What are push notifications? [2017 Guide]

A push notification is a pop-up message sent to a device. You don’t need to be using a browser or app to receive them. In addition to a message, they may contain a logo or image. You can click them for more information.

You May Be Wondering…

Do you have to have a mobile app to send push notifications? The answer is no, and we’ll get into that later in the article. But first, we’ll start off with explaining mobile app push notifications. If you can’t wait to learn about website push notifications, click here to be taken to that section.

Phone with Push Notifications

Mobile App Push Notifications

Push notifications are similar to text messages and provide the user with information related to the app sending them.

Permissions for Mobile Apps

On Android,  permissions for sending push notifications to a mobile app are granted with the installation of the app. The appearance of these notifications is standardized by the Operating System.

On iOS, however, the user must explicitly grant the app permission to send push notifications. This results in opt-in rates for iOS at around 50%.

iOS also allows users to customize notifications at the app level. The sound and appearance of notifications sent by a particular app can be changed to help the user recognize which app is sending the message.


I’ve listed a few reasons why a mobile app would send push notifications below:

  • Letting users know about a scheduled event.
  • Providing Information about special offers.
  • Giving status updates on transactions.

Push notifications can be very useful for any app that requires time sensitive scheduling or updating of information.  E-commerce apps are also taking advantage of them as a great way to let their customers know about special deals.

However, be cautions as sending too many notifications, can result in users blocking them, or worse, uninstalling your app.

Differences between push notifications and text or SMS/MMS messages.

Text messages (SMS) are usually sent over the cellular network and are limited to 160 characters. However, you can create longer messages and they will be sent in sequence.

MMS messages allow for longer messages and media such as images to be included. These messages also pass over cellular networks but there are exceptions.

Push notifications, on the other hand, are always sent over the data network and can include multimedia. On mobile devices, they’re part of the operating system.

On Apple devices they appear as a banner, usually in the center of the device.

On Android, they also appear in the center of the device, and when the device is unlocked, an indicator appears on the notification bar at the top of the screen.

Marketing Considerations

Nearly 70% of users have enabled push notifications for their installed apps across all devices. This number is even higher for younger users.

Surveys show that open rates for push notifications are 50% higher than they are for email and click through rates can be up to 100% higher.

Since push notifications only allow for a limited number of characters per message, senders must take care to tailor their messages smartly.

As a sender you have space for a title and a short message. Similar to an email subject line, you need to get the message across concisely without turning your users off.

Establishing a clear message is key. The tips below will help you tailor your message and get higher levels of engagement. You can use normal marketing strategies such as:

  • Offers that expire (creates a sense of urgency)
  • Giveaways
  • Discounts
  • Testimonials

All of these can be used but one must consider the limited space with which to deliver their message. Unlike email where you may have plenty of space you need to keep it short and sweet and still be able to get users to click on the message.

Here are some examples using the strategies above:

  • Only 4 hours left to get your free Bonus!
  • Enter to win a lifetime subscription now!
  • Save 20% on your cart. Click here!
  • Read our 5 star reviews then decide!


Segmenting an audience by interests is a great way to improve engagement with notifications. For example, if your app is targeted to users that are potentially interested in technology, video games, and entertainment news, you can segment your notifications in a way that would send topic specific messages only to the users that have shown interest in that topic.

Additionally, for e-commerce, retail outlets, or any sales activity, push notifications are a great way to send special deals to your user base. For example, members of loyalty programs could be sent special discount codes or event notifications.

Engagement Based Messages

You can also send messages to users that meet defined activity criteria. For example, you can send a message only to users whose last session was 7 days ago or more.

You can even create compound conditions. For example, sending a notification to only users that have not been active in more than 7 days and have only been on your site once before.

Timing is everything

You can send your messages at a specific time, maybe right after lunch when users are more apt to be looking for something to read. You wouldn’t want to send a push notification in the middle of the night as this could be a sure fire way to get users to unsubscribe.

Special Tags/Identifying users

Add tags to users that will allow you to identify them individually in the future. Or, send general category tags in order to more effectively segment your users.

This can be huge for a site or app that covers a broader set of topics.

Another option is to take unique user id’s returned from push notification services and store them in your own Database. This would allow you to track future engagement.


Geo-fencing is the ability to specify a geographical region in which your notifications will be sent.

For example, a restaurant with a limited delivery area may specify that a push notification be sent out to users within a 10 mile radius of a given location. The message can alert users that a delivery special is in effect in their area.

Another example is a venue hosting special events getting the word out to users in the area.

Running a food truck? Send a geo-fenced notification to people in the area, right before lunch!

Other Uses

Other uses for push notifications can include:

  • An appointment reminder service to send out a message to specific users.
  • Updates on scores for athletic events.
  • Sending any simple yes or no question (for example, an RSVP request).

Yes, the opportunities for allowing users to provide feedback are endless!


On the latest platforms such as iOS 10 and Android Nougat, push notifications can now include rich media such as images and even animations. As for Browsers, at the moment only Chrome supports the inclusion of images in a push notification.

Push for Publishers

Even if you’re not selling a physical product, if you publish content that relies on advertising or affiliate programs, you can benefit from push notifications.

As a publisher, the ability to notify users when a new piece of content is released can definitely help increase engagement and conversions.

Let’s say you publish that new blog post and want a way to get the word out to your subscribers wherever they may be. A push notification will allow them to click on the link, open the article and save it for later consumption if necessary. Not to mention, the engagement levels will be much higher than email.

Web push notifications

Website push notifications are different than mobile app push notifications. These messages are received by the user’s web browser. But, here’s the best part- while mobile app push notifications can only be sent to the user’s mobile device, web push notifications can be sent to mobile and desktop or laptop browsers.

There are some limitations (as explained below). Regardless, this can greatly increase your ability to reach users. When your message goes out it won’t matter if your users are on their desktop, tablet or phone.  They can still receive your message.

Permissions Request Messages

Users normally opt in to receive web push notifications by clicking on an “Allow” button that appears as a pop up from the browser. Users have three options at this point. They can dismiss the request by ignoring it and navigating away, clicking block, or clicking allow.

Once a user rejects your push notifications at the browser level, you’ll no longer be able to send requests as they will be blocked. In order for the user to unblock your messages, they would have to go into browser settings and reset your site to “Allow.” Most users are unlikely to go through this hassle to get your messages allowed after an initial rejection.

One way to prevent this is to send an initial request for permission that is not coming from the browser itself. This is just basically a JavaScript window that makes the request. This will allow you to try again later if the user rejects the initial try.  Here is an example of what they look like:

Push Notification Permission Request Message

The advantage here is that the user can say “No thanks” and then later you can try again without the user having to go through the hassle of editing the browser settings.

One of the only downsides here is that when a user clicks on the “Allow” button, they are then presented with the Browser’s own permissions request which looks like this on Chrome:

Chrome Push Notification Permission Request





If a user dismisses the request by clicking on the small “x” in the upper right of the request, they may be prompted again on their next visit.

Using this technique, the user will have to click “Allow” twice to accept your notifications, but the clicks are close together and should not be a major obstacle to conversions.

One thing to keep in mind is that if you intend on sending notifications purely for marketing reasons, then you may want to hold off on requesting permissions the moment a user lands on your page. At the very least, you would want to wait a few minutes or until the user has scrolled to the bottom of a page.

Remember, providing value to a user will make them much more likely to accept your request. It is therefore important not to seem too pushy with requests for permissions. One option is to wait until a user has visited your site more than once, or is already an email subscriber before you ask.

Some of the Cons of Web Push

Unfortunately, web push notifications are not supported by all browsers in all environments.  Here is a quick break down:

Browser Win10 Mac OS Android iOS
Chrome Yes Yes Yes No
Firefox Yes Yes Yes No
Opera Yes Yes Yes No
Safari No Yes N/A No
MS Edge Coming Soon N/A N/A N/A

As you can see, as of this writing, iOS does not yet support web push notifications.  So, if you wanted to send iOS users push notifications, you would need to have a mobile app. The good news is that it does look like iOS will be adding support for web push in the near future.

Some Benefits of Web Push

One of the key benefits of web push notifications is that you don’t need a mobile app to send them. In addition, browser based notifications can be sent to any device with a browser including desktops, laptops, smartphones or tablets.

Also, users don’t need to type in their email address or give any information to opt in. This makes opting in easier and thus much more likely to happen. This is because many people don’t like typing on their phones and opting in for web push notifications requires no typing.
Unlike email which may end up in a spam folder or fail to deliver, push notifications are sure to be delivered.

Setting up web push notifications for your site

If you want to set up push notifications for your site, you most likely want to go with one of the many push notification service providers. These companies provide the infrastructure for the delivery of your messages. Some of them charge fees while others are free. One thing to keep in mind is that free services usually gather usage data in order to share it with marketers and advertisers. If this is ok with you then using a free service is probably your best bet.

Here are some service providers of push notification services:

Standard HTML Sites

In order to get set up you will need to add some files to your website. If you’re comfortable adding scripts to your HTML pages, this should not be a problem. You usually add some JavaScript files containing the code from the service provider.

If you want an automated setup or if you want to send notifications based on certain conditions,  you’ll need to provide custom coding.

WordPress Sites

If you’re using WordPress, many of the service providers include a WordPress plugin that you can install on your site. With this plugin you can activate push notifications without having to get into your html files.

You’re likely to also get some additional functionality with WordPress plugins for push notifications.  For example, One Signal offers the ability to automatically send out a push notification whenever you publish a new blog post.

Once you start to get into custom segmentation, you’re probably going to either need to go with a paid service, or add some coding features to your site.

Integrating with other services is also a common use for push notifications. Many site owners use Zapier in order to connect push notifications to other systems. For example, a site owner may trigger a push notification based on a new release to an RSS feed. Another example is logging push notifications to a google spreadsheet.


Push notifications are not being widely used by websites. Yet! I think you can rely on the popularity of push notifications growing. They provide an easy way to communicate with users and don’t require users to enter their email addresses.