Mobile app marketing: how push notifications can round out email and SMS to keep customers engaged—and buying

Profile photo of author Jax Connelly
Jax Connelly
22min read
Omnichannel marketing
April 21, 2023
blonde girl looking at the road with a phone in her hand and airpods in her ears

Imagine you could bond with your prospects and customers in the same place they regularly gather to interact with their loved ones.

The more you hang around there, the more you start to build personal, emotional connections with the people you want to buy from your brand.

They, in turn, “start to see your brand as one that adds value to their lives, rather than one that’s just focused on sales,” says Mollie Woolnough-Rai, senior marketing manager at Penny Black. Over time, the things you do and say in that sacred space “build up their trust, and they become loyal to your brand—even if there’s an alternative option on the market.”

The sacred space we’re talking about, of course, is consumers’ phones—and gaining entry is actually pretty easy.

It’s making sure you don’t get kicked out, that’s the hard part.

Let’s face it: There are always alternative options on the market. In the midst of a historic economic downturn, consumers are still spending money—they’re just being more selective about who they’re spending it with. It’s either going to be you or it’s going to be your competitor.

Mobile app marketing is one way to make sure it’s you.

Today, more than 72% of ecommerce sales occur on a mobile device—up 39% from 2016—and people spend nearly 90% of their mobile internet time in mobile apps.

At a time when consumer attention is low and paid ads are more expensive and less effective, mobile app marketing is a key pillar of an omnichannel marketing strategy that also includes owned channels like email and SMS. It’s a unique way to optimize the mobile shopping experience, boost engagement and retention among your most loyal customers, and turn one-time transactions into lifelong relationships.

Why mobile app marketing, specifically? What are the pros and cons? How does it work—and how do you make it work for you?

Read on to learn:

What is mobile marketing in ecommerce?

Mobile marketing optimizes shopping experiences across web, social, and other channels for mobile devices. Broadly speaking, it’s “any sort of marketing that happens on a mobile device,” says Mark Piana, senior product manager at Klaviyo.

That might include:

  • Mobile-responsive email design and marketing
  • Mobile-responsive web design
    • Mobile-optimized site navigation
    • Mobile-optimized landing pages
    • Mobile-optimized content marketing
  • Social media marketing on Instagram, TikTok, LinkedIn, etc.
  • Location-based marketing
  • Mobile-focused search engine optimization (SEO)
  • QR codes
  • Voice marketing
  • SMS/MMS marketing
  • Mobile app marketing

Alex Klein, VP of consumer engagement at 85SIXTY, says the greatest advantage of adopting and implementing a mobile marketing plan is “easy incremental revenue.” Brandon Matis, owner of LUXOR, says it’s about “being where your customers are.”

“Users are shopping from their phones more and more,” agrees Gracie Cooper, digital marketing strategist at Groove Commerce. “If you’re not optimizing your website, emails, and forms to be mobile-friendly, you’re going to lose out on a number of opportunities.”

Sara Kappler, founder and CEO of Centric Squared, says the greatest advantage of mobile marketing is that it allows your brand to reach new audiences. “Email inboxes are overflowing these days,” she points out. “People are OK with thousands of unread emails.”

By contrast, people check their phones much more frequently—and that “can drive engagement,” Kappler points out.

You’re reaching them where they’re more likely to convert.
Oscar Guerrero
CEO, WeClick Group

“If you think about it, the moment when people have the time and are in the mood to shop, they’re likely on their phones,” explains Oscar Guerrero, CEO, WeClick Group. “So you’re reaching them where they’re more likely to convert.”

Explore SMS marketing resources

SMS marketing is the act of sending text message campaigns, promotions, news, updates, and more to customers who have opted in to receive communications over SMS.

Whether you’re just getting started with SMS marketing or you’re looking for strategies to make a strong SMS program even stronger, these resources can help:

What is mobile app marketing, specifically?

Whereas mobile marketing as a whole refers to any marketing activity that happens on a mobile device, mobile app marketing, specifically, refers to the act of marketing your business to prospects and customers through a branded mobile app.

“If someone is trying to interact with your brand on a mobile device, you want to give them the best experience possible,” Piana points out. “A mobile app allows you to cater the experience to that device a little bit more effectively.”

Ecommerce brands use mobile app marketing as a high-engagement channel to interact with prospects and customers on a more personal level. As Piana puts it, the main purpose of mobile app marketing is “to build relationships with your customers, and therefore retain and engage them over a longer period of time.”

4 benefits of mobile app marketing

Like SMS marketing, mobile app marketing tends to be more of a retention play than a customer acquisition play. That’s because, as Piana explains, “the people who tend to download the app for a given brand are the really engaged, VIP-type customers.”

The people who tend to download the app for a given brand are the really engaged, VIP-type customers.
Mark Piana
Senior product manager, Klaviyo

Think about your own mobile app usage: If you reach the point where you’re downloading an app, “there’s pretty strong intent that you want to engage with that brand in the future,” Piana points out. By contrast, “with a website, you might go check it out once and never come back.”

“It’s unlikely that you would download a random company’s app if you’ve never really interacted with the brand before,” Piana adds. “But if it’s one of your favorite brands and you’re constantly buying products from them, you’re more likely to download their app and keep it on your phone.”

All of this helps explain why mobile app marketing can increase:

  1. Immediate customer engagement
  2. Immediate action, including purchases
  3. Long-term customer retention
  4. Customer lifetime value (CLTV)

Bottom line: Mobile app marketing “helps you keep customers more engaged and drive more revenue,” Piana says.

2 challenges of mobile app marketing

Marketing your ecommerce business through a mobile app is a unique way to convince customers to stick around for longer than a transaction or two. But, just like every form of marketing, it has its fair share of challenges.

Here are the top obstacles standing in the way of a successful mobile app marketing program, according to Piana:

1. Building and maintaining a mobile app requires substantial resources

This is one of the main reasons businesses with a mobile app “tend to be larger companies,” Piana says: “because they have the resources available to develop and maintain their own apps.”

A smaller business or entrepreneur, by contrast, “may not want to invest the time, energy, and financial resources to build out an app,” Piana explains.

Whereas it’s relatively easy in this day and age for a smaller business to “spin up a website quickly” on a platform like BigCommerce or Shopify, Piana points out, mobile app development requires a heavier lift—and a larger financial investment.

Plus, “even if you have someone else build it, over time, you’re going to need upgrades and someone to maintain it,” Piana adds.

Some smaller businesses work around this problem by either leaning on an app marketing agency or using a solution like Tapcart to launch a new app based on an existing ecommerce website—without the help of a dev team.

2. Usage tends to drop off post-download

The vast majority of mobile app users—around 90%—churn within 30 days of downloading an app. That means once your app is developed and ready for market, “getting people to not only download the app but also to keep using it is probably the biggest challenge,” Piana says.

Competition in the app world is high: There are nearly 3M apps in Google Play Store and nearly 5M in the Apple App Store. And while the average person has over 80 apps installed on their phone, they only interact with around 9 on a daily basis.

People won’t continue to open your app over time unless there’s clear value there.
Mark Piana
Senior product manager, Klaviyo

“That’s a big hurdle,” Piana says. “People won’t continue to open your app over time unless there’s clear value there.”

In other words, you can build the most useful, engaging mobile app in the world. You can run a multi-channel marketing campaign to raise awareness among potential users. You can develop a smart app store optimization strategy that combines thoughtful copy and appropriate keywords with attractive screenshots to keep your app highly visible in store search results.

But if you don’t invest in turning app downloaders into loyal users, it’ll all be for nothing.

After you clear the initial hurdle of user acquisition, how do you create the kind of user experience that keeps people coming back to your app? According to Piana, “push notifications are the primary answer.”

Push notifications: the secret sauce behind sticky app users

The numbers don’t lie: A single push notification in the first week after app installation can boost app retention by 71% after 2 months—and push notifications can increase overall retention rates 3-10x.

Plus, iOS users who opt in to push notifications are retained at nearly 2x the rate of those who aren’t.

Piana puts it this way: “If you keep your app users engaged and extend the lifetime of their app usage, your company will see a lot more value. So leveraging push notifications to keep users coming back actually leads to more revenue for your company in the long run.”

How to use push notifications to boost customer retention and LTV

You might use push notifications to reward mobile app usage with incentives. You might use them to celebrate app milestones. You might use them to highlight user-generated content, to drive conversions by promoting special offers or product drops, or to remind users of an expiring subscription.

“Things like that incentivize people to come back and continue to use your app,” Piana explains.

Depending on your goals, there are two primary ways to use push notifications to keep your mobile app users engaged: by incorporating them into automated flows and by sending them as one-off campaigns.

Using push notifications within automations

According to Liz Emery, VP of mobile and ad tech solutions at independent performance marketing firm Tinuiti, push is “definitely an effective channel within a flow.”

The team at Tinuiti automates push notifications for clients in combination with email and SMS, with messages going out based on user behavior. Automated push notifications might include:

  • Unique welcome offers
  • Abandoned cart messages
  • Browse abandonment messages
  • Purchase confirmations
  • Delivery updates

Because automated communications are based on user behavior, Emery believes automating push notifications is one way to ensure they’re providing value—and, importantly, not annoying users (more on this in a moment).

There’s this misconception that people don’t want things personalized. They do. They just want it done strategically.
Liz Emery
VP of mobile and ad tech solutions, Tinuiti

“There’s this misconception that people don’t want things personalized,” Emery points out. “They do. They just want it done strategically. They don’t want 7 push notifications from one company in the same day.”

Using push notifications for one-off campaigns

You can also use push notifications for one-off campaigns, such as:

  • Product announcements
  • Limited-time offers
  • Reminders about loyalty, rewards, and other programs
  • Mobile app-specific sales targeting VIP customers

Organic, plant-rich nutrition and wellness company Sakara, similarly, sends weekly push notifications to their active meal program subscribers—”some of our most engaged clients,” says Nicolette Bresnahan, senior manager of lifecycle communications and email marketing. “They see the greatest benefit from downloading the app, as it’s much easier to manage your subscription through the app, rather than the mobile website.”

Whether they serve as a reminder for a subscription deadline or an announcement about a new program, Bresnahan explains, these push notifications “generally have a sales-oriented intention, but framed as a value-add for our clients.”

Klaviyo Mobile Push: now available for Android

OK, but how exactly does it all work? With a marketing automation platform like Klaviyo, you can manage your mobile app push notifications under the same roof as your email and SMS marketing.

Designed for B2C companies that have a mobile application, Klaviyo Mobile Push enables digital marketers to engage with their app users through individually relevant and timely personalized push notifications, delivered directly to the home screen of a user’s mobile device.

Formerly only available for iOS mobile applications, Klaviyo Mobile Push is now also available for Android.

What makes Klaviyo Mobile Push stand out from the other push notification solutions on the market? Here are 2 key differentiators:

1. Klaviyo unifies email, SMS, and push in one central location

Managing all 3 channels in a central location proves appealing for many ecommerce brands. One of the main reasons Sakara migrated their SMS program to Klaviyo, for example, “was for the sake of having all three channels under one roof,” Bresnahan says.

Sakara isn’t alone. Leah Lloyd, group director of lifecycle marketing at Tinuiti, observes that in recent years, more and more clients are interested in solutions that do more than just one thing—and do it well.

“Especially given the state of the economy right now,” Lloyd says, “I think clients are more naturally inclined to look at how they can consolidate their spend across multiple vendors, and then see cost savings and efficiency within one platform.”

Clients are more naturally inclined to look at how they can consolidate their spend across multiple vendors, and then see cost savings and efficiency within one platform.
Leah Llyod
Group director of lifecycle marketing, Tinuiti

The other challenge driving more clients to look for one vendor, Lloyd adds, “is how you orchestrate the messaging and how you understand the customer journey that’s taking place.”

“People want to go into one interface and be able to look at their whole consumer journey,” Emery agrees. “One of the biggest issues we see is clients don’t know how many times they’re hitting the same person. They don’t understand the customer journey. And that’s where it gets messy.”

Consolidation, then, is the “name of the game,” Emery says—and with additional functionality like rich content and deep linking coming soon to Klaviyo Mobile Push, Klaviyo is an ideal solution for brands that are looking to bring email, SMS, and push notifications under one roof.

2. Klaviyo’s approach to customer data provides a holistic customer view

This one’s critical: By adding Klaviyo Mobile Push to Klaviyo email and SMS, brands can achieve a holistic view of their customers that combines web behavior, mobile behavior, and transactional data in a single platform.

Across all 3 channels, Klaviyo uses real-time and historical data for each user to power meaningful communications to the right person at the right time. Equipped with this data, marketers can:

  • Build custom segments and target each segment with personalized content using email, SMS, and mobile channels.
  • Automate their communications with customer journeys that combine all 3 channels to create a unified customer experience.

Depending on how your mobile app is built, here’s an example of a segment you could build in Klaviyo that combines data from your app, website, email, SMS, and push:

  • Viewed a specific product on the website or mobile app
  • Hasn’t opened and email or SMS recently
  • Is opted in to push notifications

Klaviyo for mobile push is now available as an open beta offering for all free and paying customers. Stay tuned for updates as we continue to build our push solution.

3 mobile app marketing dos and don’ts (spoiler: it’s all about boundaries)

Push notifications are a primary way ecommerce brands with mobile apps overcome some of the challenges associated with mobile app marketing.

But as with any marketing channel, push doesn’t reap benefits for your business automatically. Success requires being thoughtful and intentional about the way you’re using push notifications to communicate to your mobile app users.

Here are 3 mobile app marketing best practices to keep in mind as you’re building out your push program:

1. DO get smart about opt-in prompts

The greatest barrier to successful mobile app marketing is also the most straightforward: Unless a mobile app user opts in to receive push notifications, you can’t send them.

“That’s a big place where people fall off,” Piana points out. “Most of us have seen that prompt that says, ‘Do you want to enable notifications?’ That’s your one and only chance to ask people to turn those on. They could always go back into their device’s settings and turn notifications on for the app later if they wanted to, but if you lose people early in the process, it’s really hard to get them re-engaged.”

One way to re-engage app users who’ve opted out of notifications is to lean on your other channels. “You could always send them an email or a text that encourages them to turn on those notifications,” Piana says.

But perhaps an even smarter strategy is to reconsider your approach to the “Do you want to enable push notifications?” prompt.

First, try providing a bit more information before securing permission. “One best practice is to warm the user up to enabling notifications by saying, ‘Hey, you should turn on notifications and here’s why, and here’s the type of notifications that we will send you. Now that I’ve told you all this, do you want to enable them?’’’ Piana says.

This strategy is about explaining why it’s worth their while, as opposed to just prompting them upfront.
Mark Piana
Senior product manager, Klaviyo

This strategy is about “explaining why it’s worth their while, as opposed to just prompting them upfront,” Piana explains.

Second, reconsider the timing of the prompt. “The app owner can choose when that appears,” Piana points out. “You want to send it at a time when it makes the most sense to the user.”

Consider a consumer who’s looking for flights on a travel app. “Maybe you don’t have them download the app and then immediately prompt them, ‘Do you want to enable notifications?’ Instead, you wait until they do their first search for flights, and if they don’t buy immediately, you say, ‘Hey, do you want to enable notifications so we could let you know if the price drops?’” Piana explains.

“That’s a better time to ask them than when they just downloaded the app,” Piana adds. “Now, those push notifications are providing a clear value.”

2. DON’T be…well, pushy

Ben Zettler, founder of Ben Zettler Digital, has a word of caution for marketers: “both the timing and sequencing of messaging that users receive to their mobile phones must toe the line between pushing a message that’s meant to sell without annoying the customer.”

Both the timing and sequencing of messaging that users receive to their mobile phones must toe the line between pushing a message that’s meant to sell without annoying the customer.
Ben Zettler
Founder, Ben Zettler Digital

In terms of what works, push notifications are similar to SMS, where “new product releases, re-stocks, and exclusive access to something, all sent to well-engaged customers, should do very well to satisfy that,” Zettler explains.

In other words, keep it urgent, keep it critical, and keep it valuable.

The Tinuiti team is “very particular” about why and when clients use push notifications. “It’s very easy for people who are getting messages to opt out in two seconds if it’s not implemented properly,” Emery points out. “One of the biggest things with push is that it does create a sense of immediate urgency, and it is a more intrusive channel.”

Whatever messaging a client is pushing, “we want to make sure that it’s important and that there’s a time limit to it,” Emery explains. “That’s the biggest thing, beyond customizing the message per channel to your goals, your target audience, and your products—being very cognizant of how many you’re sending, whether it’s on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis.”

3. DON’T use push the same way you use SMS

Although SMS and push notifications share many similarities, experts agree you shouldn’t use the two channels in the exact same way.

“I would look at it like you’re serving two different audiences,” Emery says. “If you really want targeted communication based on in-app actions or behaviors that the user is taking, push is a really strong way to go. For broader horizontal communication, SMS comes out on top.”

If you really want targeted communication based on in-app actions or behaviors that the user is taking, push is a really strong way to go. For broader horizontal communication, SMS comes out on top.
Liz Emery
VP of mobile and ad tech solutions, Tinuiti

Of course, the way that shakes out will look different for different brands. Sakara’s SMS subscriber base, for example, is somewhat a different audience than their mobile app user base, Bresnahan points out.

For that reason, “SMS is more of a sales-focused channel, leveraging promotional messaging, whereas push caters to the client mindset with helpful reminders,” she explains. “Therefore, with push, we’ve primarily been targeting our active meal subscribers—reminding them to adjust their program for the following week before the order deadline, for example.”

If the Sakara team were to explore doing promotions via push, “it would be on a much less frequent basis” than SMS, Bresnahan adds.

How to track your mobile app marketing efforts: key KPIs to watch

Measuring the success of your mobile app marketing program is “a little different than what we’d see for email and SMS,” Piana says.

Total app downloads is an important metric to be aware of, as are new users and daily, weekly, and monthly active users—“essentially, how many people are logging into the app during a given period,” Piana explains.

Similarly, sessions per user and average session length per user are both important ways to understand the behavior of individual customers, Piana says: “Are they logging in multiple times? Are they just logging in once?”

With push notifications, the team at Tinuiti pays particular attention to conversion rate, Lloyd says.

Sakara is still in the “test and learn phase,” Bresnahan says, but the team is keeping a close eye on open rates, as well as revenue attributed to push notifications (as with email and SMS, it’s possible to track this KPI in a platform like Klaviyo).

But if you’re mostly concerned about engagement and retention, metrics like how long a user continues using the app after initial download might carry more weight—“essentially the lifetime of each user within the app,” Piana says.

He provides this example: “if someone downloads the app and is continually using it, how does that affect their lifetime value compared to a subscriber who does not?”

If someone downloads the app and is continually using it, how does that affect their lifetime value compared to a subscriber who does not?
Mark Piana
Senior product manager, Klaviyo

On this note, Emery also pays close attention to opt-in and opt-out rates for push notifications. This one’s a bit tricky, she cautions: “It could be a guilt by association thing, because there could be another app running at the same time that’s sending a bunch of push notifications that causes a user to opt out of yours, too.”

But if users are opting out from your push notifications fairly consistently, it could be a sign that you need to revisit your push notification strategy or cadence. This kind of thing is exactly what tracking your numbers should help you understand—whether you need to recalibrate your efforts to improve performance in the future.

“It goes back to that consumer journey map,” Emery explains. “If you understand that someone came from this push notification, then landed on the sign-up page for this app, and then after sign-up they went to do X, Y, and Z—those are the trigger points. Understanding the consumer journey will shape the trigger points for push notifications.”

Where mobile app marketing fits in an omnichannel program

Like email and SMS, push notifications are another arm of your marketing communications strategy that you have complete control over.

Also like email and SMS, push notifications from your mobile app work better when they’re integrated into a comprehensive, omnichannel marketing strategy. “You should always be thinking about how you combine all the different channels together to provide the best experience,” Piana points out.

At a time when the average consumer now buys after 6 touchpoints instead of 2 and omnichannel shoppers spend, on average, 18-36% more than single-channel shoppers, an isolated mobile messaging strategy is not enough.

Instead, marketers must understand their customers and use data to deliver personalized messages at the right time, through the right channel—meaning the one your customer prefers. When incorporated into a larger omnichannel marketing program, push notifications are one way of many to engage shoppers holistically, across the customer journey—without duplicating efforts.

“People spend their days looking at some sort of screen,” points out Simo Magazzù, head of marketing automation at Loop. “Waking up, looking at the phone, then starting work on their laptop, then bathroom with phone again, going back home and looking at the tablet, TV, etc.”

The customer journey is cross-device, and so should be our marketing.
Simo Magazzù
Head of marketing automation, Loop

“The customer journey is cross-device, and so should be our marketing,” Magazzù emphasizes. “The advantage? More impressions, more clicks, and, by direct consequence, more sales.”

Ready to round out your omnichannel marketing efforts with push?
Try Klaviyo today
Jax Connelly
Jax Connelly
Lead editor
Jax Connelly (they/she), lead editor at Klaviyo, started their career doing SEO at a small digital ad agency and spent most of their twenties managing a financial magazine for a trade association based in Washington, DC. Most recently, she studied and taught writing at Columbia College Chicago during the peak years of the pandemic. Outside of their day job, Jax is an award-winning creative writer who has received honors including 4 Notables in the Best American Essays series, contest awards from publications like Nowhere Magazine and Prairie Schooner, and a residency from the Ragdale Foundation. Jax lives in Chicago a block away from Lake Michigan with her elderly Jack Russell Terrier, Cloo.