In the early hours of Monday, November 20, news broke that Charles Manson had died. I, like countless others, woke to an abundance of push alerts on the lock screen of my phone.
Big, breaking news like this was once the sum of most news outlets’ mobile alert strategies. Now, news outlets are using push alerts to define their brands and provide context for readers, according to new research released by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia and the Guardian Mobile Lab.
We analyzed three weeks of push alerts from 31 iOS apps and 14 Apple News channels this summer, and conducted 23 interviews with product managers, mobile editors, and audience managers from a variety of US news outlets. We found that there has been a balloon over the past year in the number of alerts sent by news organizations on a daily basis, as well as a shift away from simple headlines, breaking news, or clickbait.
Alerts have a unique benefit for publishers: Because they reach audiences directly on smartphone lock screens, alerts are able to divert news traffic away from third-party platforms and back toward publishers’ apps. This, in turn, builds brand loyalty and develops news habits. For many publishers, push alerts provide a valuable opportunity to remind their audiences who they are and what they do best.
“We’re no longer scared of inundating people with alerts”
In the three weeks we collected data, news outlets churned out 2,577 alerts—2,085 via iOS and 492 via Apple News.
On average, the outlets we looked at sent three alerts per day, though the number of alerts sent differed considerably from one outlet to the next, and the daily flow of alerts also fluctuated with the news cycle. At the high end was CNN, whose two apps averaged 11 notifications per day. Seven outlets sent 10 or more alerts in a single day—AP News, BuzzFeed News, CNN, CNN MoneyStream, Fox News, Mic, and USA Today.
Push is also being used to surface a broader range of content, such as enterprise reporting, in-depth features, and analysis. In our study, only 57 percent of the 2,085 iOS alerts were classified as breaking news.
We heard this distinction in our interviews as well. One audience manager differentiated between “big, obvious breaking stuff” and what he described as “upper tier” content. The latter he outlined as either stories that show the brand’s values, or simply “a story that we’ve spent a lot of time on that we think is valuable, which might not necessarily be a news piece.” Another mobile editor said her outlet now pushes more “nice to know” alerts in addition to the standard “need to know” alerts.
Apps with customization options provide particular flexibility. CNN Money, to take one example, has over 100 customizable alert channels, including breaking, trending, and food. A mobile editor explained, “We have topical channels that readers can subscribe to, and so we do a lot of pushing to those. We’re definitely more aggressive on those channels because we know that the users have really given us a signal that they want extra notifications on this topic.”
“An alert is a piece of content in itself”
Many outlets treat push alerts as a unique, short storytelling format. Journalists working with push alerts speak passionately about crafting the best possible alerts that provide context and character directly from lock screens. Within newsrooms, Slack channels have emerged as valuable spaces for multiple people to thrash out and finetune alert language that tells a story while characterizing the brand’s voice.
Our research confirmed this shift away from headlines as a strategy for alerts to a longer, more contextual approach. Over half of alerts received via iOS apps provided additional context to the traditional headline, teaser, or round-up of content.
Compare, for instance, Fox’s concise alert about Manson to the others, which attempt to contextualize:
This trend appears to be part of a wider shift toward informing audiences directly from lock screens. A surprising number of interviewees said their goal for push is to inform audiences without forcing them to tap through—a target that conflicts with one of the most common (albeit floored) metrics against which alerts are often judged: open rates. An audience manager explained, “The language…will always provide enough information so that if a reader were to get their notification they would understand the basis of the story. We’re not trying to tease people to get them to click through, or bait them.”
One mobile editor said, “I think a successful push notification is one where somebody opens their phone, looks at it, says, ‘That’s interesting,’ and puts their phone back in their pocket.….We do measure success based on how many people tap on the notification, but that’s not the be-all-and-end-all to me. The be-all-and-end-all to me is: Did users find this useful or not?”
The shrinking need for speed
For many, the race to alert first has been superseded by the demand to deliver maximum value on lock screens. Where speed was once an area where outlets tried to gain competitive edge over each other, multiple people we spoke with said their thinking about speed has changed considerably in the past year.
Journalists are acutely aware that the average news consumer is not comparing the performance of one outlet against another—they just want to get news that matters to them in a way that is engaging and interesting.
As one interviewee put it, “For most users, the question of whether we’re before the Times doesn’t matter one iota, because they only get one push alert.”
Crafting language and producing a high-quality alert also takes time—an investment most outlets are now willing to make. On an increasingly crowded lock screen, news outlets need to do everything they can to stand out. A headline might be quick, but as one product manager said, “It doesn’t provide voice, often it doesn’t provide enough context, and it seems very robotic and soulless.”
One mobile editor explained why his newsroom is less and less bothered by the race to be first: “The AP or CNN are most of the time faster than us, especially the AP. But their brand is ‘We want to be first.’ For us, we want to be the best, and often that means…paying more attention to writing something that feels a little more human, a little more conversational, a little more complete.”
Though, it should be noted, this more relaxed attitude hasn’t spread to every corner of the newsroom, where old-fashioned rivalries can still loom large. One mobile editor said being first is still something that “is valued by some of my bosses and [something] I feel like I fight over every day.”
“Apple News is a whole other animal”
We also saw a reluctance to push major news via Apple News, for similar reasons.
While Apple can push news to a huge audience, and, potentially, add revenue for organizations, many publishers are wary of relinquishing distribution, monetization, audience, and brand to a third party.
One mobile editor summed it up nicely, saying: “It’s a blessing and a curse. It’s a huge opportunity to reach a really big audience for a lot of others. It’s also a risk, and we’re just like everyone else: We’re trying to figure out how to handle that….We’re being pretty cautious with Apple News.”
In our study, just 26 percent of Apple News alerts were about breaking news, compared to 57 percent on iOS.
One interviewee said his outlet only pushes general interest stories via Apple News rather than breaking news or the specialist topics the brand is known for: “We don’t want to train people to consume more news on another channel, where we can’t control the experience. So we basically use it as a prospecting tool and also as sort of a place to expand the visibility of our content.”