Managing Director EMEA Airship
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Customer communications lessons from the pingdemic

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The overuse of mobile notifications came under intense scrutiny this year as a result of the ‘pingdemic’ caused by the NHS COVID-19 app. With mobile apps being an important platform to engage with customers, what has the pingdemic taught us about how to be engaging without being annoying?

15th Oct 2021
Managing Director EMEA Airship
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The overuse of notifications by mobile apps came under intense media scrutiny this year as a result of the ‘pingdemic’ caused by the NHS COVID-19 app. During the summer months when pandemic restrictions were still in place, the app sent 689,313 alerts  in a single week in July asking people across England and Wales to self-isolate at home due to close contact with someone who had tested positive. 

The immediacy and visibility of receiving a push notification makes them a powerful tool for marketers and authorities to communicate with people. In fact, across thousands of brands’ mobile apps, users that receive notifications are retained nearly three times longer on average than those who don’t.  

However, excessive notifications can drive users away just as easily, as demonstrated by the NHS app. The British public grew increasingly annoyed by notifications, to the point that there were 43% fewer downloads of the NHS COVID-19 app in the week ending 30th June compared with the week ending 14 June. In England, the app recorded 6.6m venue check-ins in total the week ending 21 July — a 47% drop compared with the week ending 30th June. 

Marketers and product owners responsible for apps know that declines like that are more likely to be people isolating themselves from the experience than simply self-isolating. 

Meeting mobile’s customer-centric imperative

The use and importance of mobile apps grew massively throughout the pandemic, offering faster purchasing, richer content and streamlined conveniences like curbside pickup. Time spent in apps has soared, and global app audiences grew 31% YoY — nearly 2X the growth rate of the year prior.

However, the side effect of this is that consumers are receiving more notifications and both email and mobile messaging volumes are projected to increase 40% this year, according to Forrester Research. As our most personal, always-on screen, people already glance at their smartphone hundreds of times per day, so when a notification triggers them to glance again there’s just as much potential to be seen as intrusive as welcomed. 

Thankfully, some businesses are currently innovating how they communicate with audiences via their mobile apps. For instance, the BBC uses interactive notifications to ask users if they’d like to receive extra news related to specific stories, and as a result achieved 4X higher engagement rates than other news outlets. Recently, the BBC examined the frequency of its push notification strategy and added the option to send silent alerts for less important stories or for alerts going out when the audience is likely to be asleep.  

Mobile platforms are upping the ante 

Both Android and Apple continue to make it incredibly easy to turn off or silence needy, irrelevant notifications. Apple’s latest operating system — iOS 15 — allows users to select apps to include in a Notification Summary delivered at specific times, which if adopted broadly may greatly reduce the number of interruptions users experience from alerts. Another new iOS 15 feature called Focus enables users to set up statuses such as “work” or “personal” and only designated apps and people, or truly time-sensitive or critical notifications, can break through to interrupt them while that status is active. 

To help brands retain visibility and grow their relevance in the customer-first era, we assembled four top tips. 

Tip #1: Establish meaningful connections through testing

First of all, brands need to remember that when they put in a first-party data “ask”— such as opting in to  push notifications, — they are not asking for a one-off transaction — it’s akin to an ongoing relationship, which requires a thoughtful approach. 

Brands need to offer what their customers find most valuable as quickly as possible. Marketers can best accomplish this idea by continually optimising customer journeys, app tutorials, opt-in prompts and messages themselves, finely tuning executions with ongoing A/B or multivariate testing.

Tip #2: Ask customers for their preferences

When onboarding customers to apps, brands should ask them to select product and/or service preferences that will help improve the experience. For example, marketing messages like sales events and flash deals, or transactional messages like monthly statements or delivery/curbside pickup alerts, provide a range of urgency and convenience that expands consumer choice and improves long term opt-in retention as customers get what they want. The benefits of this simple-sounding strategy are impressive: Gartner predicts that by 2023, brands offering user-level control of marketing data will reduce customer churn by 40% and increase lifetime value by 25%.  

Also reach beyond preference centres and include these options in onboarding flows or during account set-up. For example, marketers for a sports equipment company might use app screens on initial opening to establish which gender the user typically shops for, the sports or activities of interest, and their favourite sports personality, to learn how to better serve the customer in a few quick taps. 

Tip #3: Intuit and serve customer interests and intent

Not all customers will take the time to provide their preferences, so marketers must try to predict them. Users’ website and app behaviors, their progress or stopping points during purchase journeys, and their messaging interactions — from button taps to live chat — offer a wealth of insights.

For instance, if a news publisher sees a user visiting “sports” content at a higher rate than average, they could turn this from an implicit to an explicit preference with a simple Yes/No notification: “would you like to receive more sports news?” — just like the BBC did. Businesses can then automate combining these preferences with customers’ real-time mobile behaviours for hyper-personalised messaging. 

Tip #4: Expand use of in-app messaging

It’s also a great time to re-evaluate in-app messaging strategies that can engage customers while they are focused on your brand. Depending on where you are located, in-app messaging doesn’t require an opt-in (though it’s best practice to offer an opt-out) and it can reach customers in-session and on specific screens in highly contextual ways. 

For example, Orange has placed a major investment in mobile apps — more than 30 in total — to differentiate its offerings. With aggregated behavioural data Orange learns about its customers interests and also conducts A/B testing of promotions prior to broad outreach, enabling them to achieve significant success in driving new users to other apps. For example, in-app messaging to promote an app for identifying anonymous callers saw 21% better performance than a banner advert they had tested against.

What the “pingdemic” showed us is that even when people’s health may be on the line, they will not tolerate excessive notifications. 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 with experiences that speak to earnest intent rather than coming off as just another ping.

 

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