Peak push

“Push notifications can feel intrusive and I suspect many complaints about the editorial choices for push alerts are triggered by annoyance at being interrupted rather than their subject matter.”

Wake up in the morning to several screens worth of push notifications. Your shopping is on its way, your friend in a different time zone has WhatsApped you, someone liked your Instagram picture, someone else has gone live on Facebook, one or more news organizations are warning that we may or may not be on the brink of nuclear war.

Yes, it’s a great way to quickly see what’s been going on while you’ve been asleep without having to open loads of apps. But it also can feel overwhelming as the incoming tide of alerts continues throughout the day. (Studies suggest that on average people receive 60 notifications on their phones a day — mostly from social and messaging apps.)

Newsrooms are sending out more and more push notifications because they see results — i.e., people tap through to their apps. But there’s also a bit of a backlash, with some columnists recommending people switch them off and get on with their lives.

As more and more pushes are sent, the big challenges for apps in 2018 are to find ways to break through on people’s screens, fit into their lives (rather than intrude in them) and be of value. Mobile users, on the other hand, may be wondering how to declutter their screens and actually get to the stuff they want.

The answers usually given are personalization and audience segmentation. But that tends to mean either forcing readers to tick a lot of boxes or making assumptions about what they want based on their behavior or location.

Both can be effective but have limitations, as described in more detail in this excellent Tow Center report. How much legwork should we expect an average news consumer to do? Does sending me what I want really mean I can get push alerts on all the topics I’m interested in when I want them? (That could lead to some big scalability issues and even more noise.)

As far as I can see, no one has yet found the holy grail.

More seriously, personalization doesn’t yet solve the problem of interrupting (or distracting) subscribers at inopportune moments. Push notifications can feel intrusive and I suspect many complaints about the editorial choices for push alerts are triggered by annoyance at being interrupted rather than their subject matter. News apps need to find better ways to use contextual signals from a device to take into account not only relevance but also time of day and location/activity, and to balance that with the urgency and or importance of the push alert.

Add to that the introduction of audio notifications for voice-controlled home speakers and it may be that the best platform for an alert isn’t always the mobile screen. Machine learning should help us decide what the best channel for a news notification is at any given time.

Mobile push alerts are not going away — they can be a valuable form of journalism and in many cases a service in their own right. I hope that in 2018 we see more writers thinking about rewarding storytelling made for the lock screen.

Nathalie Malinarich is the mobile and new formats editor for BBC News.

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