How push notifications can save your app from getting dumped

Developers, of course, have to walk that fine line between being helpful and being annoying.

Screenshot by Jason Cipriani/CNET

Generally, I'm not a fan of apps shooting push notifications out to my phone.

No, "Words with Friends," I don't care that I'm about to forfeit my game. There's a reason I stopped playing it. I don't need an alert any time I get a new friend on Facebook.

But apparently, notifications do make a difference when it comes to engagement, and sometimes they're what keeps an app from getting deleted off the phone or being one of the myriad of unused "zombie" apps left ignored on a smartphone. With many of these apps now relying on the "freemium" model of charging for premium content, constant use is vital. Sure, you spend a lot of money getting someone to download your app, but how do you keep them using it?

"You're going to see this battle for engagement instead of just a battle for downloads," said Josh Martin, an analyst at research firm Strategy Analytics.

Urban Airship, which provides the notification platform for many apps, including CNET's own app, provided me with some data on how notifications actually boost engagement. The company looked at the percentage of people who continued to open an app after a period of time between one and six months.

Predictably, the percentage dropped over time, but those with push notifications performed significantly better than those that opted to not have notifications. By the sixth month, 31 percent of people who downloaded the app still opened it if notifications were in place, compared with 14 percent for regular apps.

Of course, Urban Airship has a vested interest in people using notifications, so I approach the stats with a healthy dose of skepticism. Push notifications are relatively new, after all, and it wouldn't be difficult to show progress after such a short period. Plus, can you imagine if all of your apps starting sending notifications?

"If all apps use it, does it become white noise?" Martin said. "That becomes a concern over the long term."

Urban Airship acknowledges that risk, and is active in educating developers on how and when to apply notifications. The company is sensitive to apps going overboard on the notifications, which can send them straight into the delete category.

"You're basically interrupting people," Brent Heiggelke, chief marketing officer of Urban Airship, told me. "It's like the six o'clock dinner phone call, will they appreciate it? Because if not, they'll shut off the notification and even kill the app."

Still, Heiggelke believes notifications will be key to getting people back to all sorts of apps, including games and even retail brands.

Heiggelke pointed to snowboard gear maker Burton's app as an example of notifications done right. Rather than just a simple app with directions to a local store or a catalog of its equipment, the app offers a "Pow Alarm" that provides alerts when fresh powder hits a local resort. Users can select their favorite ski resorts, how much powder should trigger the alert, and what days work best.

"It's branding at its best," Heiggelke said, adding that marketers need to think differently when applying notifications to their apps.

Urban Airship is working to make its notifications more targeted and relevant to consumers.

Games, meanwhile, are increasingly dependent on notifications to keep people coming back. Many use the freemium model, and need to build a high enough interest level that the gamer will actually fork over real money for virtual goods.

Whether it's a notification of new levels, or showing an alert when the person hasn't played in a while, social games in particular have been leading the charge with finding new ways to utilize notifications.

Zynga has been particularly good at pioneering the use of notifications, Martin said, and he expects the social-gaming company to continue to do so.

"They're leading the market in terms of innovation," he said.

Notifications may be hot because there are no other real answers to the issue of engagement. As such, don't expect them to go away.

Just in case, I'm bracing myself for the avalanche of alerts on my iPhone.