For UX practitioners, push notifications can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they're an incredibly effective way of encouraging users to take action within our products, re-engage lapsed users, and provide greater value. On the other, they can be intrusive, annoying, and can even result in users uninstalling our apps completely.

Many users are rightfully wary of push notifications. Many apps and products send push notifications too frequently, and many don't offer much in the way of useful, actionable information. These are just two reasons why so many users opt out of receiving them altogether.

However, a recent study published by eMarketer revealed that, when used correctly, push notifications can more than double an app's retention rate. This will come as little surprise to many UX professionals. Push notifications are designed to bring users back into an app or product. Without push notifications, some users might never reopen an application.

But how do you get push notifications right? Which elements are most important? What metrics should you be focusing on? In this post, we'll be looking at the three “golden rules” of push notifications: timing, scarcity, and personalization.

Timing Push Notifications

Unfortunately, there are no hard-and-fast rules about the timing of push notifications. Even similar apps in the same industry may have very different users, and no two users' needs are exactly alike. Despite this challenge, timing is crucial to utilizing the power of push notifications effectively.

Getting the timing of your push notifications right may seem like trying to hit a moving target, and it is. That said, there are some guidelines you can use as a starting point.

According to data from Localytics, between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. tends to be the best time to send push notifications, at least in terms of click-through rate. Notifications sent during this time period had the highest CTR at around 15%:

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But what about the best day of the week to send push notifications? Again, your mileage may vary, but according to Localytics, Thursdays are the best day to send notifications—but only just. As you can see in the figure below, there's very little real variance in push notification performance on any day of the week, but Thursdays do edge out with an average click rate of 11%:

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Timing push notifications is more art than science. However, this doesn't mean we can send out push notifications to our users on a whim. As with anything else in UX, we should base our decisions on actual user data, not assumptions. Be sure to thoroughly test different push notification frequencies and timing to see how your users are interacting with your notifications.

Creating Scarcity Using Push Notifications

The second of our three “golden rules” of push notifications is scarcity.

Scarcity leverages “FOMO,” the Fear of Missing Out. This powerful psychological trigger can be used to great effect as a retention tool. This might sound nefarious—and it can be, if used unethically—but it can also create value for our users by reminding them about timely offers they're likely to find useful or interesting.

The real question about leveraging scarcity in our push notifications comes down to honesty and intent. In this scenario, we have two options:

  • We can use scarcity to create a false sense of urgency to motivate our users to take action, even if the sense of urgency is false or manufactured
  • We can use scarcity to provide genuine value for users by reminding them of time-sensitive offers they're likely to be interested in

Put another way, we can deceive our users by creating a false sense of urgency to try and increase conversion rates or user retention, or we can use push notifications to improve our users' lives and help them solve real problems.

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Some retailers are using push notifications to test other innovative use-cases. Target, for example, is experimenting with in-store push notifications to encourage shoppers to take specific actions. The experimental pilot, which is being conducted at 50 Target locations, relies on beacon technology to present timely push notifications to users depending on their location in the store, down to the individual aisle in which the shopper happens to be. This incredibly contextual and personalized approach can be combined with limited-time offers to create more compelling in-store experiences that could help shoppers save money on the things they buy frequently.

However, if you're thinking of introducing a similar system in your own notifications, it's vital to think about how those individual notifications will help the user. Target's experimental new system leverages scarcity by focusing on time-sensitive offers, but the real brilliance of the beacon approach is that it creates a more individualized, responsive experience for the shopper that will create real value. Reminding a Target customer that they've forgotten something they usually buy and offering a time-sensitive discount coupon is both useful (the reminder) and creates additional value (the discount), a one-two punch that makes this system innovative and effective.

There's no harm in leveraging scarcity, but make sure it's done tactfully, strategically, and most important of all, honestly.

Personalization in Push Notifications

The final element of our unofficial Holy Trifecta of push notifications is arguably the most important of all — personalization.

As crucial as personalization is to the push notification experience, it's also one of the hardest to get right. There are literally hundreds of variables that can have an impact on automated personalization engagement strategies like push notifications, and the slightest mistake can send your users running for the hills.

There are two sides to personalizing push notifications: user properties and event properties. Let's take a look at each.

Personalizing Push Notifications: User Properties

User properties refer to any data point or metric that pertains to the user of an app or product. Oftentimes, user properties are concerned primarily with demographic data. This includes:

  • Gender
  • Age
  • Location (Country, State, City)
  • Languages spoken
  • Educational attainment
  • Income

User properties like this are very useful as personalization tools. However, as with any dynamic personalization technique, utilizing user properties in push notifications is only effective if we're using current data.

Sending inaccurate push notifications based on out-of-date information is worse than sending a generic notification to every single one of your users. Why? Because the generic blast to your entire database isn't pretending to be something it isn't. When personalization goes awry, it breaks the “suspension of disbelief” that the apps, products, and brands we interact with every day actually care about us, or that those messages were tailored specifically for us as individual users.

Personalizing Push Notifications: Event Properties

The other side of our personalized push notification coin is event properties.

Virtually any variable you can think of can be configured and used as an event property in a push notification:

  • The user's proximity to a physical store or location
  • The number of times a user has searched for or bought a specific product
  • The point at which a user abandons their e-commerce shopping cart
  • How many actions a user has taken in a product or app
  • The user's typical schedule, routine, or frequently visited locations
  • The type of content a user tends to share or engage with most frequently

One of the major benefits of leveraging event properties in our push notifications is that the possibilities are virtually endless—especially when you combine event properties with user properties. While being more technically demanding, combining these two types of properties in your push notifications can make your app seem less like a product and more like a trusted friend or personal advisor.

In terms of impact, personalization can be immensely effective, if done well. On average, only 1.5% of users will open a push notification if it only includes generic content. This figure rises to almost 6% if a push notification has at least some element of personalization. This means that personalizing your push notifications — even slightly — can increase your open rate almost four-fold:

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Don't Let 'Push' Come to 'Shove'

Although it seems like every app, digital product, and website is asking for users' permission to bombard them with push notifications, these timely updates can still be immensely effective if they're handled with tact and the needs of the user in mind.

However, despite the possibilities offered by increasingly personal and timely push notifications, it's worth remembering that you can't automate authenticity. If you need to forge a real connection with your users—and trust us, you do—don't rely on automated push notifications to cultivate that relationship for you. Push notifications are incredibly useful tools, but they're no substitute for a genuine commitment to solving your users' problems and making their lives better.