As I was enjoying my hurricane-induced electricity fast last weekend, I spent time gathering my thoughts on push notifications in preparation for an analyst interview.  Push notifications are those alerts that pop up on your smartphone, associated with an app you’ve installed, which usually prompt you to click and be taken into that app.  It’s a powerful tool with a lot of potential, but many are unclear about the real implications of yet another mobile communication channel.

Here is a primer on some pros and cons you should consider with regard to smartphone push notifications:

PRO: It’s cheaper to send a push notification than an SMS or MMS alert.  Push notifications can be very inexpensive to send, while SMS or MMS alerts can cost anywhere from $0.02-$0.20 each to send.  Carriers have been increasing their per-message surcharges on SMS over the past year or so, and if that trend continues, SMS will increasingly become more expensive.  As smartphones increasingly become ubiquitous, t will be interesting to see if carriers attempt to insert themselves into the value chain for push notifications at some point, but currently they are not driving the cost here.

CON: Direct integration with various push notification platforms can be technically complicated as each system has its quirks.  At the time of this writing, Android’s push platform is still technically considered “beta” despite a number of large organizations using it as a production engine.  Interfaces are evolving and continue to change.  Folks like Urban Airship work to consolidate all the complexities behind a common API, which helps, but we’re not dealing with established standards here.

PRO: Push notifications are free for a user to receive, whereas SMS/MMS either requires a user to have a messaging plan at $5-15/month or else can cost $0.10-$0.25 each to receive.

CON: While push notifications don’t require the user to have a messaging plan, they do require the user to have a data plan. That in itself is not a major hurdle, because most smartphone users (in the U.S. at least) are required to have a data plan.  The bigger con is that the user needs to have data coverage in order to receive push notifications. Data coverage can be spottier than voice coverage, which is sufficient to deliver SMS messages.

PRO: Push notifications are really good for high-throughput alert purposes.  If you’ve got a time-sensitive alerts application, you’re going to have a tough time getting the news out to millions of SMS subscribers before the die hards have already gotten the word elsewhere.  SMS connectivity speeds from most providers may be limited to sending as little as 10-20 messages per second and rarely exceed a couple hundred per second.  Even at 200 messages per second, an alert to 1M users would take nearly an hour and a half, and that doesn’t even take into account any carrier network latency.  Push alerts, on the other hand, can be delivered at rates of thousands or more per second.

PRO: Push notifications are even more “up front and center” to the user than SMS messages.  In most cases, they come right to the front of the user’s screen and require to be clicked or dismissed.   As a marketer, you get your message positioned within some excellent screen real estate!

CON: If you abuse push notifications (or SMS alerts for that matter), it’s very easy to offend your subscriber and turn them off from your service or brand.  With this prime screen real estate, that risk is even higher.  The mobile device is a very personal and direct channel.  Be sure every message provides value aligned with the user’s expectations, or your users will reach for the uninstall button in order to make more space for the next Angry Birds

PRO: While the push notification itself may not be interactive beyond a single click to go or dismiss, the experience you can deliver in your app for those that click through is much richer than you can serve through SMS or MMS.

CON: Other than what services may be provided within the app itself, there’s no simple call to action that the user can initiate inherent to push notifications.  SMS can create robust and easy-access two-way interactions, whereas push notifications are meant for the purpose of sending an alert one way to the device.  Any two-way interaction is limited to what occurs within the application.

PRO: Push notifications are maintained separately from SMS and other messages on most devices.  They don’t pile up in a user’s personal SMS inbox, which might be a turn-off from signing up for alerts in the first place.

PRO: In a way, push notifications behave like a hybrid between SMS and MMS for the functionality enabled. This is important, because in the U.S., MMS has never really taken off as a marketing tool.  It’s more of a novelty to send pictures between friends.  There’s still no real standard for MMS capabilities here either.  When it comes to formats and codecs, many phones speak a different MMS language and between many of those may be carrier MMSCs  transcoding all MMS content so it’s smaller and therefore more light-weight on the network.  You don’t necessarily know what you’re going to get with MMS marketing, but push notification allows a more standard (less fragmented) method for delivering messages that can similarly trigger rich content.

PRO: There’s no short code to purchase or maintain.  Short codes are those 5 or 6-digit numbers that SMS alerts from various services use instead of a typical phone number.  Leasing a dedicated short code can cost $500 or $1000 per month depending on whether it’s random or vanity, and that’s not even including management fees to handle audit processing or provisioning fees to get started in the first place.  This is a huge expense that push notifications avoid.

PRO: The typical short code campaign takes 6-8 weeks to provision with the carriers if you follow the proper procedures (which many providers may not always).  This is a long time to wait if you’re looking to launch a high priority campaign in short time!  Push notifications require no special carrier network provisioning and can be setup fairly instantly.

PRO: While most of the MMA’s consumer best practices still provide good guidance for all mobile marketing, push notifications are not subject specifically to carrier rules as such.  You don’t need to have someone on staff responsible for addressing audit concerns and handling carrier relations, although this person may have to shift gears to handle app store relations to stay friendly with their policies in order to win favorable placement.

PRO:  Push notification lists are simpler to manage programatically.  There’s no need for STOP or HELP processing to be done like there is for SMS.  This can all be handled within the app.  Unlike with SMS list management, there’s no need to process a daily list of carrier deactivated or ported numbers (which under carrier rules, you must purge completely from your database).  Instead, push notifications are tied to the application and not the carrier, the phone number, the device, or even the device platform.

CON: Push notifications are only relevant for smartphone users, and in particular, it mostly applies to iPhone, Android, and BlackBerry users.  Non-smartphone users are unreachable by push notifications, and these users may not typically be as active on mobile as smartphone users, they still represent a large portion of the mobile population.

CON:  This is a biggie.  Before a smartphone user can sign up for your push notifications, you’ve got to get them to install the app and opt in to push notifications.  These are a few more hurdles for you to overcome as a marketer, and it will certainly narrow the pool of subscribers to your alerts.

PRO: Push notification subscribers are identifying themselves to you as some of your most engaged users!  They’ve downloaded the app and set up alerts.  Just look at how many hoops they’ve jumped through in order to engage with you!  Treat them well!


In a disjointed jungle of mobile marketing, push notifications unify the two former silos of messaging and smartphone apps into a more integrated experience.  It’s a very powerful channel, but ultimately it comes down to choosing the right tool for the job in order to achieve your business objectives.