In-App Messaging vs. Push Notifications: Best Practices

By: Kahuna | December 8, 2015 | Growth Marketing, Mobile Marketing, Push Notifications

In-app messaging and push notifications are extremely powerful channels for brands to reach customers because people are spending an increasing amount of time in apps. This blog post will walk you through in-app messaging and push notifications, as well as offer some best practices for how each medium can help boost engagement, retention and monetization.

What is In-App Messaging?

In-app messaging (also known as in-app messages or in-app notifications) broadcasts messages to customers when they are using the app, directly within the app itself. This generally looks like a pop-up window that can appear at the top, middle or bottom of the screen. In-app messages can include images and text, and many industry watchers expect this medium to gain more multimedia capabilities in the future.

In-app messaging often includes a call to action with a deep link to take customers to a certain destination within the app, but it can also be used to convey content. For example, some savvy brands use in-app messages to convey the value of receiving push notifications before asking for users to opt in to push.

The Advantages of In-App Messaging

In-app messages are sent to a captive audience, so there’s a better chance of impacting customers with the message. These messages typically see higher interactions rates because users are already engaged. Because of this, in-app messaging is great for showcasing features, sales, in-app purchases, or anything new you want engaged users to check out.

Unlike push notifications, in-app messages can be sent to an entire app user base, not just those who opted in. Because of its expanded character count and ability to include images, In-app messages give brands more flexibility and allow for more creativity with content.

In-app messages are also an ideal way to to help guide the customer through the optimal experience. The optimal experience can be derived through data and customer feedback, with a focus on getting users to the steps that lead to long-term retention. For example, many brands use in-app messaging as part of its onboarding process or for walking users through design changes.

The Disadvantages of In-App Messaging

As the name implies, the customer must already be within the app to see and interact with in-app messages. This means in-app messaging can potentially have a smaller audience than channels like push notification and email. In-app messaging is often not the best choice for re-engaging users who haven’t opened the app in a while.

Additionally, the power of in-app messaging can also swing both ways if you’re not careful: having customers see irrelevant messages every time they open the app is a quick way to turn off users or even get your app deleted.

Best Practices for In-App Messaging

Examples of ideal In-app Messaging

The best brands utilize in-app messages as part of a holistic, omni-channel strategy that dynamically incorporates what your brand knows about the user, while also utilizing the inherent advantages that this medium offers.

For example, the image above showcases a gaming app using in-app messaging to showcase a new level in the puzzle game. In this scenario, this is an engaged user who hasn’t yet seen the new puzzles and it includes compelling calls to actions, along with eye-catching visuals.

How To Approach In-App Messaging

In the following section, we’ll go over some best practices for your in-app messaging strategy.

Goal: In-app messages should have clearly-defined, measurable goals. Understanding your behavioral analytics and funnel metrics is crucial for developing the proper goals for in-app messages.

Segmentation: Even if you’re excited to show off a new feature, don’t just batch-and-blast the same in-app message to every single customer. The best brands segment in-app messages based on the engagement state of their users, as well as their actions within the app. If a power-user already poked around and discovered the new feature on their own, don’t target them for the in-app message touting the new feature.

Content: The copy of an in-app message should be compelling, there should be a clear call to action that aligns with your goal, and there should be an eye-catching image. While you have a bit more text to work with than with a push notification, the best brands keep copy short and clear.

One mistake brands make is duplicating messaging across multiple channels, so it’s critical to ensure that each message matters. Don’t discount the power of personalization and actionable words, and you’ll also want to A/B test the copy of your in-app messaging. The best brands lean on tools that can provide automatic optimization for the best-performing copy.

Timing: In-app messaging is generally timed for a specific time-bound action: the release of a new level in a game or a flash sale. In-app messages can also be tied to actions by the user—only show an abandoned cart in-app message campaign after the customer has put something in their cart and hasn’t checked out.

What are Push Notifications?


Push notifications are a type of message sent from an application to a device, most commonly used by mobile apps to deliver pertinent information to users. These appear as alert-like messages on the home screen or in a notification area at the top of the screen.

Users don’t have to be actively using the app to receive a push notification. Push notifications have historically been text-only, but the medium is evolving to include rich media on some platforms like Android.

The Advantages of Push Notifications

The main advantage of push notifications, also known as a push message, is the ability to draw the user back into the app. As long as the user has opted into receiving push notifications, brands can reach users at almost any time.

Push notifications also have a high engagement rate, as data says click-through-rates are as high as 40% (For some perspective, email click-through-rates hover in the 1-4% range). When used with dynamic deep linking, brands can use push notifications to easily draw users to a specific portion of their app.

Additionally, push notifications can be used as a way to passively connect with users. For example, Chubbies uses push notifications as a content channel to delight users. Chubbies’ push notifications like “UTAH, GET ME TWO!” aren’t meant to immediately nudge the user toward a purchase, but instead cement the brand voice and create a connection with the customer.

The Disadvantages of Push Notification

From a brand’s perspective, the main disadvantage of a push notification is that users have to opt in to receiving them on iOS and can turn them off in the Settings on Android. This means that brands can’t reliably reach their entire app audience, as recent data pegs the push notification opt-in rate across Android and iOS at 64%.

The nature of the medium means push notifications can feel invasive and spammy if not done correctly. A customer can easily ignore a non-relevant email but a bad push notification will likely make their phone vibrate and catch their attention. If it’s not personalized and delivering value, it could cause irreparable damage to a user’s relationship with the  brand.

Finally, push notifications have a character limit, which means the medium isn’t always effective for all types of communications. While push notifications are evolving to include multimedia, brands are still best served by making push notifications short, punchy, and to-the-point.

Best Practices for Push Notification

Like in-app messages, the best push notifications are part of a cohesive omni-channel experience that delivers value with every message. These deliver value to the user and nudge the customer toward a virtuous action that the brand has defined.

There are two types of push notifications that every app should be sending: transactional and engagement. Transactional push notifications are messages that are sent whenever a user triggers it, regardless of engagement state or how many messages they’ve received. This includes purchase receipts, arrivals of on-demand rides, social network likes, or a variety of other actions. These are meant to convey quick information to the customer and often don’t require a click-through action.

Engagement push notifications are meant to spur a specific action or nudge a customer toward an action. Some examples of engagement campaigns include abandoned cart campaigns, one-off promotions of flash sales, and lifecycle marketing campaigns. Engagement push notifications must be personalized to the individual preferences and actions of each customer.

Remember, both transactional and engagement push notifications require opt-in from the user. The best brands ensure every single message is delivering value.

How to Approach Push Notifications

Goal: The goal of transactional push notifications is to quickly convey information to the customer, based on what the customer has signed up for. For example, many banking apps allow customers to receive a notification whenever there’s a purchase over a certain amount. Often times, these transactional push notifications won’t drive the customer back into the app immediately, but the long-term utility will help cement a strong relationship with customers.

For engagement push notification campaigns, you’ll want to map these campaigns to your behavioral analytics and your conversion funnels.

Segmentation: For transactional push notifications, brands can rely on the opt-in lever for most segmentation. Whether it’s an arriving on-demand taxi or a fresh email, opting in means customers want these messages and the utilitarian value.

Segmentation for engagement push notifications should first be done based on the activity level of the customer. From there, brands utilize the actions within the app, combined with the additional data it knows about customers. For example, a shopping app could segment based on how engaged the user has been with the app and combine that with the different categories the customer frequents for pin-point message targeting. Auctioning app Listia recently used this advanced segmentation and was able to increase top KPIs by 50%.

Content: Transactional and engagement push campaigns both benefit from personalized copy. For transactional messages, including the customer’s name and the action that triggered the message help convey valuable information. Keep the medium in mind, though: transactional push notifications aren’t a great place for reference numbers that have to be looked up.

For engagement campaigns, personalizing the content can be the difference between a conversion and the customer deleting your app. As we mentioned before, push notifications feel more intimate and invasive than other communication channels. Because of this, generic, mass messages look and feel like spam. This can really damage brands, especially when every app is just a few seconds away from being deleted.

The best brands ensure the copy of engagement push notifications resonate with each and every customer. This means incorporating that customer’s actions into the content, as well as A/B testing message copy. This can be difficult to scale manually, so brands are increasingly relying on big data and machine learning platforms to handle the content personalization aspects.

Timing: Transactional push notifications should be tightly tied to the action that triggered them. If a customer purchase triggers the notification, it should occur after the transaction has occurred … even if that’s at midnight.

Engagement push notification campaigns should be delivered at the time when the customer is most likely to engage with the message and the message type. For example, if a customer habitually browses your shopping app in the morning, but typically makes purchases in the evening, the conversion campaigns should be sent in the evening. Again, nailing the timing can be difficult to achieve manually, particularly as a brand scales, but the best automation platforms help brands achieve this effortlessly.

We hope you find these best practices for in-app messaging and push notifications helpful, and we encourage you to share this post with whoever may find it useful. Of course, push and in-app aren’t the only channels to engage users, so be on the lookout for future best practice material.

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