05/07/2013 08:41 BST | Updated 03/09/2013 06:12 BST

Google and Apple Set the Stage for Desktop Push Alerts


Push alerts are an essential tool for many news organizations to keep readers using their mobile apps regularly. There's a huge opportunity to use push alerts on the desktop too, and incoming updates from Apple and Google will make these notifications even more powerful.

The Power of Push Alerts

News apps face a serious challenge in the mobile space. The number of apps that smartphone owners actually use on a regular basis is fairly limited, and news apps must compete with a variety of other entertaining and engaging options vying for the user's attention. According to research from Flurry analytics, the average mobile user (iOS and Android) only uses 8 apps per day, and the time spent on news apps only accounts for about 2% of the total. Google data from 2012 shows that the average user across all smartphone operating systems had only opened 9.4 apps in the past 30 days. So how do news apps stay relevant and encourage regular usage? Push alerts.

People who opt in to an app's push notifications open that app five times more often than those who don't receive push notifications

Many publishers have adopted the use of push alerts to engage readers in realtime with breaking news notifications, and to pull them in to read further. And push alerts have worked wonders. In an Ad Age article by John McDermott, Brent Hieggelke, CMO of Urban Airship, which provides a push notification solution to app developers, said that "people who opt in to an app's push notifications open that app five times more often than those who don't receive push notifications, and they are twice as likely to keep that app on their device".

So, here's the thing. News organizations don't just face this challenge in the mobile space: publishers are constantly trying to surface their news from the noise to earn their readers' attention online as well. Luckily, recent announcements from Google regarding its Chrome browser and Chrome OS, and from Apple in its June 10 keynote, indicate that publishers will have a brand new opportunity to bring rich push notifications to their desktop readers.

Rich and Interactive Notifications

2013-06-28-blogpost_win.pngThe new desktop alerts coming from Google and Apple will allow news organizations to show more than short text updates to readers. Google's Chrome notifications (for both the browser and OS) will work for desktop apps, which are somewhat under-used by news publishers these days, but that might all be about to change. The new alerts, which Google calls "Rich Notifications", will allow for the embedding of multimedia elements and multiple calls to action. So you can imagine CNN sending breaking news as an alert with two options: view gallery, and share image. Google engineer Justin DeWitt explains, "Additionally, they enable you to create action buttons and respond to clicks right within your app, empowering your users to do anything they could do within the app's UI itself."

With Apple's new OS Mavericks, Joshua Benton of Harvard's Nieman Lab noticed that websites will now be able to send alerts to users as well. When compared with the upcoming Chrome notifications, there are two fundamental differences to note: 1) Apple's notifications work for websites, not just apps, and 2) they can be delivered even when the browser is closed and a site isn't already open. The notifications will be also be able to send users directly to a specific page on a site, as long as users agree to receive notifications from the site in the first place. Below's a video from Scott Buscemi of 9to5Mac that demonstrates how it will work:

Mobile Lessons for Desktop Uses

Increasingly news organizations have been attempting to adapt their digital operations to mobile platforms, however it seems that in this case a technology that emerged in the mobile space is making its way back to desktop. What will be important for publishers to realize is that, where push alerts are necessarily brief teasers on mobile, they can be rich and engaging on the desktop, with multiple different calls to action. However, there is certainly a danger for users to feel inundated by multiple multimedia notifications, potentially leading to them disabling the feature. One strategy that mobile app publishers have used to find that sweet spot between frequency and efficiency is to allow users to subscribe themselves to the topic on which they wish to receive alerts.

Mobiles Republic, the company behind the popular news reader app News Republic, began allowing users to set up custom notifications earlier this year. John Wood, UK country manager for Mobiles Republic told me that while users can opt out of the standard notifications, they can also opt in to push alerts for any topic they like. He explained, "Your favorite football player might be leaving your local club, so you could be the first with news or rumours about it". Crucially, the self-selection carried out by users here brings a more personal element to push alerts, he continued, making them more relevant to users and giving them a sense of control over what they receive. Indeed, Joshua Benton, who I mentioned earlier, also seeks this level of granularity with push alerts, but points out that up until now it has been difficult to provide that for technical reasons. However, by bringing push alerts to the desktop, he posits that this "aligns the delivery mechanism with where the technology assets are, the web."

Big Potential, Small Install Base

Of course when assessing the viability of developing around these new features, one expects tight-budgeted news organisations to do some sort of cost-benefit analysis. So, how many users might these updates realistically reach? To take advantage of Apple's native push notifications, a reader would need to have installed the new Apple OS (which isn't even available until this fall) and set up notifications in Safari. And to receive rich notifications in Chrome, it would require a reader to a) use the most up-to-date Chrome browser (or OS) and b) to have downloaded that news sites' Chrome app. Now, just as mobile sites prompt visitors to download their mobile apps, desktop sites could also prompt visitors using Chrome to download their desktop apps as well.

So, as exciting as the prospect of desktop notifications is for news organizations in their struggle to obtain and retain the attention of readers, it looks like the impact of these new, richer notification capabilities will be, at least initially, limited by the size of the audience that might actually receive them. But if the potential payoff for desktop push alerts is anything like we've seen for mobile, ie. a 5x increase in use when push is enabled, then I'm sure we can bet on seeing a few digital media trailblazers giving it a shot. Watch this space.