Abusing the Notification Layer

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March 10, 2020
Popup Newsrooms and Limited-Edition News Products
March 10, 2020

Abusing the Notification Layer

Key Insight

Push notifications can be a powerful tool to deliver time-sensitive information, updates, reminders and messages directly to our phones, wearables or connected devices—and they seize our attention in a way that passive or in-app notifications can’t.

Why It Matters

Precisely because they are designed to demand attention, notifications can be used either to inform or to pester users, potentially reshaping their behavior.

Examples

News organizations have been refining their push notification strategies for several years, and consumers are starting to respond: A growing share of consumers around the world reported using a push notification to get a news story in the last week, according to the 2019 Reuters Institute Digital News Report.

Publishers commonly see dramatic spikes in app usage when an alert is sent. Users who opt in to push notifications use their apps more frequently, and active users are less likely to drop a subscription. It’s not just news apps that use push notifications: Social networking apps and games use them to command our attention (see digital vices). Wearables, including the Apple Watch and Fitbit, use them to remind us to stay active. Law enforcement, the national weather service and local governments use them to broadcast emergency information or Amber Alerts.

President Donald Trump ordered a nationwide test of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System in October 2018. That alert, delivered to mobile devices, generated headlines because users cannot opt out of presidential alerts, but the underlying system is a routine tool for emergency managers. The Federal Communications Commission said local governments have sent more than 40,000 alerts since 2012.

What’s Next

As consumers receive notifications from more sources, it will get harder to be heard through the din. iOS already clusters multiple incoming notifications from a single source, making it easier for users to then dismiss them wholesale.

The Impact

Publishers and app makers must get more sophisticated to ensure their messages don’t get lost—and must help users understand what types of notifications will be sent before asking them to opt in, for example, so people can make an informed choice.

Watchlist

Tech platforms, mobile OEMS, emergency management systems, local government agencies, and federal agencies.