If someone asked you to single out the one, most important communication element of today’s smartphone, what would it be? Making a phone call probably isn’t, as more and more people use smartphones for a lot of stuff, but phoning isn’t one of them.
So, what else? According to various experts, Gigwalk CEO Ariel Seidman being one of them, it’s push notifications that take the crown. He calls it ‘tapping people on the shoulder’, and that’s a big deal because it’s virtually impossible to tap such a vast amount of people on the shoulder, basically at the same time.
Such an important feature which can be integrated into any mobile app or game deserves tons of attention, and in this article I will list some of the most popular and best mobile push notification platforms out there.
But before I proceed with the list, let’s first take a look at what push notifications actually are and how they’re being used today.
What is a push notification?
There are two types of notifications on today’s smartphones, called push notifications and pull notifications. A pull notification is created when the user asks the server for particular information. To put it in simple terms, a user must be using a particular app, and ask for particular info, in order to get it from the app. For example, if you use an app to monitor football results and open it to refresh it to get the latest info – you’ll receive a pull notification because, as the name suggests, you pulled the info. Another example would be a weather forecasting app – if you open it and tap refresh to get the latest data on the temperature and the forecast, you’ll be getting a pull notification.
Push notifications work differently – users don’t necessarily need to use the app or game in that particular moment for it to send a notification to the user. Every time you receive a Facebook or Twitter message, or a breaking news story that appears on your locked smartphone screen, you’re actually looking at a push notification.
Users usually need to opt-in to receive such notifications, and options to control them are usually presented to the user just after an app is installed. Of course, every app allows for this feature to be turned off or back on at any particular time.
Problems with push notifications
This function, however, should not be as straightforward as it is today.
Siedman sees two distinct ways developers should communicate with the user – either through push notifications, or via email. He compares those two to tapping people on the shoulder or sending them actual mail. Out of that he draws one simple conclusion: what type of content deserves to be delivered by tapping people on the shoulder, and what should be sent via mail, to be consumed when there’s more time?
Privacy and intimacy vs annoyance and distraction is what is at play here, and a lot of developers don’t seem to notice the difference, pushing notifications for things that can wait, ultimately leads people to turning off the feature completely.
And just like that, you’ve lost an amazing way to communicate with your users, to send them notifications about any special offers and innovations you might have been offering at the moment.
The problem here lies in the way push notifications are handled – they can either be turned on or off, often there’s no middle ground. This is a shame because, as Siedman sees it, you don’t simply allow or prevent everyone in real life to tap you on the shoulder. Some people can do it, others can’t. Usually there are no push notifications for specific topics within a game or app, and that is something developers should have in mind before deciding to implement push notifications.
Now that we know what push notifications are, how they work and what the biggest obstacles to their proper functioning are, let’s take a look at some of the best platforms for the service you can find.
One of the oldest and most popular push notification platforms is Urban Airship. Founded in 2009, it is usually the first place where app developers in need of mobile app optimization go. It has tens of thousands of apps using it, and offers various types of pushes, including pushing to a particular platform (iOS or Android) or specifically tagged devices (tagged beforehand).
Its biggest setback seems to be pricing – many users claim they’re significantly more expensive than the competition. The first million pushes each month are free, after that – every push costs $0.001 and every rich media push costs $0.0025.
Push Woosh is a close second, and a real contender to the number one spot. Its most popular features include the localization option, which allows devs to send push notifications in different languages with one click, based on the language settings each receiver has on its phone, as well as the rich free plan. The free account offers support for five apps and a million devices, that can get an unlimited amount of notifications. According to Folio3, PushWoosh has the cheapest premium plan of the bunch, starting at €39.95 per month ($49).
OneSignal is a relatively young platform, which first appeared in the wild back in March 2013. Besides being able to send push notifications to mobile devices, it can also notify users on PCs through its Web Push API. It supports all the biggest / most important platforms out there, including iOS, Android, Windows Phone 8, Windows 8.1 (no word on Windows 10 just yet), Chrome Native and Web Push (Chrome, Safari, Firefox). It even supported the now discontinued Amazon Fire. Its biggest advantage is that it offers a free tier that can be used by anyone, from the tiniest to the largest firms. It features per-user localization, segmentation, A/B testing and real-time analytics, just to name a few features. Some people have said they had a few issues setting the platform up, but have praised the support team and said that once set up, works like a charm. OneSignal works well with SOOMLA – game developers can discover potential payers with the GROW Insights API, and segment those users in OneSignal to target them later. You can find more details in this code sample.
Founded in 2008 and headquartered in New York, Carnival is considered to be one of the most balanced mobile marketing platforms – one which dances perfectly between the needs of developers making the apps, and marketers, actually using both the app and the service. It doesn’t have a price list on its website, so you’ll need to drop them a line if you’re interested, but it seems as they don’t offer a free plan. On the other hand, some developers that have tried the platform say their basic plan starts at $250/month, which breaks down to some $0.007 – $0.01 per monthly active users, which is a pretty solid deal. Its key selling point seems to be good integration with big analytics providers which allows you to submit your events into platforms like Localytics or Mixpanel.
StreetHawk is having a hard time floating on top of search engine results as the American TV series of the same name keeps popping up. It’s selling itself as a complete mobile engagement platform which can help you increase the lifetime value of your users. It offers some nifty and rich actions without programming requirements, including rich media push notifications, advanced analytics, geofences and iBeacons. It offers three pricing plans, ‘Start’, ‘Engage’ and ‘Predict’, where Start is free for up to 10,000 users. The platform also offers free trial for the other two plans, but if you want exact prices, you’ll have to send them a nudge. Here’s where its downside also seems to be hiding, as some developers have called StreetHawk’s pricing plans “one of the more complicated plan structures out there”.
With a key selling point in the AutoPush service, Push.io aims to be the number one solution for businesses looking to automate a few features. Through AutoPush, users can automate both building and serving push notifications. Push.io is a B2B company founded in 2009, and acquired by Responsys in 2014. Soon after, Responsys was itself acquired by Oracle, which is why when you navigate to Push.io, you’re forwarded to Oracle’s Mobile Marketing sub-page. Its biggest disadvantage seems to be this website, which is a complete mess, and can discourage people from pursuing the service at all. It does not offer a free plan and seems to be on the expensive side, with a 30-day trial for $99. The same price goes for 25,000 push notifications.
Airpush is more than ‘just’ a push notifications platform – it’s a full-blown mobile ad monetization network which also happens to offer push notifications, as well. The company boasts having more than 150,000 apps using it, and being ranked #2 on the Forbes list of Most Promising Companies in 2014. Besides offering the standard in-app monetization methods (banners, video ads, etc.) it offers push notifications and can trigger sign-ups anytime in app sessions. Many review sites out there claim Airpush is Android only, but the company says it works on iOS and mobile web, as well. It focuses its business around using push notifications for advertising, which is something you should keep in mind, together with the introduction to this article.
Appoxee is an Israeli start-up, founded in 2010 and acquired by analytics firm Teradata in 2015. For its push notifications service, it offers rich-text, preview support, audience segmentation, as well as rules and triggers support. It also offers in-app messaging, allowing you to send rich html messages to your customers from within a particular app. Considering all that tap-on-the-shoulder-vs-mail thing, this is a solid feature. These messages can contain images, coupons, special offers or videos. Another interesting feature is called “Best time to send”, which analyzes each user’s app behavior and learns when’s the best time to send a notification or a message. The only downside is that it doesn’t have a pricelist on its website, so you’ll need to drop them a line if you want to learn more. Folio3 claims a free account provides support for unlimited apps and up to 250,000 users, while the lowest premium plan costs $500/month.
Even though it’s somewhat smaller than its competition, and a bit “rough around the edges”, Catapush offers an interesting and rarely seen feature which has earned it its place in this list. Besides the classic push notifications, Catapush offers SMS failover – when the user’s lost data connectivity, or in more extreme cases, deleted the app – users can send the push notification through SMS instead. Although this feature screams “How invasive can you get?!”, it’s an interesting one and deserves to be mentioned. Its analytics are integrated through an API, and are mostly centered around note delivery. A demo version is available online, and a free beta can be requested. As for pricing, it’s free for up to 100 recipients, while all above that needs paying. Being an Italian-based company, pricing is in Euro: €29/month for up to 2,500 recipients, all the way to €249/month for up to 25,000 recipients. Everything above that is custom tailored.
Batch can thank Parse for making its way onto this list as soon as it did. Truth be told, it would have probably squeezed its way in at some point, but with Parse out of the way, it’s that much easier. Batch is a very young company, with a lot of promise. If was founded in January 2014 and is headquartered in Paris, France. What sets Batch apart from other similar platforms is the feature which allows the user to index non-specific notifications and monitor what the competition is doing. As Batch co-founder explained here, it allows you to search through public notifications for keywords, effectively allowing you to track your competition and gain valuable market insights. It offers four different pricing packs, as well as a free trial for each one. Batch can be a good choice for both low-budget start-ups and big companies, as its basic pack is free of charge.
Parse Push was originally the number three on the list, but as the company announced it’s shutting down, we decided to move it to the bottom. Parse Push used to be everyone’s sweetheart – one of the most loved and most stood for platforms out there. Two things are important when talking about Parse: first – it’s not a push platform per se – it’s a mobile BaaS (backend as a service), meaning it provides much more than just push services. Second, it was acquired by Facebook in 2013 for $85 million. It covers web, mobile and IoT (Internet of Things), and comes with a free one-month trial. Besides, it’s free for a million unique recipients a month, and offers scheduling, segmentation and A/B testing for free, as well. For every additional 1000 recipients, you’ll have to pay $0.05.
I used a couple of parameters when creating the list, including online reviews, publically shared personal experience from various developers, number of apps that use the service, features, company size and pricing.
In my humble opinion, this list includes the best of the bunch, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be the perfect pick for your mobile game or app. There are countless others, including Google Cloud Messaging, Jeapie, MixPanel, MobDB, Amazon SNS, Quick Blox, PushWizard, Kahuna, AppBoy, Iterable, Pushbots, AppBooster, Notifica, and the list goes on and on.
Developers can also use GROW Insights to detect hidden whales and segment them for sending push notifications later on.