The Dawn of the Partial Push Notification Opt-Out on Android O

Todd Grennan By Todd Grennan Mar 22, 2017

As mobile becomes increasingly central to the way that people engage with brands, being prepared and informed about developments in the mobile space can give you a strategic advantage. No one can see the future. But sometimes, if you pay attention, you can see hints of what’s to come or clues about the way things are moving. Recently, Google gave us all a very significant clue.

Google releases its mobile developer preview each spring, providing an early look at what’s planned for the next version of Android. There’s always a lot to pick through, and this year is no exception: support for adaptive icons, making it possible for users to snooze the notifications they receive, adding new limits on background app behavior (with the goal of bolstering the battery life of Android devices), new wifi features, and much more.

But when it comes to potential long-term impact, one development stood out from the crowd—namely Google’s announcement that Android O will feature push notification channels.

What are push notification channels?

In a nutshell, push notification channels are a new, unified way to organize and manage messages sent through this powerful outreach channel.

How do push notification channels work?

Channels separate the push notifications that an app sends into different groups, allowing both brands and users to have more control over the messaging experience. They are created and named by each app, and brands that want to send push notifications to users who have devices running Android O will need to create at least one notification channel.

However, brands will also have the option of creating multiple channels for different purposes—for instance, one channel for transactional push notifications, another for promotional outreach, and a third for activity messages regarding in-app activity by each user’s connections. Alternately, it’s possible to split your messages by almost any criteria: if you wanted, you could create one channel for push notifications that are text-only and a second channels for messages that contain images, or set up channels associated with multiple email accounts held by a single user or different in-app groups they belong to.

Why were push notification channels created?

This move is very much in keeping with Google’s ongoing focus on providing people with positive, relevant user experiences.

Push notifications can be a powerful way to reach customers with urgent messages, but too often they’re misused by brands as part of a spray-and-pray approach to customer engagement. This runs the risk of alienating users and potentially driving them to opt out of future push notifications or even uninstall the app in question.

Because Android supports bulk permissioning at app install, including permission to send users push notifications, Android apps have traditionally had higher percentages of users opted in to receive push than platforms like iOS that require users to explicitly opt-in. But last year, Google released a version of Android that allowed users to opt out of push notifications by simply long-tapping any notification they received. This not only gave users more control over what notifications they received, but also increased the chances that people opted out entirely after receiving a single unwanted or irrelevant message, potentially lessening the impact of this messaging channel on Android devices.

Android O push notification

A push notification sent to a smartphone running Android O (Source: Google)

The introduction of push notification channels reduces that danger. In Android O, if a user receives a push they’re unhappy with from your brand and long-taps the message to opt out, they’ll no longer opt out of all push from your app. Instead, the opt-out will only affect the push notification channel that particular message belonged to. This means that a user could opt out of promotional push notifications, for instance, while still receiving updates via push on their friends’ activities within your app.

How do push notification channels benefit users and brands?

For users, push notification channels make it a lot easier to stop receiving messages that they’re not interested in without blocking all notifications from a given app. If a user likes getting breaking news alerts from a media app, but dislikes getting notifications promoting stories that aren’t time sensitive, they could click on one of the latter push notifications, opt out of messages from that channel, and get exactly the notifications they want.

For brands, push notification channels reduce the risk posed by push opt-outs. Instead of having users opt out of all push when they’re unhappy with a message they receive, they can partially opt out instead, allowing you to continue reaching them with push notifications they’re willing to receive.

While no brand wants someone to opt out of push notifications even in part, this more granular approach to Android push notification permissions reduces the chances that customers opt out completely. Plus, by allowing customers to self-determine the types of notifications they receive from you, push notification channels make it more likely that your push outreach is relevant and valuable to the people receiving it.

That said, while push notification channels are a step forward, brands would be smart to treat this feature as a safety net, not as their primary method of reducing push opt-outs. It’s great that notification channels will likely discourage users from opting out of push completely, but you should still be taking steps to make their experience of your push notifications positive enough that they won’t want to opt out in the first place.

What are the downsides of push notification channels (and how do you avoid them)?

While push notifications channels are an improvement over what existed before, they’re still not as nuanced as they could be.

In Android O, push permissions on Android will essentially be a one-way street: users will opt in by downloading an app and then have the option of opting out of specific push notification channels when they receive a push. However, if a user wants to opt back in, they’ll have to navigate to their device settings, a far more involved process that few users are likely to complete. This creates the possibility that some users will opt out of notification channels that are needed to support a relevant, valuable in-app experiences without understanding the implications of what they’re doing—and without knowing how to undo what they’ve done.

In an ideal world, none of your Android users would ever choose to opt out of push, rendering push notification channels basically irrelevant. Unfortunately, that’s not a realistic hope. But there are things that brands can do to make it less likely that their users will opt out of push notifications (whether partially or completely):

  • Use segmentation and personalization to target push notifications to users based on their interests and behaviors, rather than sending one-size-fits-all messages
  • Take advantage of a variety of messaging channels (such as email, in-app messages, web push, and more) to reach customers, and use push notifications only when the purpose of a message is a good fit for that type of outreach
  • Create a preference center for your app or website, and use in-app messaging to nudge users to self-determine what messaging channels they want to be reached on as well as what topics or types of messages interest them—instead of waiting for them to opt out of push channels they’re uninterested in

When will push notification channels be rolled out?

While the developer preview is available now, the official launch of Android O won’t happen until later in the year, likely in the late summer or early fall—and the final form of the OS may change significantly between now and then.

Because Android users tend to be slower to update to the most recent version of the OS than iOS users, the full impact of the introduction of push notification channels may not be felt for another year or so. However, understanding this new feature and taking steps to adjust your marketing strategy accordingly will help put you and your brand ahead of the curve.

Final thoughts on how push is changing

The introduction of push notification channels is a promising sign for the future of push. It suggests that we’re beginning to see the emergence of push notifications as a mature, nuanced channel—where brands and users alike will have more opportunities to create and adjust messaging experiences so that they’re relevant, valuable, and support a better user experience.

“These are the first steps toward making notification centers smarter,” said Myles Kleeger, Appboy’s president and CRO. “Push notification centers have largely been chronological streams of content that users either ‘opt in or out’ of, similar to the early days of the social news feed on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Android O channels are the first step toward adding more sophistication and logic to how push notifications are organized on a user’s device. It’s important to watch if this evolution stops with organization and categorization in a chronological stream (à la what happened with email) or follows the same path as social feeds, which first added intelligent algorithms to predict interest based on past interactions—and then eventually a monetization strategy that requires paid placements in order to guarantee that your notification will be seen.”

The big takeaway for marketers? Consumers are getting more say in their own mobile experiences, and that makes it even more important for brands to provide seamless, relevant customer experiences that add real value. And as notification centers become more central to consumer lives, brands need to prioritize the creation of cohesive strategies that go beyond spray and pray to stand out in a maturing market.

Todd Grennan

Todd Grennan

Todd Grennan is a New York-based writer and editor. When he's not writing about mobile marketing, customer retention and emerging technologies for Braze, you can find him trying to read his way through every Wikipedia article related to World War II.

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