Jon Fletcher

@jon.fletcher

Push notification engagement naturally degrades over time

Regardless of the message content, readers always slip away.

Push notifications can seem like a gift to publishers trying to drive traffic to their content. They are a free, direct way to build brand evangelism and reach their audience.

This naturally led to publishers and marketers applying growth hacking strategies to maximize their returns.

But — there’s one major problem being ignored with push notification strategies.

Regardless of your content or strategy, reader engagement naturally declines over time.

Let’s review the data:

At Marfeel, the publishing platform, we recently conducted our own study, looking at the CTR (click through rate) of over 5 million push notifications and 500,00 subscribers, across 10 publishers.

The results showed a consistent picture, time naturally degrades the engagement of the subscribers, almost regardless of the strategy used.

This meant fewer clicks per day, a lower likelihood of clicking a notification, and a higher likelihood of unsubscribing entirely.

On average, the CTR decreases by a factor 0.4 from week one to week five. That is if the CTR is 1% in week one, in week five it is at 0.4%.

Here are the results of our experiments with live publishers, compared with our theorized average rate of degradation.

For publishers developing a push notification strategy, this distorts the picture that they are trying to measure. How can you see how effective a strategy is if the results are being pulled down by the natural passivity of your users?

Single-measure metrics, such as click-through rate will be warped by this decline in engagement.

For example, a specific message may appear to have a downturn in results. So, you look to the variables applied to this message: the time, the creative elements, the topic of the article and make changes that should give you different results.

However, unless the natural, global level of engagement decline was accounted for, the results of changing these factors will remain unclear — even if the strategy behind the decisions was actually correct.

If publishers or marketers look at a metric such as the click-through rate, across your audience and over time, you will see a strange pattern of peaks and dips, interrupting a general downward curve.

Peaks form where messages are sent to new subscribers. These subscribers are naturally more engaged readers, and open more notifications, spiking the numbers. This will be followed by dips in engagement as these subscribers naturally become less invested in each message.

So, unless you are adding a higher rate of new subscribers than your rate of natural decline, this will present an overall trend of lower engagement.

So, why do readers lose interest?

Readers lose the ‘novelty of the notification’.

New colors, new branding, and a new set of notifications initially stimulate the dopamine response of users.

However, once these notifications become familiar, the effect is reduced. The first message has the highest potential for reward, but as user receive messages that are less relevant to them, and less rewarding — known as negative prediction error — the dopamine signal decreases.

In addition, as users click, they begin to understand the expected personal value of clicking the notification better. They can instantly judge the expected value of a headline, in relation to their interests. They learn to scan the headline for the key information, passive reading without clicking the notification.

‘Swipe to exit’ then becomes a default learned behavior. With the rise of on screen and in-app notifications for things such as cookies, GDPR notifications, and subscription requests, mobile users often clear notifications before reading.

Once users have been subscribed for a longer, they have better navigational knowledge of the site so can find the stories that interest them without notification support. Swiping away a notification loses this reader nothing. They scanned the headline so they know the topic, and now they are familiar with the site, can navigate to find it easily.

Then, the hyper-engaged readers will have already seen the content via another source. There are multiple channels, that some of the core audience for notifications is likely to find the content elsewhere.

All of these factors lead users to learn that — due to the unpredictable and varying nature of push notifications — they can’t rely on them for content or value every time.

This can mean that they have found more effective ways for them to find the content they want from your site, rather than being dissatisfied by imprecise notifications.

Fighting the decline

The first step to a clearer measurement system is to establish this rate of degradation as an average. This has to then be combined with the active unsubscribe rate and factored against the click-through rate of messages and the number of clicks, per user, per day.

This accounts for this natural decline and provides an all-encompassing view of added readership, and value generated by push notifications.

With this value, marketers can look at different push notification strategies and get a clear picture of the value added — or removed — by their growth hacking strategies.

You can read the full report on the investigation into the value of push notifications here.

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