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Push notifications explained: the pros and cons of push vs text

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Whether you are sending promotions campaigns, appointment reminders, transactional updates, or travel alerts — you have a few options on mobile devices today to reach your customers. Among them, the two most common approaches are push notifications and text messages.

Anyone with a mobile phone has experienced a push notification. They are alerts that rely on a device's operating system. They typically appear on the mobile device’s lock screen, notification center, or as banners in the status bar at the top.

Text messages, often sent via SMS, are alerts that rely on the mobile carrier’s cellular network. They are sent directly to a user’s mobile phone number and can be viewed using the messages inbox.

Aside from the obvious difference in delivery systems, there are a few subtle distinctions between push notifications and text messages that set them apart with unique advantages and disadvantages. But both options alone leave a lot to be desired in reaching customers, and newer mobile channels, such as in-app notifications, are available to supplement, and in some cases replace push and text.

Before deciding what’s right for your business and app, it’s important to understand the differences between push and text.

Push notifications

Push notifications are short, timely messages sent by an app to a user's device to deliver updates, alerts, or prompts, fostering user engagement and retention. These notifications often encourage user interaction and can be personalized based on user preferences or behavior. They rely on the device's operating system and require users to opt-in to receive them.

  • Origin: Sent by apps or websites directly to a user's device (smartphone, tablet, etc.).

  • Delivery: Rely on the device's operating system and app-specific protocols.

  • Cost: Typically free for the user. Push notifications are either free to the business or low cost with a third-party service to help deliver these messages.

  • Content: Not limited by length, but usually containing concise information or updates.

  • Interaction: Can include rich media, such as images, videos, or links to a specific app.

  • Opt-in/Opt-out: Users must grant permission to receive push notifications from specific apps or websites and can manage their preferences in their device settings.

SMS notifications (text messaging)

Text messages refer to communication via SMS sent to a user's mobile phone number. They provide a way to deliver information, alerts, or promotional content, independent of the mobile app. Text messages have a broader reach, not requiring an app installation to be delivered.

  • Origin: Sent through mobile carriers to a user's mobile phone number.

  • Delivery: Rely on cellular networks and the Short Message Service (SMS) protocol.

  • Cost: The receiver may incur charges, depending on the plan. For the business sending the message, the cost can be quite high. Some organizations spend a substantial amount monthly on their SMS communications.

  • Content: Limited to 160 characters per message in the case of standard SMS.

  • Interaction: Typically limited to plain text and basic multimedia content.

  • Opt-in/Opt-out: No explicit permission is needed to receive text messages, although users can block specific senders or report spam.

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Key differences between push messaging and text messaging

While they serve somewhat similar purposes, push notifications and text messages have very different delivery mechanisms, dependencies, costs, and capabilities. Here’s an outline of the key differences between the two delivery options to help you decide the right approach for your mobile app’s alert system.

  • Delivery mechanism: Push notifications are sent by apps installed on a user's device through a platform-specific notification service, such as Apple's APNs (Apple Push Notification Service) for iOS devices and Google's FCM (Firebase Cloud Messaging) for Android devices. Text messages, on the other hand, are sent through the Short Message Service (SMS), which is a standardized communication protocol that enables the exchange of short text messages between mobile phones.

  • Internet dependency: Because they rely on access to platform-specific server systems to be delivered, push notifications require an internet connection to be received by the user’s device. Text messages, on the other hand, are dependent on a mobile carrier’s cellular network but do not require an active internet connection to work.

  • Associated costs: Sending push notifications is generally cheaper and usually free for app developers, depending on the message volume and the notification service used. Text messages, on the other hand, often have associated costs per message for both the sender and the recipient, depending on their mobile carriers and their plans.

  • Content and formatting: Push notifications offer more flexibility in terms of content and formatting, including the use of rich media like images and videos, and interactive elements such as buttons. Text messages are limited to 160 characters per message and support only plain text, with limited support for special characters and emojis.

  • Targeting and personalization: Push notifications allow for more advanced targeting and personalization, as they can be sent based on user behavior, preferences, or other specific criteria. Text messages have limited targeting options and may require additional effort to personalize.

  • Engagement and interactivity: Push notifications can be designed to drive user engagement by deep linking to specific sections within your branded app or enabling users to perform actions directly from the notification. Text messages, while interactive to a certain extent, typically require the user to send a reply or manually open the app to perform an action.

  • Read receipts: Push notification services often provide delivery and read receipts, giving developers insights into the notification's delivery status and user engagement. Text messages can also provide delivery receipts, but read receipts are not universally supported by all devices and carriers.

  • Platform limitations: Push notifications are specific to the operating system, and developers need to use different services for iOS and Android. Text messages, on the other hand, are universally supported across devices and operating systems.

When to use text or push notifications for your mobile app

Both push notifications and text have a place in an omnichannel communications strategy. Modern product managers and marketers add a third channel in their mobile app called persistent notifications. This channel enables businesses to reach users directly within their app, with full control of how the message looks and feels, as well as when the user interacts with that message.

To get users back to your app you will need to use an “ex-app” channel, such as push or text. While the choice isn’t always cut and dry, there’s a clear advantage to using push notifications over text messages for your brand alerts. Unless your app requires notifications to be delivered in areas with limited or no internet connectivity, push notifications offer a more streamlined way of delivering personalized messages, important alerts, and marketing promotions to your users.

  • With support for read receipts, multimedia content, and interactive elements, push messaging helps boost engagement and retention for your app across the fold.

  • Push notifications can take advantage of platform-specific features, such as notification badges on app icons and custom notification sounds.

  • It’s much easier to monitor and personalize push notifications based on data on your users’ preferences and behavior.

  • With push notification systems, users have granular control over their notification preferences, allowing them to manage which apps can send notifications and unsubscribe from notifications they don’t need.

  • Push notifications are generally cheaper for app developers compared to text messages, which often involve per-message fees for both the sender and recipient.

Because of the significant advantage in terms of flexibility, interactiveness, and customization, push notifications are usually the first choice for product teams looking to set up notifications or alert systems for a mobile application. However, to increase engagement, retention, and conversions, you should consider using a hybrid approach that combines push notifications and in-app notifications.

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