‘A classic commons problem’: Publishers are going notifications crazy

Publishers have quickly realized the power of mobile notifications in drawing people back to content, so naturally they’re at risk of overdoing it.

“This is a classic commons problem,” said Andrew McLaughlin, a former partner at Betaworks. “It’s a space where if everybody behaves badly, everything gets trashed.”

Over the past five or six years, notifications have grown from a curiosity into a major source of traffic and engagement. The right push can drive up to 60 percent of the traffic a New York Times story gets in a given day, and publishers from USA Today to The Guardian used push notifications as a way to drive massive spikes in app usage during the Olympics and the 2016 presidential race. Publishers including Mic and the Washington Post report that the readers who visit their sites via notifications stay there longer, too.

But notifications are still a very new area, without best practices to guide publishers. Few have any hard and fast rules set on the number of notifications that can be sent a day. And with so many of them facing the fuzzy mandate to “keep users informed,” there are very few guardrails up that keep them from overdoing things.

“The publisher is trying to figure out their own balance,” McLaughlin continued. “But the effectiveness of their notifications depends not only on their choices but on the choices of everyone else as well.”

There is, of course, a long history of effective internet marketing tactics quickly being abused. Combine that with the fact that the newest versions of Apple and Android operating systems allow you to embed text, videos, and all kinds of other rich media, and notifications are ripe to follow that path. Like all new methods of communication, relevance and value are typically thought prerequisites.

“We don’t look at notifications as an afterthought,” said Leila Siddique, Gannett’s mobile products manager. “We look at them as a story and a piece of content in themselves.”

But publishers’ place on our lock screens is precarious. Media-focused mobile apps suffer some of the highest opt-out rates for push notifications of any industry, higher than the ones seen among finance, travel, gaming or e-commerce apps, according to data from mobile marketing analytics firm Kahuna.

And while they understand that not everybody wants notifications at the same rate, or on the same topics, there isn’t much that publishers can do to find the right balance beyond trial and error. Even if a publisher asks readers to select the topics they want notifications for, it can be very hard to anticipate what will rub readers the wrong way. After the 2016 election, Mic’s new iPhone app was one of several hit with a deluge of one-star ratings accusing it of a liberal bias. Even though Mic’s iPhone app users select notification topics ahead of time, and close to 80 percent of its users have notifications turned on, the company’s execs were very worried they’d overdone something.

“Our app is a push-alert product, and we’re hyper aware of any disruptive nature [notifications can have],” said Cory Haik, Mic’s chief strategy officer. “We definitely considered the feedback.”

Notifications are spreading, too. Updates to the Chrome and Firefox browsers over the past 18 months have made it possible for any publisher to send notifications to readers via their respective browsers; Safari allows this too, but only for desktop – publishers that want to slip onto their readers’ iPhone lock screens has to do so via Apple News, using the notifications company Urban Airship.

It’s tough to find similar data on desktop notifications. But the demands publishers make on readers’ eyes there can be massive. A reader who adds The Guardian’s Chrome extension to their browser, for example, is automatically opted in to over 60 different types of content; add Fox News’s, and you might get content on an hourly basis.

And while customizing that flow is often as simple as toggling a few things in a settings menu, data suggests that readers don’t like spending a lot of time configuring what they get. “Whenever you’re asking people to fill out preferences, you’re going to lose,” said Adam Marchick, Kahuna’s co-founder. “People don’t want to fiddle with 18 different knobs and dials [to get their balance right].”

There’s no clear picture on how widely this has been adopted. None of the browsers would provide information on how many publishers had begun using these features. But all of them feel like they are walking a tightrope. “As soon as someone gets a web notification they don’t like, the only option is to go nuclear,” said Sarah Schmalbach, of the Guardian U.S.’s mobile innovation lab. “They turn it off.”

And once a reader makes that decision to cut off contact, there is no clear roadmap for how to get them back.

That last problem might be one that only platforms, rather than the publishers, can solve. “The bulk of the burden of this really should lie with the OS makers,” former Betworks partner McLaughlin said, adding that the experience with the notifications comes from them. “The notification is maybe the most powerful thing [a publisher can use.]

“It can also, very quickly, become a distraction or, even worse, a swamp of too much communication from things we don’t care about.”


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