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What merchants and retailers can learn from this summer’s ‘pingdemic’, to ensure a more mindful approach to mobile marketing  

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Patrick Mareuil, Managing Director EMEA at Airship  takes a look at how the the ‘pingdemic’ in the UK has some useful lessons for all mobile marketers around the world

In recent months, Britain’s ‘pingdemic’ has led to increased media scrutiny on the overuse of notifications in mobile apps. The issue came to a head over the summer when the NHS Covid-19 app, which has been vital to combatting the pandemic, sent a high number of alerts to users at the time of lift of Covid-19 restrictions. According to reports, a record of 689,313 alerts were sent to app users across England and Wales in only a week, in July.   

Push notifications are an effective way for brands and authorities to communicate with individuals given their visibility and immediate nature. Plus, on average, app users that receive notifications are retained nearly three times longer than those who don’t. However, Brits are becoming increasingly annoyed by excessive notifications as reports show that there were 43% fewer downloads of the NHS Covid-19 app in the week ending 30 June compared with the week ending 14 June. The app also recorded 2.3m fewer venue check-ins than in the last week of June in England – a drop of nearly 19%.   

While the case of the NHS Covid-19 app offers a great example of the negative impact excessive alerts can have for brands, some businesses are already paving the way to innovate how they communicate with their customers via their apps. For example, TikTok announced it will limit push notifications sent to its youngest users in the evening. This was a pragmatic move considering its addictive platform and the Chinese government’s recent moves to limit the time that young people spend playing video games.   

The benefits of push notifications  

Push notifications are a great way for brands to inform customers about the status of an order or alerting them to an upcoming sale. They have become critical to engaging and retaining users over the course of the pandemic, as people spent more time on their phones and apps while stuck at home due to national lockdowns.    

The side effect of this is that consumers are receiving a lot more notifications, and now their lives are becoming busier due to the lifting of Covid restrictions. Forrester Research predicts that email and mobile messaging volumes will increase 40% this year.   

However, unlike email, push notifications place control in the hands of users, who can easily turn them off, choose to receive them quietly, or, with Apple’s forthcoming iOS 15 decide to have them included in a Notification Summary delivered at specific times of their choosing. Another iOS 15 feature reaching the majority of iPhones mere months from now are Focus statuses, such as “work” or “personal,” where only designated apps and people, or truly time-sensitive or critical notifications, can break through to immediately alert them.  

While Apple’s new features will require users to actively invoke them, smart retailers that want to retain the real-time capabilities of push notifications to, for example, connect online and in-store experiences, will need to become much more sophisticated in their use of data to ensure timely and relevant messaging tailored to individual customer preferences.  

A big part of doing that involves actually asking customers what they want — and the benefits are massive. According to Gartner, in 2023, brands that put in place user-level control of marketing data will reduce customer churn by 40% and increase lifetime value by 25%. 

Lessons for retailers 

With widespread media attention on push notifications and Apple’s new operating system about to disrupt brand-centric promotional notification strategies, what should brands do?    

First, brands must adapt to changing user behaviours. Consumers are clearly fatigued by excessive notifications sent at inappropriate times, and Apple’s Focus mode will require notifications to be more relevant than ever before. Retailers must focus on providing genuine user value: is your notification important enough to interrupt a user’s time, and if not, is it worth sending in the first place?     

To ensure their push notifications are relevant, retailers will need to be more sophisticated than ever and leverage first-party and zero-party data as intelligently as possible, without ignoring opportunities for transactional messaging that streamline customers’ experiences.    

Second, brands must give customers the opportunity to share their preferences, especially when onboarding customers to apps, websites, and other opt-in channels. 

Marketing messages like sales events and flash deals, or transactional messages like monthly statements or delivery/click and collect alerts all exist on a broad and varied spectrum of urgency and convenience. Empowering consumers with the agency to tailor the notifications they receive to their personal preferences is a crucial missing piece in the current state of play – but a shift to a more bespoke approach here would improve long term opt-in retention, allowing customers to fine-tune their experience with a retailer while keeping that channel open for future conversation.   

Third, brands should re-evaluate their in-app messaging strategies to better engage customers while they are already using the app and are focused on their brand.  In-app messaging triggered on specific actions can contextually guide customers to select their preferences based on what’s relevant to them right now. Also, don’t ignore opportunities throughout different journeys like onboarding, first purchase, loyalty enrolment and more, to encourage customers to provide their preferences for more individualised treatment.  

Finally, the concept of a notification must evolve into a conversation-starter. It is an opportunity to inform, reassure, educate, and entertain customers. Notifications can even kick-off a live chat to bring the human element into assisting customers, closing sales, and following up on service experiences. Brands just need to strive to better understand how and when customers want to be contacted and provide experiences that reflect their preferences and real-time behaviours.    

What the “pingdemic” showed us is that even when people’s health may be on the line, they will not tolerate excessive notifications. Retail brands that focus on relevancy and offering customers genuine user-centric value will earn their customers trust and be able to better serve their needs, creating a win-win for brands and consumers.  

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