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The complete guide to push notifications for app and web

What are push notifications?

If you’re a digital marketing executive, or perhaps a CRM manager, then you more than likely have heard about “push notifications” already. And of course you’ve come to this page (probably through a search engine or from a backlink on another article), so they are obviously on your mind!

In recent years, push messages have become increasingly common sights on our desktop and mobile devices. They keep us updated with breaking news and alert us to flash sales from our favourite brands.

There’s plenty of misinformation out there about how they work, however, and some confusion around the best use cases for them. We’ve put together this resource to explain absolutely everything there is to know, including their history and development as well as their practical application across a wide variety of industries, from sports betting to eCommerce and every vertical in between.

Push notifications on web browser and mobile app

As you can see in this image, there are actually two types of push notifications; app and web browser. Originally, the term “push notification” referred solely to apps (and for some people it still does) but it has broadened out to include both.

We’ll go into the core differences between the two of them later.

We’ll also discuss best practices, from optimal send times to content that converts. Additionally, we’ll unpack the key statistics, like average open and click-through rates, and how to boost them through personalisation and real-time engagement. (Don’t worry if you’re lost, all of this will make sense!)

And as there’s a pretty good chance that you’re reading this because you’re considering adding them to your martech stack, we’ll round off the article by looking at where push notifications fit into an overall multichannel campaign.


History and development of push notifications


BlackBerry starts the ball rolling

Do you remember BlackBerry? (Here’s a link to an article on its rise and decline if not) For a period of a few years, it seemed like this one-time tech giant was set to rule the waves in mobile communications for the foreseeable future.

It’s fair to say that didn’t happen. They were, however, the first company to successfully send push notifications at a commercial level! And that in itself is a pretty impressive legacy.

Back in 2003, BlackBerry users on the move received an email notification letting them know that a message had been delivered to their inbox. Clicking on it would bring them to the email. Previously, someone with an email account wouldn’t know they had new mail unless they went and proactively checked for themselves. That seems so alien now!

This real-time notification was a core product feature that proved especially popular amongst the businesspeople who championed the brand.


Apple arrives late (and takes all the credit)

Well, maybe not quite. But it wasn’t until 2008, coinciding with the launch of the App Store, that Apple announced it had developed its own system for push notifications.

The exciting part? The system would work for any app, not just proprietary Apple technology. The story goes that so many external app developers were interested in using it that its launch had to be delayed for a year so Apple could ramp up the technology underpinning it.

Its potential was evident immediately.

Finally, in 2009, the Apple Push Notification Service was given the green light, built upon the work previously done by countless engineers and failed start-ups.

Notification bells rang out across iPhones around the world and changed mobile communications completely.

*It should be noted I’m indebted to coder Brent Royal-Gordan and his succinct overview on the origins of app push!


Android catches up

Once Android phones joined the party in 2010, app pushes were suddenly everywhere, directing us towards an abundance of content (for better or worse) of all different kinds.

The immediate boosts to engagement rates were too seductive for companies to resist, but for now, consumers were only getting notifications on their smartphones.


Google changes the game with web browser pushes

In 2013, Google revealed Google Cloud Messaging (GCM) and web browser pushes were born. Although initially, it was for sending messages to Android smartphone users, it found its way to Chrome, Google’s web browser.

Then, in 2016, GCM became FCM, or Firebase Cloud Messaging. This simplified the process of implementing push notifications for websites.


Push notifications today

As it stands, Firefox, Safari, Opera and Chrome browsers all support web push notification. And of course, any app worth its salt is sending them.

They are an ever-present feature of today’s online experience.




The technical explanation

A push notification, also known as a server push, is an internet-based message which is delivered to a device from a server, either an app server or a web server. The key thing to note is that it is the server which has initiated the message, not the user of the device.

Below is an interactive way of explaining how web push notifications work. The first step is the “opt-in” phase (which we cover in detail further down the page), where you give permission to be contacted. Pressing the send button will then deliver a genuine web push to your device!


Or in layman’s terms...

Let’s say you are not using your smartphone (well done you, on average we spend 24 hours a week looking at our phones!). It’s sitting on the table near you though. Suddenly, you hear a notification sound (or maybe, if you’re in work, it vibrates) and you pick it up to check. You discover a message sent from your favourite online publisher’s app, which you downloaded some time ago. The message is about a news story that you’ve been following and clicking on it opens up the app on the latest article written about it.

That’s an app push notification; you didn’t request the information but here it is!

A web push behaves in the same way, except that the message is delivered through the browser (on mobile devices it will look similar to an app push). You don’t have to be on a particular website to receive a push from it.

We’ll get into more detail about who you can and can’t send push notifications to later.

This video provides a quick overview of how app and web push notifications work and how they are used:



Do app and web push notifications need to be used together?

Not at all. Although brands will often use them both as part of their multichannel marketing campaigns, they are separate channels that work independently of one another. It wouldn’t be uncommon for brands to have profiles in their database that can be engaged on both channels, but it is not essential.

Problems can arise if you are using a different service provider for each of them, however. This leads to data silos and in some cases double-messaging. You don’t want to send someone both a web and app push at the same time. That’s why a unified platform that handles both of them is the preferred option, rather than having two disconnected point solutions.

*You do not need an app to send a web push notification!


Web push notifications vs App push notifications: Key differences

Let’s start with the obvious difference. App pushes are linked to, yes, you’ve guessed it, apps! If your brand doesn’t have one then you cannot send them.

Web push notifications are linked to websites and are sent via the browser.

In terms of the user experience, there are some important differences between the two to note.

App Push

• Can only be sent to mobiles

• Can be delivered to mobiles even while in lock mode

• Apps need to be updated and this can lead to drop-offs

• Depending on the device’s operating system, can support rich media


Web Push

• Can be sent to any device that supports web browsers

• The device must be in use

• The user does not need to install anything

• User can receive the push even while browsing another website


How web pushes appear on different devices

As you can see in the image below, there is a significant difference between the appearance of a web push on a Mac and Windows device. Marketers need to take this in account when creating a campaign.

How push notifications appear on Mac and Windows desktops


iOS (iPhone) vs Android push notifications

The most important thing to point out here, from the sender’s perspective, is that iOS users must “opt in” (more on how to optimise this later) whereas Android users automatically give permission when they download the app.

If you’re wondering which platform you should focus on, then the answer is both! Here’s a really useful article on global usage and engagement rates.

One area in which Android phones stole a march on their rivals was in regard to rich media (initially just images). It took Apple a little while to catch up but now they are leading the way, allowing brands to include gifs, video and sounds as part of their pushes.


How rich app pushes appear on different devices

How app push messages appear on different devices


How do I send push notifications?

Adding push to your mobile app

Minor differences between the various operating services aside, the steps required to send notifications from your app are pretty much as follows.

  1. Create push credentials on Firebase and Apple developer consoles
  2. Add the service provider’s SDK to the app
  3. Save these credentials in the initialisation of the service provider’s SDK
  4. Set any other optional configurations for other functionality
  5. The user will then be prompted to give push permissions (iOS only) on app launch
  6. Send push messages to the user


Adding push notifications to your mobile app


How to send a web browser push from your website

You might think that is a complicated process, but it’s relatively straightforward (provided you know what you’re doing). Typically, our development team can get a client’s website ready to send push notifications in a matter of hours.

The steps involved are;


  1. Add the service provider’s SDK to the site (edit the JavaScript or add with Google Tag Manager)
  2. Create push credentials on Firebase and Apple developer consoles
  3. Save these credentials in the service provider’s settings along with an icon for the application
  4. Set the location that the supporting files are located on the SDK Integration page on the platform, if necessary
  5. Prompt the user for permission to send them push messages with the service provider’s SDK, ideally from a value exchange or button on the site
  6. Send push messages to the user

Don’t worry, if this all seems a little beyond your technical capabilities. A good service provider will guide you through it, or even just take care of it themselves!

Adding push notifications to your website


Can I send push notifications to anyone who has my app or visits my website?

Potentially, yes. There’s a little bit more it than that, however.

Each individual recipient must be “opted in” and have notifications turned on for the specific device. Once again, there are some differences here between app and web browser pushes. And they are differences between phones running on Android and iOS systems too.

As we mentioned earlier, when an Android user downloads an app, they automatically consent to receiving pushes from it. iPhone users must actively give permission to each app.


Convincing users to opt in for push notifications

You’ve probably been asked to opt in at least once today already!

It’s a vital part of the process and one that you don’t want to get wrong, as it will undermine your brand and lessen the reach of your campaigns. One of the classic errors that people make is sending the opt-in request too soon.

How many times have you visited a website for the first time, or just opened a newly downloaded app, only to be immediately asked if you want to receive regular updates?

I’ll bet that more often than not you say no, or “maybe later”. Why should you give permission straightaway? You haven’t had time to a) find the information or complete the task you had in mind and b) the brand hasn’t yet communicated its value.

Let’s just linger on that last word a little bit longer, “value”. We talk about the “value exchange” here when devising an opt-in strategy with new clients. It’s an important principle that should never be overlooked.

Fundamentally, if you want to convince more users to opt in, you must be able to answer the following question; what’s in it for them? It’s very clear what the brand’s reward is in the exchange, but you want to make sure the user is satisfied with what they’ll be getting out of it.

If you’re interested, you can read more about app-specific strategies and best practices in this article.

We’ve also written this guide to help you get more opt-ins for web push notifications too!


Why is sending push notifications a good idea?

The short answer? Because they work. Brands that send pushes see increases in engagement rates as high as 85%.

They can be used to achieve a wide variety of business goals and are a highly effective means of sharing valuable content with your audience on their preferred device.


Real-time event triggers

This is perhaps the biggest appeal. It’s a chance to engage your audience as they are using the device. Contrast that to an email, where it could be hours before the recipient sees it, if at all.

App and web push campaigns can be triggered by actions or behavioural patterns and delivered to the user in real-time. This allows you to capitalise on engagement opportunities as they occur. Each notification can be deeplinked to a specific page within the app or on your website.


Dynamic content

When personalising a message with the recipient’s name (whether it’s via email, sms or a push notification), that information is pulled from the profiles stored in your marketing platform. Dynamic content refers to continuously updated information that is pulled in from an API (application programming interface) or your own server. There’s no limit to the types of information that can be pulled in, but common examples include live score updates, weather reports and breaking news stories.


Cost efficient

Compared to the cost of an sms message, the most similar channel in terms of immediacy, push notifications are relatively inexpensive. This makes them ideal channels for reaching a huge volume of users and generating ROI.


Best practices for effective push notifications

They need to be relevant to the recipient

Our CEO, Tommy Kearns, is fond of the following saying, “Success leaves clues”.

Let’s think back to earlier when we looked at the history of push notifications.
Why were they so popular amongst BlackBerry’s users? Why weren’t they clamouring to opt out or turn them off?

The answer is obvious.

I don’t mean to be flippant, but BlackBerry wasn’t sending its users notifications about other people’s emails, were they?

What’s the learning here? Push notifications, on any device, must be relevant to the recipient. The brands who have success with pushes are the ones who have the technical resources to first acquire sufficient customer data and secondly, to put it to proper use.

This goes beyond adding the customer’s first name by the way. I’m talking about knowing which pages of your website they’ve visited and for how long. It’s about leveraging the information you have about their purchase history so that you don’t send a push that’s selling the same thing they’ve recently bought. (How often has that happened to you?)

If you were in the sports betting and gaming industry you’d want to know which types of bets or games each user likes to play so that you can let them know what’s available in those categories.

This is how you ensure your pushes add value to a customer’s experience, instead of irritating them and damaging your relationship.

If you follow this advice then the worst possible response your push notification will get is “I won’t engage with this now, but maybe later”.


Why personalised push notifications matter

The days of “Dear customer” are past. The modern consumer expects the brands it chooses to know more about them.

And it’s worth it. A notification with personalised content is 4 times more likely to be engaged with, compared to a generic message.

Personalisation goes beyond using the customer’s name, however. It’s also about understanding their interests and demonstrating an awareness of their purchase history and interaction with your brand.

The image on the right is a very simple example of how a customer’s data can be leveraged to create a more impactful engagement.

What’s the best time to send a push notification?

There’s no simple answer to this question, unfortunately! It comes down to the purpose of the message, the industry and relevancy of the content.

For some brands, they might find that campaigns sent in the early hours, hoping to catch people on their morning commute, work best. For others, their notifications might be a welcome relief from the boredom of work. You won’t know for sure unless you are running A/B tests and continuously for marginal gains.

Some marketers have a concern that pushes run the risk of over messaging their userbase. And this is indeed a possibility This only happens if you are not creating segments and send generic, irrelevant content.

While we’re on that subject, proper segmentation is vital if you want to create a successful one to one marketing campaign.

So long as you make sure the messages add value to your customer’s online experience you’ll be fine!

If you want to read about this topic in more detail, we have written an in-depth guide on when brands should send app push notifications.


Do users want to receive push notifications?

As they are permission-based, the user has complete control over the notifications they receive. It’s very straightforward to turn them off or opt out, so if they haven’t done this for your brand then it’s natural to assume they want to hear from you. See how push notifications compare to SMS and email here.

Unsurprisingly, in terms of opt-ins, social media leads the way, with users keen to hear about who has followed, shared or like them. News apps also perform well here, especially when the brand can segment and target users based on individual interests.

Brands in other verticals can have a harder time convincing users of their pushes’ value. It’s vitally important that they get the “value exchange” right.

5 main purposes of push notifications

Welcome campaigns

70% of people who download apps are inactive after just three days. Their initial impressions of and experiences with the app must be good if you want them to form lasting engagement habits.

A cleverly mapped-out welcome campaign, automating app push notifications that direct users towards its most valuable and useful features (from a user’s perspective) will go a long way towards achieving this goal.

The goals are much the same for that first couple of web pushes; make the user aware of your most valuable content and perhaps even offer them a welcome discount on selected products.

In general, you want to get them into the sales cycle as soon as possible, whatever form that takes for your business model.


Sales and promotions

As we noted earlier, push notifications don’t actually require the user to be engaging with your website or app to receive them. This makes them ideal channels to promote sales and share the latest deals with your database.

In this example, a web push, the content has been personalised with the exact offer taking into account Simon’s previous purchase history. Naturally, push notifications are ideal channels for ecommerce brands.


Customer education

Depending on your brand’s business model and vertical, you may not actually be selling anything at all. It could be that you are providing a service, or want to let your users know about a product update or some other crucial, relevant piece of information.

Once again, push notifications are perfect for this.


Transactional messaging and information

This is vital right now in the retail banking industry, for example, where the neo banks like Revolut are shaking things up with an exceptional standard of transactional messaging. We’ve helped a number of tier-one banks roll out automated app push campaigns that provide customers with a real-time record of every transaction in or out of their account.

Across other verticals, the same principle applies. You might want to send your customers notifications about expected delivery times or even ask them for a product review when it has arrived. These pushes can be automated very simply and strengthen the bond between your brand and the customer.


Customer retention

As pushes are delivered instantly to a device as it’s in use, this makes them ideal channels to win back lapsed customers. Nudge users directly to the app or website with a personalised offer that leverages that data you have in your CRM system. Segment users based on the date of their last activity and send a push notification to their preferred device.



Use cases and best practices for push notifications in digital marketing

We think about push notifications as having three distinct, audience-centered goals; acquire, engage, retain. When we begin working with a new client it’s crucial to us that we help them achieve these core marketing objectives.

We’ll cover one use case each for both app and web pushes across all three, but there are plenty more!



App onboarding and first-purchase campaigns (app push)

How many of the people who have downloaded your brand’s app never even got beyond the log-in? (If you don’t have exact figures for this then you are missing out on some very important data)

Across every industry, the average number of app users who don’t complete the registration phase stands at 20%.

When you consider the resources that go into building and promoting an app, it’s incredibly frustrating to see users drop off before you’ve seen any return on your investment.

Of course, there’s plenty of reasons why this happens. Essentially though, it boils down to two; the user either got distracted (maybe even by another push notification!) or they simply didn’t see the point in signing up.

A well-timed, personalised app push can both communicate the value of completing their registration and nudge them back in the app to do so.

In the example here, the user has been given a clear incentive to sign-up and make their first in-app purchase.

We’ve seen brands increase the number of registered, active users by upwards of 10% with push notifications. This in turn creates so many more opportunities to engage your audience and drive business goals.


Retargeting website visitors (web push)

You’ve possibly seen this stat batted around, but it bears repeating; only 2% of web traffic converts on their first visit to a site. It begs the question, what’s the best way to re-engage the other 98%?

Maybe you’ve dipped a toe into the world of cookies and retargeted ads. I’d confidently wager you’ve seen very mixed results with that.

How come I’m so sure? The average engagement rate for these ads is .7%. And no, that decimal point isn’t in the wrong place.

Web push notifications perform substantially better. That shouldn’t surprise you too much, after all, as we’ve said, they are permission-based. The recipient wants to be notified. (Provided you are sticking to best practices as we outlined early)

Of course, it will vary from vertical to vertical, but the average CTR for a web push ranges from 10% to 30%. Wouldn’t you take that over .7% every day of the week?



Real-time messages (app and web push)

This is something that is becoming increasingly important to sports betting brands, but applies across all verticals (especially publishing and media).

Capitalise on engagement opportunities as they arise and stay ahead of your competitors.


Drive traffic to your website and app

Promote content to your website and app users that you know they are interested in. This is particularly important in the publishing industry, where increasing revenue from advertising is a core business objective. Push notifications, sent at the optimal time to intelligently targeted segments, drive traffic back to the website or app.



Recovering abandoned carts (app and web push)

I’m struggling to think of an industry that doesn’t have abandonment issues. It’s a digital epidemic, with approximately 70% of all baskets left behind at the checkout.

There’s been plenty written about the reasons why, so we won’t go into that here. Suffice to say, too many customers get cold feet about hitting the purchase button and back out.

So where does that leave you, the brand that’s missing out on all of those sales? How can you win them back?

Push notifications are high-performing options in each of these cases.

They can be deeplinked, directing the recipient back to their pre-populated basket at the optimal time. Which of the two you choose (if you have the option, of course) depends on the device they used to shop and the individual’s preference (based on previous engagement rates).


Re-engaging lapsed users (App and web push)

Despite your best efforts there will always be a certain amount of website visitors or app users that drift away and eventually fall dormant.

In the publishing and media and sports betting and gaming industries, in particular, there is a pronounced risk of churn due to a high volume of competition.

In this example, you can see how intelligent segmentation and personalisation (which we talked about earlier) has been used to ensure the content in each case is relevant to the recipient. This makes them far more likely to win the user back and get them into the sales cycle once again.