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Push Notifications vs Text Messages: An In-Depth Comparison

In today‘s mobile-first digital landscape, push notifications and text messages have become two of the most ubiquitous ways for businesses to communicate with customers and for people to interact with each other. At first glance, these two channels may seem quite similar – both involve sending short messages directly to someone‘s mobile device. However, there are actually a number of important distinctions between push notifications and text messages in terms of how they work, the type of content they include, and the user experience of receiving them.

In this comprehensive guide, we‘ll dive deep into the key differences between push notifications vs text messages. You‘ll learn the ins and outs of how each channel functions, the unique advantages and best practices for push notifications and SMS, and get answers to frequently asked questions. Whether you‘re an app developer looking to engage users, a marketer planning mobile campaigns, or simply a curious smartphone owner, read on to become an expert on these two essential messaging formats.

Push Notifications 101

First, let‘s clarify what exactly we mean by "push notification." A push notification is a message that pops up on a user‘s mobile device from an app that is installed on the device. App publishers can send push notifications at any time, and the user does not have to be in the app or using their device to receive them.

Some key characteristics of push notifications include:

  • Delivered by apps, websites, and operating systems
  • Can include images, videos, interactive buttons and other rich media
  • Highly customizable based on user behavior and preferences
  • Require explicit opt-in permission from users
  • Rely on an internet connection (WiFi or mobile data)
  • Can deep link to specific pages within an app

Common use cases for push notifications include breaking news alerts, sports scores, weather updates, social media activity, promotional messages, and more. Marketers love using push notifications to re-engage app users, announce sales or new features, and deliver targeted content.

Text Messages 101

Text messages, on the other hand, refer to the Short Message Service (SMS) and Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS) standards used for sending text-based communications between mobile devices. With SMS, users can send and receive short messages of up to 160 characters, while MMS expands this to include multimedia content like photos and videos.

The key points to know about text messages are:

  • Sent from one mobile number to another
  • Delivered via cellular networks, not the internet
  • Usually consist of text, but can also include images and other media (MMS)
  • Do not require permission or opt-in from recipients
  • Limited customization options compared to push notifications
  • Have a nearly 100% open rate – 90% read within 3 minutes

Text messaging remains one of the most popular activities on mobile phones, with 81% of American adults sending and receiving texts regularly. For businesses, SMS is an effective channel for delivering transactional messages, promotions, and customer service communications.

Push vs Text: Delivery and Technical Differences

Now that we‘ve covered the basics, let‘s explore the technical differences between how push notifications and text messages are delivered.

Push notifications are sent from an app‘s server to the Apple Push Notification Service (APNS) for iOS devices or Google Cloud Messaging (GCM) for Android. These services then handle pushing the message to the specific device. This process requires an active internet connection on both the sender‘s and recipient‘s end.

Text messages, however, are sent over cellular networks using standardized communication protocols. They don‘t require either party to have internet access, which is one reason SMS has such broad reach – it works on any mobile phone, smart or not.

Another key difference is that push notifications can be highly targeted and personalized based on a user‘s in-app behavior, location, preferences, and other data points. Text messages are more limited in their ability to dynamically customize content for each recipient.

Content and Customization Options

Beyond just delivery mechanisms, push notifications and text messages also differ significantly in terms of the type of content they can include and how much control senders have over the user experience.

Rich push notifications allow for eye-catching visuals, videos, audio, and interactive elements like buttons. Combined with their deep linking capabilities, push notifications create many opportunities for brands to craft engaging, dynamic experiences that pull users back into their apps.

Text messages mostly consist of just that – plain text. While you can include static images or GIFs in MMS, the presentation possibilities are still rather limited compared to push notifications. Given SMS‘s text-only roots, emojis, hyperlinks, and other text-based elements tend to be the extent of content customization.

Permissions and Opt-Ins

A major distinction between push notifications and text messages is that the former requires explicit user permission, while the latter does not.

When someone downloads an app, they are almost always prompted to opt-in to allow push notifications. While most people do opt-in, a significant portion declines – meaning marketers and publishers need to make a strong case for the value of opting in.

With text messages, however, the TCPA (Telephone Consumer Protection Act) mandates that businesses get express written consent before contacting individuals. But users don‘t have to take any action for personal text messages to come through on their device.

This difference in permissions creates very different dynamics for push vs text. Push notification senders are talking to an audience that has actively invited communication and expects it to be highly relevant to their interests. SMS senders might be texting people who haven‘t opted into their messages (although they shouldn‘t be) and must tread carefully to not come across as spammy.

Advantages and Disadvantages

So when might you choose to use push notifications over text messages, or vice versa? Let‘s break down some of the key strengths and weaknesses of each channel.

Advantages of push notifications:

  • Richer content options and interactivity
  • Ability to deep link into specific app pages
  • Highly customizable based on user data
  • Doesn‘t cost money to send (besides dev resources)
  • Fosters continuous engagement with an app

Disadvantages of push notifications:

  • Requires an app download and active opt-in
  • Can feel invasive or spammy if not well executed
  • Many people disable notifications for most apps
  • Easy for users to turn off or ignore

Advantages of text messages:

  • Extremely high open rates, close to 100%
  • Reaches people without smartphones or internet
  • Ideal for urgent, time-sensitive communications
  • Perceived as more personal and direct than email

Disadvantages of text messages:

  • Limited rich media options and customizability
  • Can be expensive to send SMS/MMS at scale
  • Strict regulations around consent and opting out
  • Potential to annoy people and damage brand sentiment

Push Notification Best Practices

To take full advantage of push notifications‘ unique capabilities, app marketers and developers should keep the following best practices in mind:

  1. Communicate value upfront. Make a compelling case when asking users to opt into push notifications, and follow through with content that delivers clear value.

  2. Keep it concise. Push notifications should be short and to the point, conveying important information quickly while respecting users‘ attention.

  3. Personalize based on behavior. Use analytics and segmentation to customize push campaigns based on how individuals interact with your app, their stated preferences, or attributes like location.

  4. Choose the right time. Use data on when your audience is most likely to engage with your notifications to optimize delivery timing. But avoid sending late at night or early in the morning.

  5. Test and optimize. A/B test different variations of copy, creative, send times, and more to continuously improve the performance of your push notification program.

  6. Don‘t overdo it. Sending too many push notifications is a surefire way to increase opt-outs. Be judicious and make every message count.

  7. Provide user controls. Give people options to manage their notification preferences, like setting quiet hours or getting certain types of updates.

When executed thoughtfully, push notifications can be a powerful way to increase app engagement, conversions, and customer satisfaction. But it‘s important to use them responsibly and respect the privilege of communicating directly on someone‘s device.

Privacy Implications

Both push notifications and text messages come with important privacy considerations that senders and recipients should be aware of.

For push notifications, detailed data on users‘ in-app behavior may be used to determine what messages they receive. There have been instances of this data being collected or shared in ways that violate consumer privacy regulations like GDPR and CCPA. Apps should have clear data handling practices and give users transparency into and control over how their information is used.

With text messages, the key privacy issues revolve around consent and opting out. Under the TCPA, businesses must obtain written permission before texting individuals and include options to opt-out at any time. Failure to comply with these laws can result in hefty fines.

As a consumer, it‘s always a good idea to be cautious about sharing your phone number and to avoid responding to unsolicited texts from unknown senders. Be sure to read privacy policies and understand how your data may be used for any apps or services you interact with via push or SMS.

The Future of Mobile Messaging

Looking ahead, both push notifications and text messages are likely to remain important communication channels, but we can expect to see them continue to evolve in response to technological advances and changing consumer preferences.

One key trend is the rise of rich push notifications, which expand the multimedia capabilities and interactivity of push messages. Cutting-edge features like action buttons, in-message maps, and carousels allow for more dynamic, app-like experiences that could change the game for marketing and customer engagement.

At the same time, business text messaging is becoming more conversational and automated thanks to chatbot platforms and AI-powered messaging. Two-way, personalized interactions over SMS could become the norm for everything from making a purchase to booking an appointment.

We‘re also seeing the lines blur between push notifications, text messages, and other messaging formats like in-app messages, email, and social media DMs. Omnichannel communication strategies that orchestrate seamless customer journeys across channels will be key to providing convenient, context-appropriate interactions.

As mobile usage continues to grow and evolve, organizations of all kinds will need to stay at the forefront of messaging and monitoring best practices to effectively connect with people in the channels they prefer. While push notifications and text messages may function differently, both will continue to play vital roles in the mobile engagement mix.

Frequently Asked Questions

Still have questions about push notifications vs text messages? Here are answers to some of the most common queries:

Can text messages be push notifications?

Text messages can trigger push notifications on a user‘s device, but they are not the same thing. A text message exists within the SMS/MMS protocol and messaging app, while push notifications come from third-party apps.

What are examples of push notifications?

Some common examples of push notifications include breaking news alerts from media apps, workout reminders from fitness apps, price drop alerts from shopping apps, and new episode announcements from entertainment apps.

Are push notifications free?

There is no cost to send push notifications, besides any associated app and backend development costs. Users do not get charged for receiving push notifications. SMS and MMS messages, on the other hand, often cost money for both senders and recipients, although many mobile plans now include unlimited texting.

Why do apps use push notifications?

Apps use push notifications to capture users‘ attention, provide time-sensitive information and updates, encourage engagement with the app, and drive specific actions or conversions. When used effectively, push notifications can significantly improve app retention and loyalty metrics.

Is there a character limit for push notifications?

The character limit for push notification messages varies across platforms. Generally, concise messages under 50-90 characters perform best in terms of click-through rates. Text messages are limited to 160 characters before they are split into multiple messages.

Do push notifications work if the app is closed?

Yes, push notifications can be delivered even when the app sending them is not actively in use. The app simply needs to be installed on the user‘s device and have permission to send notifications. This is one of the key differences between push notifications and in-app messages.

How can I turn off push notifications?

Users can manage push notification permissions in the settings for each app on their device, as well as in their phone‘s main notification settings. Disabling notifications for an app will prevent any push messages from coming through. The process for unsubscribing from text message alerts varies, but typically involves replying with an opt-out keyword like "STOP."

Are SMS messages encrypted?

Regular SMS messages are not encrypted and can theoretically be intercepted or read by mobile carriers and other entities. However, secure messaging apps and protocols like iMessage, WhatsApp, and Signal do use end-to-end encryption to protect the contents of messages from being accessed by anyone besides the intended parties.

What is the open rate for push notifications and text messages?

Push notifications have an average open rate of around 10%, but this varies widely across industries and use cases – transactional notifications tend to have much higher engagement than promotional ones. Text messages have extremely high open rates around 98%, although not every message will be read or acted upon.

What is the difference between push notifications and SMS notifications?

SMS notifications refer to push notifications that are triggered by text messages and appear in the same way as app push notifications. However, tapping on an SMS notification will open the device‘s native messaging app, rather than a third-party app. True push notifications come from apps and have more opportunities for customization.