation to look at the top 10 vegetarian restaurants in their area. Or for that user who just booked a flight to Paris, why not show them options of hotels they could reserve or cars they could hire through your app?

Data triggers are the tools used to hyper personalize your push notifications for a campaign that really stands out. However, data privacy is a growing issue, with the EU and now California implementing comprehensive laws against data abuse. When it comes to GDPR and CCPA, as well as the more niche HIPAA and COPPA regulations, make sure you are processing your users’ personal information legally and ethically.

3. Choose the Moment That’s Right for Your User

Where most push notification campaigns go wrong is they’re coming at the situation from the perspective of the marketer. Instead, consider what would be the moment your user would be most likely to read your notification, instead of ignoring or swiping away.

Again, user data is what will help you accomplish this. Geolocation will tell you not only what time it is, but what the weather is like, how local traffic is, whether there are any disruptive events, etc.

Data regarding your user’s habitual phone usage can give you a pretty good idea of what their work and commute times are like. Their Google Calendar can let you know if they have, for example, a work presentation or other important meeting that you should avoid.

So when is an ideal time? It varies, but a good rule of thumb is to go for times you know they’ll be relaxed and with attention to spare… think that time on a weeknight when you’re home from work, finished with dinner, but not yet getting ready to go to sleep.

4. Write Great Content

The purpose of push notifications is getting your customer to engage in a meaningful way with your app. And this isn’t going to happen unless you write some great content to pique their interest. Use humor! Address your user by name and appeal to their emotions! Use language that will get them excited!

Like any marketing campaign, push notifications involve a lot of trial and error, so be sure to analyze your results to see which approaches to keep using. And remember: If you have fun with your push notifications, it’s likely that your user will too, and they’ll feel more inclined to keep coming back to your app.


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