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When and How to Use Push Notifications vs. In-app Notifications

Allie Dyer Bluemel

Not all notifications are created equal. While both push and in-app notifications can deliver messages to your users, there are contextual differences that make one a better choice over the other in certain situations. In-app notifications are customized views to get messages to users inside your application, whereas push notifications can reach users anytime but have more rules associated with them.

Knowing when and how to use each type of notification can be a boon to your goals. But before we can dive into when to use each type of notification, we need to take a closer look at each notification type.

The right notification type: Weigh the pros and cons of each

While both types of notifications can deliver important messaging to your users, they are sent in completely different contexts. Push notifications can reach users even when they’re not using your app, while in-app messages reach your users when they’re actively engaged with your app.

The pros of push

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

iOS and Android push notifications give you the ability to have a custom (or full interface) notification after a user engages. This means that instead of the limited fonts and tiny icons of the default push notification UI, you can expand on the UI with things like custom fonts and larger images.

default UI vs full interface.png
Image source: Apple

The cons of push

It’s easy to annoy users with too many notifications. Over 75% of millennials delete apps because they’re annoyed by them. Keeping users engaged through push notifications and not spamming them with unwanted messaging is definitely a balancing act.

In addition to a limited default UI, push notifications also have a limited word count. On Android, depending on the device, you’re limited to between 450 and 650 characters, and on iOS, between 150 and 230 characters. Though limitations are generally considered negative, succinct messaging with good copywriting could get the job done.

The pros of in-app

An immediate benefit of in-app notifications is that they can be perceived as expected communication rather than unwanted messages. Data collected at CleverTap says that in-app messages can have a 100% higher clickthrough rate than push (though it is still entirely possible to spam users with in-app notifications).

In-app messages are not limited in copy and visuals the same way push is limited. There is no word count or default UI you have to take into consideration before designing your notification.

In-app notifications can be extremely timely. When the app is actively being used, a notification can be sent based on a user action, like navigating to a certain area or filling out a form. While you can use push notifications by sending them 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

Even though in-app messages have the ability to be more of a real-time notification, there is the disadvantage of only sending them to active users. If you only use in-app notifications, you don’t have a way to reach users who have closed your app or have stopped using it altogether.

And of course, sending too many in-app notifications can still be perceived as spam. Proper planning and strategy are still necessary.

When to use push notifications and in-app notifications

To use push notifications, you have to get consent from the user, so they are already expecting to hear from you on some level. And people accept that engagement requests are the norm when actively using products, so in-app messages are an expected form of communication. But just like how some meetings should have been an email, some push notifications should be in-app, and vice versa.

Use cases for push:

  • Abandoned shopping cart: Users get distracted and multitask. If they’ve added items to their cart and didn’t complete the purchase, either intentionally or unintentionally, a notification will remind them of their previous purchasing intentions.
  • Re-engagement: According to Simform, on average, users have 40 apps downloaded on their phones. All those apps don’t get equal attention, and a lot of them are probably forgotten about. If the user has given permission to send them push notifications, they at least had some level of interest in the product.
  • Sales: Sales drive more people to your business, so it makes sense to send push notifications to tell users there is a great reason to use your app or visit your site.
  • New content: Alert users to new content, like blog posts. This can both engage active users and remind inactive users of your content offerings.
  • Alerts and reminders: One of the biggest use cases for apps, and probably most welcomed by users. For example, calendar apps, transportation apps, flight trackers, and social media apps all use push notifications to send helpful and important reminders to users.

Use cases for in-app:

  • Product updates and new features: Your active users will want to know what’s new with your product. If there have been some changes, an in-app notification will keep them up to date the next time they use your app.
  • Process completions: If users need to complete a process, like making a purchase or signing up for a service, an in-app notification indicating success will let them immediately know their process went smoothly.
  • Onboarding: New users can be guided on the best way to navigate your app through a series of in-app messages pointing out features and navigation options. If the app has gone through a redesign, it’s also helpful to show returning users how to successfully navigate the new design.
  • Feedback and survey requests: A feedback or survey request sent immediately after a user action, like using a new feature, will get a response when the interaction is fresh in the user’s mind.

How to use push notifications and in-app notifications in a meaningful way

Whether you use push notifications or in-app notifications—or both—you should always strive to send personalized and meaningful notifications to users.

According to Noah Weiss, the Head of Search and Learning & Intelligence at Slack, “A great push notification is three things: timely, personal and actionable.”

These qualities should apply when you use push notifications and in-app notifications alike in your product. Information reported by CleverTap shows that 30% of users will delete an app if they feel like they are receiving too many notifications. If we break down each of the three elements Weiss mentions, the structure of a basic notification strategy can be built.

  • Timely: Send notifications when they are relevant. Gather data about the peak times of your app usage. See if you can identify pain points users have while using the app so you might address them with notifications. If there is data on users to pull from, use it to figure out when specific notifications might perform best for certain segmented groups.
  • Personal: This can come in many forms—using their name in the title or description, knowing their preferences, or telling them their action had an impact.
  • Actionable: Whether you want a user to fill out a survey or you want them to check out a new feature, creating a sense of urgency lets the user know their action or feedback is important.
notifications example.jpg
Notification examples taken from CleverTap and Appcues

In the above examples of a push notification and in-app notification, respectively, we can see how they encompass the three elements. Kohl’s is sending a timely message about a sale, indicating the user has a unique discount opportunity and makes it clear they need to take action and enter the app to find out what that opportunity is.

The more extensive in-app notification (for ExaVault) is a timely onboarding message to a new user. It’s letting them know they can customize their account by selecting things that are relevant to them. The action is quite obvious, with the user needing to select options to finish setting up their account.

Notifications keep workflows on track

MagicBell is an in-app inbox for workflow notifications, with solutions for web push and mobile push as your product expands. Our inbox is easily implemented (in less than an hour!), with customizable options to match your brand.

Users can see all missed messages when they check their inbox, and actionable notifications bring users to relevant areas in the app.

Find out how MagicBell can enhance user workflows by scheduling a demo.

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