"The smartphone home screen is the most valuable real estate on the planet," Urban Airship's chief marketing officer Brent Hieggelke told me over drinks at the gorgeous Driskill Hotel bar in downtown Austin. And I think he's right. I'll ignore all kinds of email spam, any phone call from an unknown number is automatically assumed to be a sales pitch, and non-junk mail only appears in my actual mailbox about once a week at most.
But spam my iPhone's home screen, and I will delete your app so fast--because, as I pointed out to Hieggelke, it's actually easier to just trash an app than go to Settings->Notification Center, find it in the list, and tweak the preferences. What would be better is if app makers just didn't suck at notifications. Hieggelke agrees with me: that's exactly what his team is working on.
Urban Airship is a company you've probably never heard of, but chances are you've seen its work in action--it's the largest provider of push notifications for the iOS and Android apps you use every day, including the official app for South by Southwest, not to mention the mobile offerings for the E! cable channel, the Washington Post, ESPN, ABC News, Walgreens, Fandango, and tons more. App devs don't need to employ Urban Airship to send push notifications (that ability is built into a mobile platform's SDKs). But if they do turn to Urban Airship, they get an easy-to-use, CMS-like dashboard to compose, preview, schedule, and tightly target their messages, as well as advice on best practices for not annoying their users.
The recently redone ABC News app, Hieggelke explained, does a particularly good job of targeting to locations; if you live in Arizona but travel to Vermont a lot, the app realizes you might care about Vermont elections or other local news. ABC News also has a News Inbox feature, hosted by Urban Airship, that lets users star stories that interest them, and get notified of followup stories. That's definitely something I would use to follow those stories that seem to stretch on forever, like a crime, investigation, trial, and sentencing.
Another thing Urban Airship is working on now is incorporating iBeacon triggers. Bluetooth LE-based iBeacons work indoors where traditional GPS and cellular locating technology isn't as accurate, and businesses who use iBeacons can set a pretty specific range, so it sees everyone in the store, or just people standing in front of a particular shelf. But iBeacons don't just sniff out any old iPhone. For an iBeacon in a Macy's to see you, for example, you'd have to have the Macy's app installed, and to have granted it permission to view your location. And the people who do that are generally a retailer's superfans, so if Macy's knew from iBeacon data that you're standing in the ladies' shoe department, and it sends you a coupon, that kind of hyper-targeting can yield a much higher click-through rate (30 to 60 percent, Hieggekle says) than notifications pushed to everyone or just sent via email.
And if you're the type who's been so worn down by bad push notifications that you're starting to default to tapping "Don't Allow" when asked if an app can send them, Urban Airship is working on that too. As part of its Good Push best practices program, it helps app developers better explain to users why they should opt in. Because let's face it: while some apps are awful about pushing out tons of stupid notifications you don't want, other apps get a ton of value from them. I haven't opened the ESPN app in months, but I still know if my teams won, since I basically use that app to configure push notifications about scores--the old set-it-and-forget-it model.
Here in Austin, the official SXSW app is a great example. It can not only remind festival attendees of the events they'd planned to attend, but also warn them when the lines are getting ridiculous, and the people sending those notifications don't have to be developers, thanks to Urban Airship's easy to use platform.
This year's festival saw some rain on Saturday, but at 2013's SXSW, a huge and potentially dangerous thunderstorm rolled in one night at around midnight. The festival organizers saw it coming, and used Urban Airship's tools to send a notification warning people to take cover--and not just anyone who downloaded the app, but people who had the app and were actually in Austin, right in the storm's path. Guess which attendees were safely inside enjoying a Shiner Bock while the others scrambled for cover? That's right, the ones who opted into location tracking and push with the SXSW app.