The Growth Hacker’s Guide to Push Notifications

Push notifications (aka PNSes) can be a powerful re-engagement tool for mobile apps to communicate to their users. In this post, I’ll cover everything a growth hacker needs to know about push notifications on iOS and Android.


One of the biggest differences between the two platforms is the permissions model for push notifications. On iOS, push notifications are opt-in. Users see the all too familiar dialog “AppName would you like to send you push notifications.” On Android however, push notifications are opt-out, users have to explicitly go into their settings and turn them off. This difference in permission model ends up having big implications for the effectiveness of PNSes on the different platforms. On Android generally 95%+ of users receive PNSes, while on iOS it us usually less than 50%.


Badging is the term used for the little red circle displayed on app icons in iOS. Badging has traditionally been one of the most powerful ways to use push notifications to re-engage users. One reason for its effectiveness is that many users can’t stand having unread notifications and will open the app to clear the badge number, giving the app a chance to re-engage the user. However, the primary reason badging was so effective is that prior to iOS7, apps that asked for the push notification permission would get a push token even if the user denied the push notification permission. The app could then use this push token to display a badge number and try to re-engage the 50%+ of iOS users that do not receive push notifications. Unfortunately, starting in iOS7 this is no longer the case. The good news however, is you can still continue to badge every user that first downloaded the app on iOS6. Another thing worth noting is that badging is no longer exclusive to iOS. Several Android manufacturers have started to add proprietary APIs to support badging on Android.

badge icon

Local Notifications

Local notifications are a way of getting around the permissions issue on iOS. Local notifications look and act like PNSes, but as the name implies, are scheduled by the app to appear at a certain time and date, rather than being pushed to the app at any time by the server. The major advantage of local notifications is that they are not tied to the push notification permission on iOS. This means even if the user does not give the app permission to show push notifications, the app can still show local notifications.
Edit (June 2, 2014): Starting in iOS8 local notifications are no longer a work-around for notification permissions

Geofenced Notifications

Geofenced notifications are when an app monitors the user’s location and shows the user a notification when they are near a place where the app would be useful. A classic example is shopping apps like Shopkick, or RetailMeNot show notifications when users are at the mall.  It can be tricky to get geofencing right; I’ve written before about some of the common pitfalls of geofencing. However, geofencing is still a very powerful tool, especially for location-based apps. Notifying the user when they are at a place where the app has content not only reminds the user to use the app in a situation where the app can add value, but also allows the app to deliver hyper relevant notifications.

Picture PNSes

Standard push notifications can be difficult to work with since all you have to grab the user’s attention is about 100 characters of text. One thing unique to Android is the ability to include an image that is displayed alongside the push notification. Android Picture Notifications make PNSes richer and more importantly, more engaging.

Emoji characters

While iOS doesn’t support picture notifications, it does have some support to spice up the text in push notifications. On iOS it is possible to include emoji characters in the message to try and make the message stand out and grab the user’s attention.

emoji in push notification

If you think there is something about push notifications that I missed, feel free to contact me at [email protected]

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