In-App Messaging vs Push Notifications: the Key Differences

Why use in-app messaging versus push notifications?

Yesterday I accidentally left my phone at home. When I told my friends at work, there was a stunned silence, followed by “Do you feel like you’re missing an arm?”

It’s true that most people today keep their phone attached to the end of their arm — or at least, at arm’s reach. And consequently, businesses have gotten awfully good at reaching customers all the time. The average phone beeps, vibrates or lights up frequently with alerts, special deals, and timely offers.

With so many messages in the mix, consumers start to tune them out. And if you’re too invasive, they unsubscribe, unfollow, and turn off notifications altogether. Businesses have to get more savvy about how to best reach customers, which is why it’s critical to understand the difference between in-app messaging and push notifications. They both have their place, but to get the attention and secure the loyalty of customers, you must use them each at the right time.

To understand why, a few definitions.

What is in-app messaging?

In-app messaging is native, mobile messaging that happens right within the app. It’s a highly conversational and engaging method for communicating with customers directly.

Because the conversation is two-way, it’s possible to have contextual conversations with a user while they are actually using your app. You can engage with users about a problem they are having, request feedback in the moment, and identify pain points they’re encountering with your product. In-app messages can even be triggered by certain criteria to help the user navigate the more tricky aspects of user experience. 

For customers used to communicating via messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and WeChat, in-app messaging feels like a familiar support medium. They have an ingrained familiarity with messaging as a communication tool, so it makes a lot of sense to engage with them this way. Enabling in-app messaging options is a powerful way for all kinds of app-based companies to engage and retain users through the customer support process.

Here’s an example of how in-app notification can work to a brand’s advantage. While it’s pretty common for game players to turn to Google or external message boards when they have a problem with a game, savvy brands recognize that solving their problem without forcing them to leave the app would be ideal. So the gaming company built a support desk into their mobile game “Family Guy: The Quest for Stuff.” As a result, customers could instantly reach out for help within a game, keeping them engaged with the product and ultimately much happier with the brand.

What is push messaging?

Push messaging is a very different type of communication. While in-app messaging enables two-way conversation, push messaging simply “pushes” information directly to customers one way. Users must opt-in to receive push notifications on their device, and can opt-out at any time.

Nevertheless, push notifications are the simplest way to gain attention from a wide audience all at once. They can be excellent at attention-grabbing — although they can be equally annoying. The best way to use push notifications is to share compelling incentives with users, for example: 

  • Alerting them to a flash sale they don’t want to miss out on
  • Notifying them of outages or emergency situations
  • Sharing reminders they’ve set themselves such as alarms or to-do items that help them achieve their goals

Another way many companies use push notifications is to nudge a dormant user to re-engage with an app, and this is a valid tactic, but should be used wisely. If done indiscriminately, it could offend or simply repel the user and cause them to delete the app or turn off notifications.

This is essentially the rub with push notifications: because they’re controlled entirely by the brand, they’re apt to annoy or simply bore users. They’re not interactive, and therefore, their use is limited.

What are the big differences between in-app messaging and push notifications?

Here’s a stark fact: for those who subscribe to push notifications (59 percent of Android users and only 40 percent of iOS users), a scant 10 percent actually open them. In-app messaging, on the other hand, has been found to receive 8x the direct response rates of push notifications.

Aside from its adoption rates, here are the main differences between push notification and in-app messaging you should seriously consider:

  1. Push notifications only allow one-way communication. You can inform your customers of things, but they cannot talk back to you. In-app messaging, on the other hand, enables a back-and-forth conversation. 
  2. Critically, that conversation is asynchronous: Both parties do not have to be online at the same time to chat. In-app messaging keeps a conversational thread continuous even if the user switches channels, going from their desktop computer to their mobile phone, for instance, to pick up a conversation where it left off. 
  3. Users can and frequently do choose to opt-out of the push notifications. And once they opt-out, you simply cannot reach them this way. 

The bottom line is if you want to re-engage your users, or want them to take immediate action, use push notifications. If you want to start an engaging conversation in the right moment and within the right context, use in-app messaging.

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