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In-App Notifications vs. Push Notifications

Allie Dyer Bluemel

Last updated on

Notifications are a great way to re-engage with your users. However, not all notifications are created equally.

While both push notifications and in-app notifications can deliver messages to your users, contextual differences make one a better choice than the other in certain situations. In-app notifications are messages targeted to users inside your application, whereas push notifications can reach users anytime but have more rules associated with them.

Mastering the art of using each type of notification can be a game-changer for your goals. In this guide, we’ll clarify the differences between in-app and push notifications and provide comprehensive guidelines for when to use each notification type, empowering you with the knowledge to make informed decisions.

In this article:

What Are In-App Notifications?

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In-app notifications are messages displayed within the app while it’s in use. They target engaged users while they’re already in your app, which is helpful for onboarding, feature announcements, collecting feedback, and guiding user interactions.

There are several types of in-app notifications, including:

  • Modals: Modals are pop-up windows that appear in the center of the screen, capturing the user's full attention. They’re useful for important announcements or prompting users to take important actions, like finalizing a purchase.
  • Tooltips: These small pop-ups offer contextual guidance when users hover over specific app elements. Tooltips explain how features work without disrupting the user’s flow.
  • Checklists: Checklists are in-app to-do lists that guide users through essential tasks during onboarding. They drive engagement and ensure users complete key activation steps to experience the product's full value.
  • Micro-surveys: These are short in-app forms used to collect user feedback, insights, and data at relevant moments. For example, the app might display a micro-survey right after the customer completes a purchase.

In-app notifications are the way to go if your goal is to encourage engagement once users are in the app or to highlight underutilized features.

What Are Push Notifications?

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Push notifications are messages sent from a server to a user’s device. Unlike in-app notifications, push notifications appear when users aren’t engaged with your app.

These messages appear on the home screen or notification center even when the app isn’t in use, making them perfect for driving traffic to your app. In-app notifications continue the conversation by keeping users engaged with the digital experience.

There are several types of push notifications, including:

  • Re-engagement messages: Push notifications re-engage users by reminding them of items left in their cart or sharing new content or features.
  • Transactional messages: Transactional push notifications provide critical information about a user's account, such as order confirmations, shipping updates, activity alerts, and payment notifications.
  • Event reminders: Push notifications remind users of upcoming events like webinars, sales, or appointments so they don’t miss out on important events.
  • Promotional offers: Push notifications are versatile tools for businesses to send promotional messages about new products, discounts, or limited-time offers. They can significantly drive sales and engagement, making them a powerful asset in your marketing arsenal.

In-app messages are ideal for engaged users, while push notifications are perfect for less engaged subscribers, giving them a reason to return to your app.

Comparing In-App Notifications vs. Push Notifications

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Both in-app and push notifications deliver value. They’re both useful—it just comes down to understanding their differences and choosing the best option for your business. Let’s look at the biggest differences between in-app notifications versus push notifications.

Audience Targeting

Push notifications are particularly effective for re-engaging inactive or disengaged users. By delivering timely and relevant messages directly to their devices, regardless of whether the app is currently open, push notifications draw these users back to your app, making them a valuable tool for re-engagement campaigns.

In-app notifications are a powerful tool for engaging users who are actively using your app. These notifications provide contextually relevant prompts that enhance the user experience while they’re already interacting with the app.

Delivery Mechanism

Push and in-app notifications use different delivery mechanisms, allowing your business to strategically use each type based on user activity. Push notifications use the operating system’s push notification service, which allows you to send messages even when users don’t have your app open.

However, in-app notifications are an integral part of the app’s UI and only appear when the app is open. That’s because they’re embedded within the app’s functionality, so the messages are seen only during active usage.

User Control

User control also varies. Users can easily disable push notifications through their device or app settings. With push notifications, they can manage their notification preferences, including turning off notifications entirely if they find them disruptive.

However, in-app notifications are integrated into the app and typically can’t be disabled separately. They’re part of the user experience, ensuring users see important messages without relying on external settings.

The Right Notification Type: In-App Notifications vs. Push Notifications

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Push notifications are excellent for re-engaging inactive users through the device's notification service, while in-app notifications effectively engage active users within the app's UI. Users can control push notifications through device settings, but in-app notifications remain a part of the app experience.

Understanding these differences will help you design a balanced notification strategy that maximizes user engagement—without overwhelming your subscribers.

However, as useful as each notification type is, each option has drawbacks. Weigh the pros and cons of push and in-app notifications to better understand the nuances of these notification types.

The Pros of Push Notifications

One of the biggest reasons to use push notifications is the ability to reach users even if they aren’t actively using your app. You can still send notifications if a user stops using your app or forgets it’s installed on their device. These messages will get prime real estate on their mobile notification screen (or desktop).

Plus, push notifications have high opt-in rates. Eighty-one percent of Android and 51% of iOS users enable push notifications, giving you quick access to users.

iOS and Android push notifications allow you to send a custom notification after a user engages. You can expand the UI with custom fonts and larger images instead of the limited fonts and tiny icons of the default push notification UI.

The Cons of Push Notifications

It’s easy to annoy users with too many notifications. Nearly 53% of users think push notifications are annoying, and 49% say they’re distracting.

Keeping users engaged through push notifications and not spamming them with unwanted messaging is definitely a balancing act. In fact, sending just one push notification a week causes 10% of users to disable notifications and 6% to uninstall your app entirely.

Push notifications also have a limited default UI and word count. On Android devices, you’re limited to between 450 and 650 characters, and on iOS, between 150 and 230 characters. Fortunately, concise messaging will get the job done, so watch your copywriting.

The Pros of In-App Notifications

One of the best things about in-app notifications is that users perceive them more as expected communication than unwanted messages. Users open in-app notifications three times more than push notifications, with an average open rate of 75%. Of course, it’s still possible to spam users with in-app notifications, so don’t take this engagement for granted.

In-app messages don’t have nearly as many limitations for their copy or visuals as push notifications do. There’s no word count limit or default UI to consider before designing the notification.

In-app notifications are incredibly timely. Sending a notification based on a user action, like navigating to a certain page or filling out a form, creates a personalized experience that users crave. While you could send push notifications based on the same user triggers, it makes less sense for a user to receive a push notification outside the app.

The Cons of In-App Notifications

Even though in-app messages are timely and personal, you can only send them to active users. If users aren’t in your app, you have no way of reaching the people who closed your app or stopped using it altogether.

And, of course, sending too many in-app notifications is still spammy. Proper planning and strategy are still a must.

When To Use Push Notifications and In-App Notifications

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Users accept that engagement requests are the norm when actively using products, so in-app messages are an expected form of communication. However, users must grant consent to receive push notifications.

But just like some meetings should have been emails, some push notifications should be in-app, and vice versa. Follow this guide to determine when to use push versus in-app notifications in your business.

Use Cases for Push Notifications:

  • Abandoned shopping cart: Users get distracted and will often exit your app without converting. If they add items to their cart and don’t complete the purchase, whether intentionally or unintentionally, a push notification will remind them that products are still waiting in their cart.
  • Re-engagement: As of 2023, the average person has 18.45 apps downloaded on their phone. Users don’t give these apps equal attention, and they often forget about most apps on their phones. But if the user gives permission for push notifications, you can ensure they remain aware of your brand, even if they forget about downloading your app.
  • Lighting sales: Discounts drive more people to your business, so sending push notifications that generate interest in special sales or deals makes sense. It’s just one more reason for people to use your app or visit your website.
  • New content: Use push notifications to alert users to new content, like blog posts. This engages active users and reminds inactive users of your offerings. Users are more likely to unsubscribe if they find your content unhelpful, so make it useful, entertaining, or newsworthy.
  • Alerts and reminders: Calendar apps, transportation apps, flight trackers, and social media all use push notifications to send helpful, timely reminders.

Be sure to test your web push notifications before sending them to users.  Check out for a demo of standards based web push notifications across all platforms—including iOS! 

Use Cases for In-App Notifications:

  • Product updates and new features: Active users want to know what’s new with your product. If you made changes to the app, an in-app notification will update users the next time they check out your app.
  • Process completions: In-app notifications telling users their purchase was a success immediately let them know the process went smoothly. It reduces ambiguity and can even include a call to action, driving the user to continue interacting with your brand after converting.
  • Onboarding: Use in-app notifications to guide users through the best way to use your app. A series of in-app messages pointing out features and navigation options is super helpful, especially for new users.
  • Feedback and survey requests: Want feedback? Send a survey request while the interaction remains fresh in the user’s mind. Users receive this in-app message immediately after taking action, increasing the odds that they’ll share their honest opinions with you.

How To Use Push Notifications and In-App Notifications in a Meaningful Way

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Personalization is the key to meaningful user interactions, whether you use push notifications, in-app notifications, or both. In fact, basic personalization improves open rates by 9%, so the more relevant your messages, the greater user engagement will be.

Make sure your in-app and push notifications have these engagement-boosting qualities:

  • Timely: Send notifications at the most relevant moment. Gather data about the peak times of your app usage. See if you can identify users' pain points while using the app so you can address them with notifications. Leverage user data to determine when specific notifications perform best for different audience segments.
  • Personal: Personalized messages improve reaction rates by 4X, so ditch generic messaging in favor of individualized experiences. Personalization can take many forms, such as using the subscriber’s name in the title or description, knowing their preferences, or telling them their action had an impact.
  • Actionable: Whether you want a user to complete a survey or check out a new feature, creating a sense of urgency lets the user know their action or feedback is important.
  • Rich media: Users expect more than just text-based notifications. There’s a trend toward using images, videos, emojis, and interactive elements to boost engagement. In fact, Walmart saw a whopping 30% increase in app opens by using rich notifications to showcase its daily deals.

Notifications Keep Workflows on Track

Both in-app and push notifications are great for user engagement, but setting up the infrastructure for these notifications is far from simple. Instead of building everything piecemeal, use an off-the-shelf solution for all of your messaging channels, from Slack to email to push notifications.

MagicBell is an in-app inbox for workflow notifications, with solutions for web push and mobile push as your product expands. Implementing our inbox with customizable options to match your brand is easy—and, you can do it in less than an hour!

When users check their inboxes, they see all missed messages, and actionable notifications bring them to relevant areas in the app. It’s like magic!

Schedule a demo now to see how MagicBell improves user workflows and streamlines the notification development process.

Frequently Asked Questions

How can I avoid annoying users with too many notifications?

Limit the frequency of notifications and make sure your messages are valuable. For push notifications, follow best practices by not sending more than one weekly notification. Allow users to customize their notification preferences.

For in-app notifications, avoid interrupting the user’s flow too often and ensure that each notification serves a clear purpose, such as providing helpful information.

Can I use both in-app and push notifications in a single campaign?

Yes! For example, you can use push notifications to bring users back to the app and then use in-app notifications to guide them through specific actions or highlight new features. This integrated approach ensures that you reach users at multiple touchpoints, which increases overall engagement.

What are the best practices for personalizing notifications?

Personalizing notifications requires mobilizing user data to create tailored messages. For push notifications, include the user’s name, location-based information, or past behavior to make the message relevant. You can personalize in-app notifications by triggering messages based on user actions within the app, such as completing a purchase.