Push Notifications Explained

What are push notifications?

A push notification is a message that pops up on a mobile device, such as a sports score, an invitation to a flash sale or a coupon for downloading. App publishers can send them at any time, since users don’t have to be in the app or using their devices to receive them. Push notifications look like SMS text messages and mobile alerts, but they only reach users who have installed your app. All the mobile platforms – iOS, Android, Fire OS, Windows and BlackBerry – have their own services for supporting push.

Why are they used?

By reaching users’ lock screens, push notifications provide convenience and value to app users. For example, users can receive:

  • Sports scores and news
  • Utility messages, such as traffic, weather and ski snow reports
  • Flight check-in, change, and connection information

For app publishers, push notifications are a way to speak directly to the user. They don’t get caught in spam filters or forgotten in an inbox: as a result, push click-through rates can be twice as high as email. They can remind users to use an app, even if it isn’t open. And they can drive such actions as:

  • Promoting products or offers to increase sales
  • Improving customer experience
  • Converting unknown app users to known customers
  • Sending transactional receipts right away
  • Driving users to other marketing channels, such as social networks


June 2009: Apple launches Apple Push Notification Service (APNs), the first push service.

May 2010: Google released its own service, Google Cloud to Device Messaging (C2DM).

May 2013: Google introduces “rich notifications”. Rich notifications can contain images, as well as action buttons. Action buttons let users take immediate action from a notification. For example, the user can play a song, open the app, or see more information.

September 2014: Apple added interactive buttons. These buttons allow users to send a response right away to the app publisher. Shortly after, Apple extended push notifications to the Apple Watch.

September 2016: Apple adds support for rich notifications in iOS 10.

August 2017: Google introduces notification grouping with Notification Categories and notification dots, similar to iOS badges, which alert a user to active notifications for an app.

September 2018: Apple introduces a number of notification updates – including notification grouping, quiet notifications for a less intrusive experience, and provisional authorization – which allow users to understand the value of notifications before opting in. Google introduces suggested notification muting in Android P.

August 2021: Google adds support for notification snoozing, along with a redesigned notification UX.

September 2021: Apple introduces focus modes for controlling how and when notifications arrive on a device; notification types for Passive & Time Sensitive notifications, along with new interruption levels for notification delivery; and notification summaries, allowing users to select apps to include in a cross-app notification roundup that can be scheduled for delivery at specific times throughout the day.

August 2022: Google will require users to opt in to notifications on Android devices with Android 13

How do push notifications work?

Some of the actors in sending a push notification include:

  • Operating system push notification service (OSPNS). Each mobile operating system (OS), including iOS, Android, Fire OS, Windows, has its own service.
  • App publisher. The app publisher enables its app with one ore more OSPNS’s. Then the publisher uploads the app to the app store.
  • Client app. This is an OS-specific app, installed on a user’s device. It receives incoming notifications.

Adding to an app

  • The app publisher registers with the OSPNS.
  • The OS service provides an application programming interface (API) to the app publisher. The API is a way for the app to communicate with the service.
  • The app publisher adds a software development kit (SDK) to the app. The SDK is a code library specific to the OSPNS.
  • The app publisher uploads the app to the app store.

User activation

  • The user visits an OS app store, downloads the app and then installs it.
  • The user opens the app. Unique identifiers (IDs) for both the app and the device are registered with the OSPNS.
  • The IDs are passed back to the app from the OSPNS. They are also sent to the app publisher.
  • The app publisher receives and stores these registration details, including the IDs.


  • The app publisher composes a manual message through a message composer user interface. Alternatively, the publisher sets up an automated message to be sent via the API.
  • The publisher defines the audience to whom the push notification will be sent.
  • The publisher determines whether the message should be sent immediately or scheduled.

Push notifications can be targeted to segments of your user base, and even personalized for specific app users. However, they require managing user identification data and installing some kind of interface for writing, targeting and sending messages.

Opting in

iOS requires apps to obtain permission from users before sending them push notifications. Historically, Android and Fire OS have not required user permission, but this will change starting with Android 13. Convincing users to opt in has always been important for the success of apps on iOS, and soon will be for Android as well. The majority of iOS apps show a standard iOS alert when the app is first opened. A better approach is to show the value of opting in – for example, with a customized welcome series upon first open – and let the user opt in later. Median opt-in rates for iOS range from 58% for charity apps to 33% for games. High performing apps across all industry verticals (those in the 90th percentile) have opt-in rates above 50%. Travel, business and charity app opt-in rates lead verticals with rates greater than 70%.

How do push notifications appear to users?

Users typically see a notification as a banner or pop-up alert as they use their phone. The alert appears no matter what the user is doing. Most mobile operating systems also show push notifications together in a single view. On iOS, Apple has a Notification Center. The Notification Center is organized in chronological order, and users get to the Notification Center by swiping down from the top of the screen. Android devices show unread messages on the lock screen. iOS lets users customize push notifications at an individual app level. Users can turn sounds on or off and pick the notification style. Users can also control the red “badge” showing the number of unread notifications on an app’s homescreen icon. Android uses a standard banner approach that users cannot change at an OS level, though they can customize the notification sound and whether a notification dot appears on the app icon, alerting the user to a new notification.

Using location with push notifications

All mobile operating systems ask users for their permission to share location information. iOS presents an opt-in alert to users. Android offers location opt-in as part of the app’s permissions setup during installation. Publishers can deliver more relevant messages by using location data combined with behavioral data. Examples include:

  • A home improvement app sends offers for cooling units during a regional hot spell.
  • A specialty boutique invites users within 50 miles of an invite-only VIP trunk sale.
  • A national sporting goods chain invites local shoppers in for local pro athlete autographs.


Push notifications are a direct path of communication with users. App publishers should treat the ability to communicate with users via push notifications as a privilege, not a right. App publishers must provide value; if they don’t, push notifications will be ignored or turned off. Some users will uninstall the app altogether. Analytics and measurement are important tools for improving your app’s performance. How the push notifications are written is also important: to drive action, they need to convey value. Messaging strategies and tactics need to be measured and tested. Strategies such as maximizing opt-in rates, ensuring new users are properly onboarded and reducing app user churn rates are all key to an app’s success. Other strategies include:

  • Matching up each user’s data across channels (web, mobile, store etc.) to better understand user behavior
  • Making it easy for users to share content with their social networks
  • Encouraging users to opt in by offering them incentives and examples of the value your notifications will provide
  • Optimize the app experience to keep customers engaged

Push infrastructure

Push notifications can be targeted to segments of your user base, and even personalized for specific app users. However, they also require managing user identification data and installing some kind of interface for writing, targeting and sending messages. For this reason, building and maintaining a cross-platform push notification service takes significant resources and ongoing maintenance, including yearly updates for any relevant changes from the OS. Publishers can build this infrastructure themselves or they can hire a vendor, such as Airship, to provide it. Platform vendors also provide such capabilities as:

  • Reporting
  • Scheduling
  • Mobile marketing automation
  • User attribute collection and segmentation
  • Data management
  • Security
  • Cross-platform support

Increasingly, app publishers pay for push instead of building it so that they can focus on building better app experiences.

Want to learn more about how Push Notifications can help you connect with customers at each stage of the customer app lifecycle? Contact us today and let’s talk!