Nieman Foundation at Harvard
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Oct. 27, 2016, 9 a.m.

File this under Obvious But Still Worth Having Data On: Mobile news app users who allow push notifications open the news apps significantly more often than those who don’t allow notifications, according to a study out Thursday from the Engaging News Project at the University of Texas.

The study found that 27 percent of users who turned on push notifications opened the app daily, while 12 percent of users who didn’t have alerts on used the news app each day, the study found. (The report was funded by the Knight Foundation, which also supports Nieman Lab.)

The Engaging News Project conducted the study with 420 participants. They each randomly downloaded either the CNN, BuzzFeed News, or E! News apps. About half of the participants were asked to turn on notifications and half were asked to leave them off. The researchers followed up with the participants after about two weeks of app usage.

“Overall, the results show some benefits to notifications: people appreciate the content, half of the respondents reported that they used an app and website because of the notifications that they had received, and, at least in some circumstances, people gain knowledge from the notifications,” authors Natalie Jomini Stroud, Cynthia Peacock, and Alex Curry wrote. “But the results also show the need for further development: not all of the mobile alerts increase knowledge and some respondents crave the ability to tailor them.”

To see if mobile alerts helped users retain knowledge, the researchers asked the users questions about the stories referenced in the push notifications they received from CNN and BuzzFeed. With CNN, those who’d been receiving CNN notifications answered more questions correctly than those who were using the CNN app without notifications on. (For BuzzFeed News, though, having notifications on didn’t make any difference in the number of questions answered correctly.)

It’s hard to isolate the notifications’ impact on knowledge, since people can hear about alert-worthy stories in a number of ways. “Speculatively, it could be that notifications sent by both CNN and BuzzFeed News represent information that was widely distributed,” they wrote. “Even those who don’t get notifications may eventually learn the information. The lack of an effect for BuzzFeed News could be attributed to the difficulty of the questions that we asked. It also could have something to do with the way in which the BuzzFeed News notifications were phrased, or when they arrived on people’s phones.”

About 75 percent of participants said they knew they could get more information from the push alerts by swiping on them. Fifty-eight percent of respondents said they actually opened one of the apps from the notification and 56.5 percent said they went to the news organizations’ websites to get more details on the news.


Older users, meanwhile, said they were more likely to keep the notifications on their phones after the study ended. Thirty-seven percent of users over 50 years old said they’d keep notifications, compared to 27 percent of 30-49 year olds and 17 percent of 18-29 year olds.

Of the participants who received the notifications, 32.4 percent said they didn’t like certain things about the content in the notification and 20.8 percent said they didn’t like the timing and frequency of the notifications. Some of the user complaints:

“Too many and about meaningless junk.”

“I didn’t want to use up all my memory.”

“It’s random topics. I wish I could filter. For instance, say no Olympic news.”

“I was not as interested in celebrity news as I thought I would be.

“I don’t think any of the major news networks are a good way to get information.”

“I don’t care about the news.”

After the study ended, 23 percent of the participants said they had uninstalled the news apps from their phones.

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