When Urban Airship approached me over a year ago about the service they provide for pushing alerts from mobile phone and tablet apps, I was puzzled. “That is a business?” I asked naively. Aside from CNN, which I only briefly allowed to send headline notices from their app, I would get very occasional alerts about new issues of tablet magazines here and there, along with the monthly message from AT&T that my bill was ready. At first blush, and under the fairly intrusive model for alerts that plagued previous versions of the Apple iOS, app alerts just didn’t strike me as a robust channel around which to build a going concern.
As my wife is fond of saying, “wrong again, Doctor Smith.”
According to Urban Airship CEO Scott Kveton, “In three years we have served 16 billion push messages for 60,000 apps.” The company manages the alerts for many of the leading media and consumer brands across app platforms.
My guess is that app alerts have become even more viable as a channel now that Apple improved the entire messaging channel in iOS 5. Alerts now are simply less interruptive and more manageable. Instead of stopping you in your tracks with whatever else you may be doing on your device, Apple’s alert system now politely pushes a drop-down alert to the top of the screen. Following Android’s lead, the iOS user now can review recent messages by pulling down from the top of the screen. This changed everything for me as an alert user, because I am much more willing to give permission to new apps to send alerts. And I imagine the changes will help a company like Urban Airship accelerate its scale.
Well, at least the alerts level has increased enough for the company to start segmenting by location. Announced this week at the where Conference, Urban Airship is rolling out segmented push notifications from apps that can be targeted by location, time, context and user preference to achieve greater relevancy. “A national retailer may have excess inventory in store,” Kveton explained to me last week. “You can build a segment in Urban Airship that pulls in people that live in certain ZIP codes with certain preferences and send only them push notifications.”
Kveton admits that we might be talking about slicing up an already small slice. After all, if a brand is using the product, then it is addressing that segment of its audience that has downloaded the app and then also agreed to receive alerts. But he says that is a very choice slice indeed. “The requirement of having an app is an enabler for being much more targeted,” he says. “The user has opted in to receive push messaging and opted in to location data.” He says that opting in to alerts is a very strong signal of attitudes toward the brand and engagement. “We have seen a huge difference in the people who have opted in to receive push -- a 400% to 500% difference in engagement in terms of app opens and time spent.”
The alerts -- especially the newly offered segmented alerts -- are focusing on a niche of a niche, to be sure. But this is the piece of a brand’s audience that is most receptive to what the brand has to say.
Kveton says that the new segmented alerts can also serve media brands that in many cases are doing much more messaging than the consumer product brands. For some sports and news apps, the alerts are a core part of the value proposition because their users want to be kept in the loop. Location awareness tied to messaging can make even news providers more contextually relevant. If a NY Times or weather provider knows that their customer is traveling, it could push more localized content to them automatically. On the retail side, the messaging could help a store chain that is having slow days push alerts to people in certain ZIP codes with special offers.
Urban Airship is also taking location-based push down to the in-venue level in a partnership with Meridian, which offers indoor navigation systems. Combined with messaging, in-venue navigation would push directions within a store or a museum to users, links to offers and multimedia content that is relevant even to what is in the store aisle or on the nearby gallery wall.
In my mind, the promise of marrying location awareness with messaging is not just pushing content and offers at point of purchase, but activating a genuine conversation between a provider -- whether brand or media -- and the mobilized user. If there is one notable weakness in app alerts as we know them now, it is that they really aren’t as conversational as SMS. It pushes and can link you to things of value, but the next great stage for this channel would be genuine two-way messaging where the alert recipient could respond and get into a branched Q&A system of some sort or a live chat.
All of these are feasible if the alert links to other programs that can carry the conversation. But Apple and Google should begin considering how the alert system becomes as interactive and personal as the other elements of a smartphone. “Alerts” and the “push” model are so 1990s. Technologies, operating systems, and apps themselves should be optimizing the conversational mode.