Push Notifications vs In-App Messaging: Which Is Better?
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Push Notifications vs In-App Messaging: Which Strategy Is Better For App Marketing?

Hussain Fakhruddin - February 1, 2018 - 0 comments

Increasing the user-engagement levels is the biggest mantra, as far as the success of mobile applications are concerned. On a YoY basis, 2017 witnessed ~55% increase in the average number of messages sent through apps to end users. Facilitating seamless two-way communication on the mobile platform is the key – and both ‘push notifications‘ as well as ‘in-app messaging‘ are extremely useful tools in this context.

In strategies to bolster app retention rates, both in-app messaging and push notifications play important parts. The former can pull up the retention rate by more than 50% (along with a ~30% higher ‘open rate’). Push notifications, on the other hand, can provide 4X boosts to average engagement levels. The onus lies on app developers to follow the best practices while using either of these strategies – with the focus squarely on providing the best possible user-end experience (UX). Over here, we will closely compare push notifications and in-app messaging, and examine their relative merits and disadvantages:

  1. Focusing on native app content vs driving latent users

    In-app messaging, as the name suggests, is managed in the form of pop-ups and other short, contextual messages – sent to users when the latter are actually using the concerned application. In other words, this strategy is focused on taking user-interactions forward AFTER an app session has already been initiated. In contrast, push notifications (sent as text messages/to the notifications section) are all about creating awareness and providing reminders (a ‘call-to-action’) to people who are not using the app at that particular point in time (i.e., ‘latent users’). These notifications can help an app to reconnect with users. It is not uncommon for a person to ‘forget’ about an app that (s)he had downloaded weeks back – and push notifications can serve as useful reminders of its existence.

  2. In-app messaging has higher response rates

    But that comes with the corollary. While studies have shown that the average responses to regular, conversational and contextual in-app messages can be ~8 times more than that to push notifications – users have to be active on the app to see these messages. That, in turn, implies that if the live user-base of an application is small – in-app messaging might not be a very effective tool. Push notifications cater to a wider audience – but the catch over here is that, a lowly 10% of all users who opt-in for such notifications actually open the messages. However, the response to all ‘seen’ push notifications is generally very prompt.

Note: Around 43% of mobile app users worldwide opt in for push notifications.

  1. Types of messages and notifications

    While most push notifications are text-based, developers and marketers are gradually warming up to the idea of using pictures and other media forms in such notifications. The prime objective is to ‘re-engage’ the recipient with the mobile application. In-app messaging, on the other hand, are sent to a ‘captive audience’ (i.e., those already using the app), and can be pushed out through images, video playback, and other media formats – apart from plain text messaging. More often than not, these visual messages come with a call-to-action tab/button/area. Using this strategy, developers can provide handy little ‘nudges’ to push the behaviour of the users in the desired direction (e.g., completing a purchase on a mobile shopping app).

  2. The downsides

    Frequency and timing of extremely crucial aspects of push-notifications. According to a 2017 report, nearly 47% users are likely to opt out of such notifications, when 3-5 such random push messages are sent to them in a week. What’s more, 1 out of every 3 users can uninstall a mobile app due to ‘too frequent push messages’ (6 or more in a week). This highlights the potentially disruptive nature of push notifications – when they are not managed properly. There are risks associated with indiscriminate use of in-app messaging too. The messages have to be sent ONLY to active users, and the content needs to: a) follow from the natural user-interactions, and b) be highly contextual. The focus of in-app messaging should always be on optimizing the UX of an app, and making things more structured, tailored and improved for the end-users. Also, the same messages should not ideally repeated to a particular user – and each message should be tailored from the triggers (obtained from app analytics). An overkill of push-notifications or a poorly managed in-app messaging system can be hugely counterproductive.

  3. Nature of information sent through push-notifications

    The average app engagement levels can driven up by close to 90% with the help of push notifications. Broadly speaking, push notifications can be classified under 4 categories. For starters, there are the push messages for  generating awareness for new, time-limited sales and promotional offers – which the user might like to know. Then, there are the general informational notifications (think of the text messages the rail company sends you when your train is delayed) – to update the users about the status of anything. Push-notifications can also be solely focused on eliciting certain ‘actions’ from users. A classic example for this would be a fitness app which reminds users who have not recorded their activity details for a couple of days. Finally, there are the social network-based messages – which notifies people whenever someone in their network (and fellow-users of the app) does something. In-app messaging can also be divided in 3 classes – the ones which look to initiate a conversation with the user, the ones that help individuals solve a problem (say, confusions while onboarding/learning about the app), and the ones that typically address the potential pitfalls or ‘trickier’ sections of the overall app-navigation scheme.

Note: It is important to create segmented lists of users who will receive in-app messages. The challenge lies in updating this list constantly…so that the messages are always sent to the ‘correct’ audience.

  1. Key elements of push notifications and in-app messaging

    There is a lot in common in the main elements of the two forms of mobile app communication under discussion here. Both notifications and in-app messaging should look to deliver actual value to end-users – and the major factors underlying either are ‘Goal’, ‘Timing’, ‘Segmentation’, and ‘Content’. Prompt sharing of information is the main motive of sending push-notifications – while the goals of in-app messaging should also be easily measurable/quantifiable (once again, referring to the analytics is important here). The segmentation of push-notifications depends on, firstly, the type of the app, and secondly, the degree of active engagement of any particular user. On the other hand, the recipients of in-app messages can be segmented on the basis of their behaviour while using the application. The timing matters in a big way, particularly for push-notifications (there is no point in sending the news of the best of offers to anyone at the dead of the night). For in-app messages, the timing should ideally coincide with the launch of new features or levels, or even a short-period offer (‘free coins for the next 7 hours’). Finally, due attention has to be placed by app marketers on the content of notifications and in-app messages. The messages should be suitably personalized, transactional, and be able to pique the interest of final users. With the growth of artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques, message personalizations are also becoming ‘smarter’.

Note: For in-app messaging as well as push notifications, performing A/B split tests of message copies is advisable. That would help developers zero in on the message(s) that would be the most effective.

  1. Different use cases

    While both push notifications and in-app messaging are, when implemented well, mighty useful in boosting user-engagements – they have clearly demarcated use cases for best practices. For instance, push messages work best when there a mobile shopper leaves a purchase process midway, or if a person does not use an app for a certain number of days, or to send payment confirmations, or, if a new and lucrative sale come along, a new product is launched, or a quick announcement is to be made. In-app messages are ideal for asking for ratings and feedback, information/prompts about in-app purchases, revealing the new features of an app (the same can be done with push messages too), and time-bound special offers. The key is to avoid a repetitive, overly marketing tone in the messages, which can irritate and turn off viewers.

Note: It has been found that in-app messages to help with onboarding can take up user-retention levels by up to 50%.

  1. Barriers to effectiveness

    In theory, all users would opt-in for push notifications – and then, everyone would be able to see these messages. However, as already mentioned above, the average opt-in rate is a far way off that 100% mark. Hence, it is impossible for notifications to reach out to all users in a particular user segment (some of them will keep notifications turned off). The character limit of push notifications is also an important factor – and messages that are not crisp and to-the-point often are of no use. At the other end, the potential effectiveness of in-app messaging can be limited by a low active user base (which means the audience of the message will be too small), as well as unfiltered, non-customized and irrelevant messages. As a rule of thumb, if any push notification or in-app message seems to threaten the ‘personal nature’ of a mobile phone – it can cause damage to the app’s overall trust-factor.

Note: On average, 30% of all push-notifications are converted to full-blown email marketing campaigns.

  1. Providing information about app downtimes –

    There can be software outages, or an emergency shutdown, or a regular maintenance downtime for an app. With push-notifications, developers can provide prior information about the time and the reasons of the unavailability of the app, as and when required. This saves the users the frustrations of trying to launch unresponsive applications on their devices. In-app messaging, obviously, would not work here – since an app has to be working and users have to be on it, for these messages to be visible.

Note: Push notifications can be either transactional or engagement-oriented.

    10. The need for app analytics

It makes absolutely no sense, if app marketing and communication strategies are not backed up by accurate, real-time analytics data. Right from segmenting the recipients of in-app messages and push notifications, to tracking the number of active users, engagement/retention levels and A/B tests of message copies – app analytics is important in every stage. The onus is on third-party mobile app developers to integrate a reliable analytics system in the app – to track all the important metrics of user-behaviour and actions. Messages sent from an app to the user have to be time-relevant and user-action-relevant – and using data from analytics is the best way for ensuring that.

It has to be kept in mind that push notifications or in-app messaging are not substitutes of each other. For best app marketing results, the two strategies have to be combined in a seamless manner. Push notifications are ideal for ‘bringing people back to the app’ – and when they are there, in-app messaging works like a charm for directing their behaviour/actions.

By the end of 2017, the total number of smartphone users in the world had moved to a shade under 4.8 billion. The burgeoning volume of audience on the mobile platform has made the task of adopting effective mobile/app marketing strategies more critical than ever before. In-app messaging and push-notifications are both useful strategies – and if well-planned and used together, the strategies can seriously lift overall engagement levels of any application.


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