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The Expert Guide to Push Notifications

Angela Stringfellow

Last updated on

Brands connect and engage with their users and customers regularly to stay relevant to their target market. Over the years, brands have used different tools to reach these goals, from the traditional methods used in earlier times to technology tools like push notifications businesses have at their fingertips today.

A street peddler in Medieval Europe relied on their physical presence in the most crowded places in the market to increase engagement with their potential customers. They used their loud voice to cut through all the other vendors in the market. The mode of engaging customers later changed to print advertisements, newsletters, radio advertisements, television spots, and celebrity endorsements.

Today, in the digital era, marketers can reach consumers through the mobile devices that modern consumers carry with them almost constantly. These include laptops, tablets, smartphones, and other connected devices. There are more than 3.8 billion smartphone users around the world today, and many of these consumers also have other connected devices as well. These electronic devices have become a prevalent and unavoidable part of everyone’s lives. Mobile devices like smartphones have become the easiest and most effective route to garner the attention of existing users and potential customers.

Connecting with audiences through electronic devices opens up many avenues, such as:

Each of these avenues has different levels of effectiveness and associated costs. Emails have been the most used digital marketing channel since the dawn of the internet era. Despite being a relatively new innovation compared to other digital marketing avenues, push notifications have already proven effective for reaching and engaging audiences. In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about push notifications.

What are Push Notifications?

Apple push notifications
Push notifications on an iOS device | Screenshot via Apple

Push notifications are informational messages, sent from a remote server, that a user can interact with. Push notifications are available on nearly all electronic devices. Shortly after the release of the iPhone, Apple launched its Apple Push Notification Service (APNS) in June 2009. Though emails had push notification capability even before that, Apple popularized the concept. After Apple introduced the concept of push notifications, all major ecosystems and applications adopted the technology. Today, it’s difficult to find an electronic device that does not have push notification capability. Many widely used ecosystems support push notifications, including:

  • Desktop operating systems
  • Windows
  • macOS
  • Linux
  • Mobile operating systems
  • Android
  • iOS
  • Browsers (desktop and mobile versions)
  • Safari
  • Chrome
  • Firefox

A push notification is a message that pops up for the user on an electronic device. The ability to push targeted messages from a remote server to users is what makes push notifications different from other forms of notifications. For a push notification to work, there are three key elements required:

  • Client application
  • Application server
  • User

Here’s a look at each of these three elements and the role they play in push notifications.

Client Application

The client application is the app installed on the user’s device. It could be a desktop application, a mobile application, or a web browser.Users receive notifications via the application’s interface, and they can review and interact with the notification on the application.

Application Server

An application server is the backend platform of an installed application that resides on a remote server. The notifications originate from the application server and are sent to the client application. The application server can be hosted on any of the cloud service providers or an independent server connected to the internet.


The user is the individual who has installed the client application. The user has to explicitly give permission to receive push notifications. Push notifications are intended for the user to read and interact with and serve to notify users of new features or updates, important alerts and reminders, and more.

Push Notifications vs. Pull Notifications

Android push notifications
Push notifications on Android device | Screenshot via Android

The difference between push and pull notifications is in how the user interacts with the client application and how the messages are served from the application server. In the case of pull notifications, the user must actively request the messages. Users have to log in to the client application and make a request to the server to receive notifications. The need for users to actively and intentionally demand pull notifications can act as friction for receiving messages.

In push notifications, the user does not have to intentionally request notifications. The messages are delivered directly to the notification area of the user’s device, accompanied by the notification alert (banner, sound, and vibration). While installing the client application (or later), the user has to consent to receive push notifications. Some applications even allow users to select the types of notifications they prefer to receive. Developers can implement user-friendly systems with MagicBell’s inbox and notification management solutions. Once the user has given their consent and selected their preferences, the client application receives the message immediately after it is pushed from the application server.

How Does Push Notification Work?

Chrome push notifications
Chrome push notifications | Screenshot via

Each ecosystem has its own set of channels and directives to send push notifications to users. For example, Apple has its Apple Push Notification Service (APNS) that developers can use to send push notifications to Apple devices. APNS offers one-stop access to all notification-related services across all the different Apple devices. Similarly, other ecosystems also have APIs that developers can utilize to send push notifications.

Despite the differences between Operating System Push Notification Systems (OSPNS) for various platforms, there are some similarities. Once an end-user installs the client application on their device, a unique ID is created for the user. This ID can be used to track the user’s activities without revealing any personal information. The user’s demographic characteristics are associated with the unique ID. Thus, it can be used to segment and target different customers according to their traits. It also can be used to tailor services to a specific customer or for a group of customers with similar interests.

In general, developers have to register with the respective OSPNS to get access to and use the notification API. Google’s push notification system is run through Firebase, and as mentioned, Apple has its own Apple Push Notification Service (APNS). Web browsers like Chrome have open APIs which can be used to send push notifications with the user’s consent. The application’s backend system can be connected with the respective OSPNS.

Application developers can choose to create push messages manually or have an automated system. The messages can also be sent in bulk to all users, individual users, or a group of users. Each ecosystem has its own methods to create and send push notifications. In the next section, we’ll provide a brief overview of how to set up push notifications for Android.

How to Create Android Push Notifications

For any Android app, push notifications can be routed with Google Firebase. The following requirements must be met before you start building Android applications:

  • The latest version of Android Studio.
  • The new project has to be for Android Jelly Bean or higher. This translates to API level 16 or later.
  • Use Gradle 4.1 or higher
  • Use Android X with:
  • v3.2.1 or later
  • compileSdkVersion 28 or later
  • Have a Google account to sign in to Firebase.

Add Firebase to Your Project

Use the Firebase console to create a new project by clicking the ‘Add project’ button.

Add your project to Firebase
Add your project to Firebase

Name the project and hit ‘Continue.’

Name your project
Name your project

In the next step, you can choose whether to link the project with Google Analytics. The slider can be used for that. Once you’ve made your decision, hit the ‘Create project’ button.

Link your project to Google Analytics
Link your project to Google Analytics

The console will set up the project, which may take a few minutes. The following screen appears once the setup is complete and you can hit ‘Continue.’

Your new project is ready confirmation
Your new project is ready confirmation

From the project dashboard, click the Android icon to add your Android app to the project.

Add your Android app to your Firebase project
Add your Android app to your Firebase project

Register the app in the following window. ​​Your package name is generally the applicationId in your app-level build.gradle file. The other two fields are optional. Then click the ‘Register app’ button.

Register the app
Register the app

Download the config file google-services.json and move it into your Android app module root directory.

Download the config file
Download the config file

Add the Firebase SDK

Make sure that you have Google's Maven repository. Add the following code from the Firebase documentation to the project-level build.gradle (<project>/build.gradle):

buildscript {
repositories {
// Check that you have the following line (if not, add it):
google()  // Google's Maven repository
dependencies {
// Add this line
classpath ''
allprojects {
repositories {
// Check that you have the following line (if not, add it):
google()  // Google's Maven repository

Then add the following code to the app-level build.gradle (<project>/<app-module>/build.gradle):

dependencies {
// ...
// Import the Firebase BoM
implementation platform('')
// When using the BoM, you don't specify versions in Firebase library dependencies
// Declare the dependency for the Firebase SDK for Google Analytics
implementation ''
// Declare the dependencies for any other desired Firebase products
// For example, declare the dependencies for Firebase Authentication and Cloud Firestore
implementation ''
implementation ''

Sync the gradle changes in the IDE.

Edit the App Manifest

Edit the app manifest (AndroidManifest.xml) to add message handling capabilities beyond receiving notifications in the background. It will help to receive notifications in foreground apps, to receive data payload, to send upstream messages, etc. The following code extends the FirebaseMessagingService:

<action android:name="" />

How to Retrieve the Device Registration Token

When a user installs an app for the first time, the Firebase SDK generates a registration token. This token is used to target each device and can also be used to create and segment device groups.

To retrieve the current token of any device, use the function


Send Your First Android Push Notification

Send your first push notification
Send your first push notification

Click on the ‘Send your first message’ button. In the screen that appears, give the notification an optional title and add the message content. You can also add a notification image to be displayed on the notification screen. On the right side of the console, you can see a preview of how it appears on the Android device. You can also preview how it will appear in the expanded state by clicking the tab ‘Expanded view.’ Once everything is in order, click the ‘Next’ button.

Enter your message content
Enter your message content

You can select various targeting options on the next screen and click the ‘Next’ button.

Select targeting options
Select targeting options

The next screen is for scheduling the date and time. You also have the option to switch between various time zones.

Schedule your notification
Schedule your notification

You can provide additional data such as the Android notification channel, Notification sound, and expiry on the next page. Once everything is set up, you can review everything and hit the ‘Publish’ button to send the notification.

Review and publish your notification
Review and publish your notification

This sends the first push notification. Firebase offers many push notification capabilities, which are explained in detail in the documentation.

Why Do You Need Push Notifications?

The need for digital engagement with users is more apparent than ever after the COVID-19 lockdowns. Among all the digital tools available for marketers to engage users, push notifications have been proven effective by increasing engagement up to 88%. The following are the different ways businesses can use push notifications to engage users.

Leveraging Targeted Messaging

One of the most important advantages of push notifications is that they can be used to send targeted messages to a select group of users. An application’s users probably don’t share all the same characteristics or interests, so they may respond differently to different messages, even though the desired outcome is the same. Unique IDs created by OSPNS can be used to track and measure user actions. This, along with the user’s demographic details, can be used to understand the different types of users, segment them, and design custom messages to target different segments. Users are more likely to respond favorably to messages tailored to their demographics and psychographics.

Scaling Marketing Efforts

Traditional marketing methods do not scale well. Sending a substantial volume of direct mail requires a significant capital expenditure and the infrastructure to support it. To gain more views of TV advertisements, marketers have to pay large sums to book desirable spots. But push notifications eliminate many of these obstacles, offering an easily scalable marketing strategy. Since application servers run on digital platforms reaching billions of users, they don’t require additional infrastructure. The cost to reach a large number of users with push notifications is relatively minuscule.

Converting Users

Many digital services and solutions offer a free tier to new users who want to test a new application or service and for users who don’t need all the features or the capacity offered by paid tiers initially. These businesses monetize their operations by converting free users to paid customers. The users will already have the apps installed on their devices and may be using the app frequently. By sending relevant push notifications showcasing the benefits of the paid plans, marketers can convert more users. This strategy isn’t limited to installed apps. It can also work for e-commerce stores and other web applications that have obtained users’ permission to send them push notifications.

Making Tailored Offers

Connecting each user with a unique ID helps you to monitor each user’s activities. The vast amount of information gathered by monitoring the data can be used to assess users’ traits and behaviors. Businesses can use this data to send custom offers and promotions to individual users based on their behaviors or interests. This approach can be used to entice users to buy products or services without spending money for broad promotions and offers that only a select few will be interested in. Location-based messaging can be used to send offers when users are near certain areas, such as within 10 miles of a brick-and-mortar location. When used by the right types of businesses – it works well for those with physical locations such as automotive dealers, retail stores, and restaurants – location-based messaging has proven to be effective in increasing sales.

Running Tests

As mentioned, different users respond to different messages and offers. Marketers cannot reliably predict what will work based on intuition alone, but it’s possible to determine what messaging and offers work for different audience segments by conducting extensive testing. Push notifications can be customized to run A/B tests. Here, different messages are sent to different sets of users and the response is measured. These findings can be used to tailor future messages and leverage personalization to increase engagement and sales.

Building Your Brand Image

Users consenting to receive push notifications opens up a channel of direct communication with individual users, providing a valuable communication channel for brand building. Individual customers have unique images of your brand in their minds. By using targeted messaging and tailored offers, you can not only boost sales but also enhance your brand image in the minds of your audience. For example, you can use push notifications to send a custom message to individual users on their birthdays. More proactive messaging and outreach strategies can be used to build your brand image, as well.

Push notifications are a modern-day direct marketing channel. Push notifications are much more cost-effective and scalable than traditional marketing methods. They can be sent only with the explicit consent of users, ensuring that marketers send information to willing consumers who are more likely to convert. Push notifications are an essential tool in the modern marketing toolbox. Pairing push notifications with a notification inbox to store and recall messages can increase their potency by making notifications accessible and actionable from within the application, whenever your users want to view them.