Last Updated on
February 12, 2024

What are Push Notifications and How do They Work?

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The tactics of marketing change all the time but the fundamentals stay the same.

Whether it’s email, digital ads, organic search, or anything else - the holy grail of marketing is still reaching the right person, at the right time, with the right message.  

That’s why push notifications are so valuable in the smartphone era. 

We all have our phones on us pretty much 24/7. The ability for companies to reach our lock screens with tailored messages is huge. It’s a completely new channel native to the smartphone era. 

So, how do you make use of push notifications for your business?

It starts with understanding what they are, and how they work. 

In this article we’re going to cover them in detail. By the end you’ll understand push notifications on a deep level, and you’ll be ready to implement them on your own website, web app or native mobile app. 

Let’s get started with a high level overview of what a push notification is.

What Are Push Notifications?

Push notifications are messages that are sent directly to a user's device - usually a smartphone - even when they’re not actively using your app or website. 

These notifications appear as alerts, banners, or badges on the user's screen, and usually contain information, updates, or promotions of some kind. 

Push notifications are arguably more powerful than traditional channels such as email or SMS, since delivery is guaranteed and there’s less reliance on users actively checking for updates. They can help you grab your customers’ attention, increase their engagement, and induce them to take specific actions.

Check out this comparison between SMS, email and push notifications in this breakdown. You can also take a look at some push notification examples for context.

There are also two main kinds of push notifications - web and native app. These are conceptually similar, but there are important differences.

Another important distinction is push notifications on iOS vs Android.

For now, let's look a little deeper at the business benefits of push notifications. 

How can Push Notifications Help Your Business? 

Push notifications can play an important role in reaching and engaging your users. Here’s a summary of why many businesses want to leverage them:

  • Direct Engagement: push notifications provide a rather immediate route to  contacting users, even if they're not on your platform
  • Real-time Traffic: drives immediate engagement and traffic, which can help to give content an initial boost and expand its reach 
  • Timely Alerts: for content/news brands, push can position your app as the primary, instant source of essential information
  • Increased Visibility: for eCommerce businesses, push can ensure that new products, offers and services get immediate attention
  • Loyalty: push can significantly improve overall UX, fostering loyalty, as seen with New York Times mobile app subscribers
  • App stickiness: push notifications can boost daily user engagement on social platforms and other applications - making them more attractive to potential users
  • Revenue Boost: For ad-reliant apps and brands, push notifications can increase ad views and thus revenue
  • Sales Enhancement: E-commerce platforms can drive sales with targeted push notifications promoting new lines and offers
  • Data Insights: your push data can be a treasure trove for understanding audience behavior and help you to make precise strategy adjustments

That’s a few of the key benefits. In other articles’ we go more into depth about how to boost engagement with push notifications

For now, understanding the basics of how push notifications work, how to implement them on your app, and some best practices are all you need to start leveraging them.  

We’re going to go into more of the technical aspects now, starting off with a review of the fundamental concepts behind how push notifications function.

How Push Notifications Work

As a business owner, you probably don’t care to go super deep into how things work on a technical level. But, you probably also know that understanding the tools you use on a high level is valuable. 

In this section, we’ll go over a few concepts that it pays to be familiar with, including the client-server relationship and the use of registration and device tokens.

The Basics: Client and Server

Like many things, push notifications rely on a client-server architecture. 

The client is your mobile app, the user’s browser, or your desktop application that receives and displays the push notification. 

Your server determines when and to whom a notification should be sent, and also communicates this to the appropriate platform-specific push notification service. 

This service is then responsible for the actual delivery of the notification to the target client. The service differs depending on platform and type of notification. 

Service workers for web notifications

Web push notifications, for example, depend on service workers and push specific browser APIs. 

A service worker is essentially a JavaScript file that runs separately from the main web page, and acts as a middle “layer” between the client (in this case the browser) and the server. 

Modern browsers typically have “push services” - intermediary infrastructure that enables push notifications like Chrome’s Firebase Cloud Messaging, Windows Push Notification Services, and Mozilla’s Push Service. Along with the browser’s native infrastructure, there’s a lively ecosystem of third party push notification tools and services that add additional features and functionality on top!

The service worker operates in the background, connected to but separate from your actual website or web app, “listening” for push events from the push service.

Native App Notifications

Native app notifications follow the same basic client - server architecture, but are different in several important ways. 

Native apps do not use service workers, but rather rely on push services specific to the operating system. For iOS, it's the Apple Push Notification Service (APNs), while Android typically uses Firebase Cloud Messaging (FCM). 

Each platform's service has its protocols, message limits, and functionalities. In later sections, we will go further into the differences between web and app push notifications, and how you can make use of both. 

Registration and Device Tokens

When a user installs your native app or opts-in to receive web push notifications, their device is registered with your server. This registration process involves the exchange of device tokens.

Device tokens are unique identifiers for the client, and make sure that each notification is sent securely to the right place. With app or web notifications, device tokens are essential for delivery. 

Again, there are some important differences here between web and mobile app notifications. 

Registration for native app push notifications

On installing a native app, the device is registered through either iOS or Android’s push notification service. These services then create a unique device token, which acts as an address for that specific app on that specific device. This ensures that your notifications always get sent to the correct place. 

To understand the differences between push notifications on iOS and Android, you can refer to our article on push notifications on iOS vs Android.

Registration for web push notifications 

Web push notifications utilize a slightly different approach. Instead of the device-specific tokens found in native apps, web push relies on browser-generated endpoints

When a user opts-in to receive notifications from a site or web app, the browser works with the relevant push service to produce a unique URL. 

This URL is functionally similar to the device tokens in native apps, since it is effectively an address for receiving notifications meant for that specific browser. 

Now we’re going to move onto an important topic - sending push notifications. 

Sending Push Notifications

How are push notifications sent? To understand this, we need to look more closely at the all important push notification service providers. 

Push Notification Service Providers

So far we covered push services, but we need to make an important clarification to avoid confusion. 

Push services are like infrastructure:

  • Native App push services: APNs (for iOS) and FCM (for Android), are like protocols or infrastructure that define how notifications should be sent, received, and displayed on the platform. These services enable push notifications on a low level. 
  • Web push services: provided by the browser - for example Chrome uses Firebase Cloud Messaging, Mozilla Firefox uses its own push service, and Edge uses Windows Push Notification Services. 

These are the base layer infrastructure that major platforms have created to facilitate push notifications. You could compare them to the postal system of a country. 

A layer up we have an entire ecosystem of push notification service providers. If push services are the postal system, these are more like bulk mailing services. 

These services, like OneSignal, Airship and PushCrew, allow developers and business owners to easily send, manage, and analyze push notifications. They often layer on advanced features like segmentation, scheduling, and analytics - while streamlining the entire UX.

In MobiLoud apps, we integrate with the top push notification service provider, OneSignal, to give our users the power to send unlimited push notifications through a simple UX. 

There’s a lively industry of push notification tools and services though!

Technically, you don’t need push notification service providers and their tools. 

For both native and web apps, it is possible to cut out the middleman and directly connect to native push services like Apple's APNs for iOS, Google's FCM for Android, or the various browser push services for the web. 

But this presents challenges, and unless you really need to, it probably isn’t worth it. 

Each platform has unique requirements, different message payload structures, distinct handling of delivery failures, and individual certification processes. On the web, each browser has its unique nuances and requirements. 

Doing it all yourself is usually unnecessary fiddling when you can have a push notification service provider handle it all for you and give you a ton of useful functionality on top. 

Now, let’s move on to the notification itself. 

Anatomy of a Push Notification

It’s time to move from the infrastructure to the actual notification. Let’s look at each component - payload, customization, and interactivity. 

Payload

The “payload” of a notification is the actual content that is delivered to the user's device. This almost always includes text, and depending on the notification can also include accompanying media or data that might enable them to complete some specific actions. 

Typically, payloads include the following elements:

  • Title: a main heading of the message providing a summary and description of the topic
  • Message: the message itself, the main content of the notification which typically contains some information and/or a call to action
  • Images and videos: some notifications contain rich media, which can be a powerful engagement tool for eCommerce stores, games, and other apps 
  • Deep links: a deep link is a URL that directs the user to a specific location within your app when they interact with the notification

By carefully crafting the payload of your push notification, you can deliver a concise and compelling message that captures the attention of your users.

The Role of User Permissions

User permissions and consent are also a key part of push notifications. The user must greenlight notifications, and their privacy (and patience) must be respected. 

The pivotal moment happens soon after the app is installed, or while the user visits your web app. Here’s how:

  • Mobile Apps: on launch, the app will prompt the user with a dialog, asking if they wish to receive notifications. The design and phrasing of this dialog are often standardized by the platform.
  • Web Apps: When visiting a site that supports push notifications, users will see a browser-generated dialog, usually at the top-left or top-right, asking for permission to send notifications.

Timing and context are important. Make sure you give them a good reason to give permissions - such as special offers or breaking news - and fulfill your promise!

Remember that the permissions are not set, and the user can revoke them at any time. You can seek permission again, but this needs to be done delicately without making the user feel pestered. 

Android vs iOS Permissions

There are a few important differences between Android and iOS when it comes to push permissions. 

Android is more forgiving of the developer. Users are automatically opted into notifications on installing the app, while iOS apps require explicit permission. As you can imagine, this leads to generally higher opt in rates for Android. 

Triggers

We’ve gone over the basic elements of a push notification, all the way through to the user giving you their permission to send them. 

The next stage depends on you. 

Though you can just log into a push service provider and send a cheerful message to your users whenever you feel like it, most push notifications are triggered by a specific event or user action. 

Triggers can be broadly categorized into two main types: user-driven and system-driven. 

User-driven triggers are triggered by actions that the user takes. For example if you add an item to your cart on an eCommerce app and then get a notification later reminding you to check out, or perhaps you add an item to a wishlist and a notification is triggered when it goes on sale. 

It isn’t only in eCommerce, take a social media app for example. If you have the Facebook or Twitter apps on your phone, you’ll know that notifications are triggered by a wide variety of user actions - like sending a friend request, receiving a DM, or commenting/liking a post. 

System-driven triggers on the other hand are independent of user actions, and are flipped based on data or certain conditions. 

For example you might have push notifications set up to trigger for breaking news, new app updates, or new special offers and promotions. 

Location and time are also common system triggers, imagine a restaurant app alerting you to good food spots in the neighborhood you’re walking through, or a habit tracker app reminding you that it’s time to work out. 

Regardless of the type, the purpose of these triggers is to drive engagement. How you set them up is up to you, the possibilities are endless. 

It can require a little tinkering and experimentation to get them set up just right.

Push Notification Triggers for Native Apps vs Web Apps

As ever in this article, we have to draw a distinction between the triggers on web vs native app notifications. 

In very broad terms:

  • Web notifications triggers are typically tied to a users’ interaction with a website or some event like new content being posted or important updates 
  • Native app notification triggers can be more deeply integrated into the device’s capabilities like location based events 

Setting up Push Notification Triggers

Configuring push notifications for either a native app or a web app can be fiddly and somewhat technically challenging to do yourself - although that might give you a higher degree of customization. 

We recommend consulting with a web developer if you decide to go this route, since it is beyond the scope of this article. 

Using a push notification service provider like OneSignal can simplify the process. They’ll provide you with a ready-made interface to set up triggers, audience segments, and other pieces - along with a dashboard to track and measure everything. 

We recommend you go this route. Unless you need something super niche and custom, you can probably set up your push triggers exactly how you want them without needing to touch any code or complex setups. 

Set Up Push Notifications Today

We’ve gone on a quick tour through the push notification world in this article. We covered web notifications, native apps, payloads, permissions - and everything in between.

Now we’ll give you our advice, in a nutshell. 

Use push notifications as one of your main channels. Get them set up through a service provider, for both the web and native mobile. 

You should be using them to connect with your audience and user through any opportunities you get. 

This is easier today than ever before. At MobiLoud we can help you to send the most powerful kind of push notifications - those from native mobile apps. 

We take your existing web app, then convert it into high-performance native apps for iOS and Android. Not only do you get to reuse everything from the web - but you also get unlimited push notifications configured exactly how you want them. 

We’ve built thousands of apps for iOS and Android - in just weeks and for <10% of the usual price tag.

Check out some of our app examples

Everything is done for you, the apps are top quality, and you can go live in just weeks.

We give you all the features you need to use push to maximum effect - like abandoned cart notifications, A/B testing, and more.

Now you’ve learned the fundamentals of push notifications, and have a simple path to fully leveraging them for your business.

We hope you use this powerful channel to level up and help your business to succeed and grow. 

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