Push Notifications and Personalization

AIMA: Mass Personalization and What it Means for Mobile Marketing

Panel discussion addressing the looming mass personalization trend, the effect it has on consumers, and how to incorporate into (mobile) marketing strategies. The session showed how push notifications and advances in data science/tech allow marketers to create a more customer-centric approach in marketing tactics. AKA, sincerity at scale.

Details: Atlanta Tech Village, Thursday, September 24, 2015, Lunch & Learn.

Cathy Farr – Sr. Director, Mobile and Emerging Technologies – CNN
Edie Kirkman – Director of Mobile Solutions – IHG
Traci Schoenberg – Director, Mobile – Cox Media Group

Moderator: Brian Justiss – Mobile Engagement Specialist, Localytics

Key Takeaways

  • Use push notifications to add value to the customer experience.
  • Research, research, research. You must be able to understand your audience and their behavior drivers.
  • iOS 9 implications include Force Touch, ad blocking, and the new swipe-right home page.
  • Spotify, Amazon, and Netflix are industry leaders in personalization. Think suggestion engines!



Tech Village welcomed us with an awesome Christophe’s lunch, followed by my friend Sydney taking the stage to welcome all guests and introduce the topic and panel. The panelists emerged, and Brian opened with a startling few facts:

  1. There are over 46,000 apps downloaded every minute from the App Store (does not include Google Play)
  2. One out of four apps is only ever opened once

So, how can we (as marketers) overcome this app-opening obstacle? Brian introduced Cathy, Edie and Traci, who were going to help answer that question in today’s discussions, and went in to the first of eleven topics…

Topic 1: Why is mass personalization a big deal?

Traci explained that there are, on average, only four to seven apps consumers use consistently. You must aspire to have this one-on-one connection, and leverage brand affinity, otherwise your brand/app is not going to break through the clutter. It’s a fight for screen share!

Cathy dove in to the world of CNN, explaining that there’s so much content. People want to get their most desirable content, at the very top/beginning of their app experience. CNN is working on ‘Featured Stories’ and acquired Bleacher Report‘s News Stream CMS (similar to Team Stream), and is looking to replicate this model for news content. It’s difficult, but a great place to begin playing around.

Topic 2: In app notifications and push notifications.

Push notifications are notifications from third parties to the Apple devices which may include badges, sounds or custom text alerts/banners on the iPhone screen. Brian had us clap or booooo to see how the room felt about push notifications. It was just about 50/50 in the response. Some apps are helpful, or interesting in day-to-day life, but others are spammy and feel like advertisements! Some companies abuse the push notification privilege, but others (say Weather Channel) are 100% necessary to plan your day.

Traci seconded this fact. Certain apps and triggers are useful and necessary to make it through the day. The others, she ignores and does not mind. Just click the X, right?

Cathy opened up about the CNN app, referencing the Malaysian Air crash alerts. The app repeatedly sent notifications, to the extent that Jon Stewart did a spoof on his show on the coverage. Cathy said that what the app was doing during that crisis was an interruption to everyone’s day, and horrible. CNN abused the privilege, and maybe did not have the best strategy going in.


Brian mentioned that 42% of people have their notifications turned off. Which must mean that 58% have their notifications on, meaning that the majority of people will receive your push notifications, so tread lightly!

Traci followed up, advising to build a strategy and best practices around notifications. Does it add value to the customer experience? How many times a day, month, or hour will you be pushing notifications their way? All important considerations.

Topic 3: Balancing the creepiness of personalization.

Traci jumped in immediately, with two clear takeaways. With a news app, specifically, you need to ask consumers what they want. There will be a low response rate, as these folks responding and filling out forms will be the ones really entrenched in the brand and news. In an entertainment app, like Pandora, you can set up a recommendation engine. By tapping an “I really like this story” button, the app will then send more of the same in your direction. Netflix is great with this, as well. News is not so creepy, yet, but recommendation engines in this space brings it close. The suggested stories in entertainment, however, are well taken. Being at CMG with a variety of clients and breadth of experience, Traci was all over this one.

Topic 4: Implicit and explicit preferences.

Implicit preferences are not questioned, are implied, and a bit more of a gray area. Explicit preferences are clearly stated with no doubts. Cathy begun by bringing up the CNN iReport, an outlet for consumers/journalists to share their stories and start discussions around their content. The only ones who really sign up for this are serious about it, and want to cover stories. Not much to worry about in terms of preferences at CNN, yet at least.

Edie talked about IHG’s memberships, and how loyalty points are the carrot bait to increase sign ups. In one way, it’s not creepy to use past behavior to predict and recommend new actions, as it’s simply knowing their preferences and saving them time. But on the other hand, using data like # of nights stayed, and where, crosses the line. Consumers would not be happy to learn that everyone sees where you’ve been, and for how long, etc. You must be transparent in your data usage, and genuinely seek to help. Full disclosure of what will happen is expected these days, and only growing in priorities.

Topic 5: Let’s say I’m just getting started with personalization; any tips?

Cathy had some great tips, pointing back to some topics already covered.

1) Make sure you add value [to the consumer]

2) Registration/sign ups are not necessary for news and media apps (more so for someone like IHG!), and

3) Be seamless, be changeable.

Topic 6: Any easy mistakes we should know about, or look to avoid?

Traci offered advice on doing your research. The budget can be cut quickly in this practice, but performing thorough research has its value and should not be skipped. You must be able to understand your audience and their behavior drivers. Understanding these drivers will shape how you want to personalize. Don’t just jump on the “everyone’s personalizing” bandwagon.

Edie suggested, “Think small, grow big.” You can’t know that your competitor’s features are being taken well, even if they look magnificently innovative. Seek out proof of concept, as if operating a start up. Test at a granular level, and strategize the smallest of modifications. No clicks? Try moving the button, or changing the color. Don’t spend all your budget in one attempt, start with minimal spends to prove the concept!

Topic 7: How to measure success. Are your personalization efforts effective?

Edie was the first to offer her opinion: Focus your energy on retention metrics! Personalization doesn’t just affect top of the funnel, so you should consider the cost of acquisition and cost of retention. I’m sure you’ve heard the concept that a new customer is more expensive than retaining a current customer, so make sure you keep them engaged and coming back. An example being Amazon, and their algorithms. They’re a real leader, along with Netflix, and leverage Amazon Prime as a re-engagement loop to promote consumers to try their other services, videos, audible books, etc.

Cathy piggybacked, suggesting that CNN doesn’t focus on the initial acquisition simply because the views are already there. That being said, retention is a huge area of focus for the company.

Topic 8: Can you prove that X amount of push notifications lead to X in return?

Ah, the infamous ROI question. Traci was first to take a stab. At Cox Media Group, they use an analytics service called Urban Airship to track app opens off banner push notifications, and so forth. For her news-related accounts, there’s an emphasis on breaking the story, but the problem is that there’s often nowhere to send people if they were to click the notification, so it’s difficult to measure at times. One option – provide a landing page (in app) that prompts you to return later for more updates. A place holder, if you will.

Edie entered the world of programmatic advertising. They’ll use data management platforms for more than simply advertising, using these DMP’s for brand extensions. Contextual relevance in the app is key, however, which raises the question of “how” do you become contextually relevant.


Topic 9: Bridging the gap between marketing and the product/app.

Edie emphasized leveraging the relationship to develop app features. Partner with marketing and key stakeholders in distribution of the app and feature-related updates. App download campaigns are more so with regional teams, and not the product management teams. Metrics hold the relationships together, and collaboration throughout keeps them close.

Topic 10: iOS 9 impact.

Traci – swipe right (no, not Tinder). Now your most used apps, and Apple News, is seen in this new, useful page.

Edie – First and foremost, app thinning. This development process can reduce the size of an app by over 50%! Especially beneficial for those of us with 16GB iPhones, who have to delete apps every few days to download new ones. Secondly, xCode 7. Front-end developers can now do unit testing across iOS platforms, which makes the whole creation/modification process much cleaner.

Cathy – Force Touch (aka 3D Touch) presents an interesting challenge. What are we going to do with it? Short story highlights, if someone taps a headline? But this won’t necessarily count as a page view? Lots of implications here, and will be very interesting to see how different companies roll out features. Second to Force Touch, Cathy noted CNN’s representation in the Apple News aggregator. How, from here, will CNN encourage click throughs to the core CNN app, though? iOS 9 has presented more initial challenges than benefits to CNN thus far.

Traci followed up, by bringing up ad blocking. Basically, apps like Ad Blocker are necessary now to block ads in mobile websites accessed through Safari, for example. This doesn’t block ads in apps, as they’re their own ecosystem, but still an area to watch as complications with ad-payouts now arise. Conveniently, Apple News does not have ad blocking.

Topic 11: Next big (mobile) personalization trend? 3-5 years down the road.

Cathy – There’s no way we can guess the trends in mobile 3-5 years out. If you’re correctly predicting 3-5 months out, you’re ahead of the curve.

Edie – Personalization specifically around the time of day, time of week, etc. Biometrics as to your mood, and additional sensory information personalized.

Traci – Personalizing experiences more and more. Don’t think traditionally on personalization–it will set you back! Traci urged the group to think outside the box.


We then moved on to questions from the crowd:

1) For IHG/Edie: Utilizing on-premise (at the hotel) vs. off-premise strategies.

Edie addressed this topic by explaining that local, digital experience teams take care of the on-premise personalization. It’s up to these teams to be in tune with the services and needs of each specific location, on a small scale. Great way to mass personalize.

2) How will wearables impact personalization?

Cathy had a quick remark on this topic, stating how CNN has put lots of work and research in to this space. On the original Samsung watch, CNN assumed people would browse headlines, and move to mobile or desktop to read in more description. That assumption was proven wrong, as folks surprisingly clicked through on the watch and scrolled through articles directly. In terms of other wearable experiences, Cathy mentioned that the Google Glass app was just weird. Coming in the near future is some virtual reality applications. Very cool.

3) In terms of creating big brand apps, where do you recommend the brand extensions live? Under one big umbrella app, or smaller, more brand-specific break out apps?

Edie recently went through this exact predicament. IHG previously had an app per brand, with the same experience in all, just differentiated with logos and some brand-specific content. IHG found that 99% of app usage was in their loyalty/rewards app. This is where their members and customers were playing, and what was offering them the most value. Because of this fact, IHG decided to sunset all their branded apps, and build out the rewards app functionality.

Traci mentioned Cox Media Group doing the exact opposite from IHG. CMG built off the brand, for example WSB-TV (a branch of CMG Television) built apps specific for weather, traffic, news, and so forth.

4) How do you suggest we research? Value? Methods?

Cathy mentioned CNN has done tons of focus groups. Data is a BIG driver for them, and they can’t get enough of it. However, when aligned with business goals, research is hard to temper, but does provide valuable insights. CNN takes feedback seriously, but looks more at the overall trends and themes as opposed to the, “You’re so right wing skewed!” jabs.

Edie explained how each brand at IHG does its own research. TONS of research. They do dive into personas, specifically in studying usability. Edie recommended performing some research, vetting the results and options moving forward, and doing more research again following that.

Traci explained how CMG also uses personas heavily in their research. She recommended finding your minimum viable product (MVP), and then validating assumptions to build the end product out from there.

5) In building apps: Top down from brand themes, or grass roots in appearance and feel?

Top down branding examples are seen through personalization leaders Spotify, Amazon, and Netflix, where the theme and branding is pre-determined. Edie mentioned how IHG does the latter, and builds out their brands in more of a “start up” manner. Begin with a small pilot program that will eventually (when proven) be rolled out across all channels. The goal is for users’ paths and activities to cross all channels, and be consistent and easy to reference no matter who/when/where. This would mean from call centers, to web applications, to their branded apps, IHG wants the user experience to be consistent and personalized.


That wraps up the AIMA mass personalization in mobile marketing panel. Really insightful discussion, and I thank the panelists for volunteering their precious time.

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