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An Economy Of Push

The evolution of push notifications and their role in the 2016 elections

Everywhere you look in digital politics these days it seems one “guru” or another is claiming that they have their finger on the pulse of the Web. From Grumpy Cat memes to Meerkat (Update: they dead), they just get it, right?

But the truth is that the Internet, or more importantly our interaction with it, is changing rapidly and nobody knows just quite how to get out in front of the evolution, least of all the digital consultant in Washington.

Not because we aren’t talented enough, but because we aren’t actually building the Internet.

As digital politicos, we are still just users.

From where we sit everything is still user-initiated:

  • We hope voters finish their social conversations, e-commerce purchases, or news reading and visit our websites next
  • We hope they feel compelled to initiate searches for our content
  • We hope they eventually subscribe to “pull” more content from us when they want to avoid doing that all over again.

It’s not exactly rocket science. But, many of us have built very successful careers on our ability to trick corral voters to a petition or donation page.

We learned to segment lists and build custom audiences, design issue-specific landing pages, and cut cookie pools. We hacked our way across the developing Web and it’s worked pretty well for us.

It’s time to stop lying to ourselves, though. In large part, our attempts at digital marketing equate to Internet neighbors chatting on someone else’s lawn. We can do better.

With the obvious exception of Obama’s historic campaign(s), we aren’t creating anything new or advancing the Internet through a contribution of innovation and technology.

Hell, often times we aren’t even creating new ways of doing old things — Most campaign websites are still just digital campaign offices where one can stop by to pick up a bumper sticker or signup to volunteer on their way down the street to Facebook.

But, to quote Dylan:

“The times they are a changin’.”

With the increased rate of mobile adoption, the future will no longer favor those that wait for the “pull”.

A Nation Of Screens

Let’s face it, most of us practically live on our smartphones.

Americans are glued to the seemingly endless feed of selfies and self-loathing, obsessed with beating the zero inbox challenge, and fraught with anxiety over the latest Angry Birds + pop culture mashup.

In fact, 80% of all online adults now own a smartphone. It’s a full-blown epidemic.

If you look at Millennials, that number goes even higher, with 85% of Millennials aged 18-24 and 86% aged 25-34 owning smartphones.

But in earnest, our phones are so much more than a distraction. Mobile is how the majority of us now get our news, capture precious memories and stay connected to loved ones.

In a little over five years, mobile has quickly become our most impactful communication platfor…and it’s still evolving.

The Mobile Tug-O-War

Despite this increasing connectivity, we still have to manually “pull” news, updates, and alerts from our phones when we need them.

Mobile applications helped organize content on smaller screens and improved user experiences; but even with a screen full of task-specific applications, I still have to manually remember to locate and open them to retrieve the information I need.

We still have to go to them, each of them, never knowing if what we need has been added or updated. With the myriad apps, we download to our mobile devices, this is quickly becoming inefficient and laborious.

Early push notifications built to address this bottleneck in usability fell dramatically short, operating much like email of the late 90’s, clunky and one-dimensional.

Mobile notifications did little more than remind us we’d downloaded a long forgotten application or direct us like a digital crossing guard — annoying.

I’ve come to believe that is because we continued to think of the application as the end game. We’ve gotten so used to content as the end result that we’ve largely overlooked context as the rightful arbiter of motivation.

The release of iOS 8 and Android KitKat has helped to change that.

I won’t bore you with all the technical details, but suffice to say that this opened the door to innovation. Android forced Apple to think about app notifications as self-contained content.

This gave rise to a “push economy” where seemingly simple apps like YO and WUT flourish.

This huge leap forward is forcing designers and developers to think about the context of mobile interaction, not just the content we want you to see.

Ah, Push It – Push It Real Good

This change from “pull” to “push” is something many in the tech world are taking a closer look at. I suspect digital consultants eying 2016 are too.

For those not familiar, push notifications work by sending a message to the notification center or status bar of your smartphone. This is the default form of communication for mobile applications on smartphones.

In general, push notifications are considered less intrusive than SMS because they are delivered to your screen without interrupting your current activity. In addition, these notifications never incur a cost to the user, unlike SMS.

Another big advantage for digital consultants is the ability to automatically opt-in a user to push notifications when they download your app.

And this “push economy” isn’t isolated to mobile apps.

Applications likes Roost allow you to integrate push into your website, and mobile marketing firms like Urban Airship and Kahuna specialize in bringing push notification marketing to your brand or business.

Think about it, applications as end results for your content make little sense in an environment where notifications live dynamically.

Watch Scott Walker’s latest interview, or sign Hillary Clinton’s latest petition, all without opening your phone or leaving the notification screen.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not proclaiming the end of mobile apps, merely encouraging a transformation in how we think about building them.

This harkens back to my piece on political intent. Why does someone download a political campaign or organization’s mobile app in the first place?

I suspect we’ll learn quite a bit from the successes, or failures, of the Apple Watch ecosystem.

The entire premise of the Apple Watch is a world where applications live in the background and only come to you when there is something important to share, a world where context is as important as the content in the app.

Much like we’ve seen the iOS design and utility impact the Mac OS X experience, so too will the Apple Watch change the way Apple designers think about and build future experiences across all devices.

Watching how the paradigm shift to “push” impacts the technology world, and the world of political consulting by association will be fascinating.

Building The Next Great Political App

The unique aspect of building mobile applications is that conceptually it forces us to build for the user, not in spite of him/her.

As digital marketers, social graphics and a WordPress petition won’t cut it. We’ll be forced to join in the building of the Internet.

How will voters interact with your campaign on their mobile devices? Their tablets? …their watches?

How do we make it convenient and mutually beneficial?

It will be interesting to see who rises to this challenge.

A great first start is this blog by Intercom’s Paul Adams. In the piece, he writes about building systems, not destinations. If you want users to live in your app, isolated from other experiences, it is destined to fail.

Adams writes that content should be broken down into individual components so that it can be easily digested by notification screens, APIs, and SDKs.

He argues that the Web is moving away from linked pages of content and towards individual pieces of content aggregated together from different sources into one, convenient experience.

Adams argues that we are moving towards content cards, like Google Now and Twitter currently use. He also wrote about what this card-swiping interface might look like in the future.

While the content delivery system is still up for debate, I do think destinations as viable marketing tools will fade.

Consider the ability to send an RSVP button to users based on their locations. Once they check-in via the notifications screen, you update the notification with several Facebook friends also attending the political event.

The marketing possibilities are exciting.

With one-click donation technology from companies like WidgetMakr, you could send a compelling, targeted YouTube video that prompts a one-click donation all without the user having to unlock their phone.

There is no need to open up an app for any of these interactions.

Instead of hoarding apps that perform individual functions, we’ll cultivate an information flow that tells us what we want to know when it’s most relevant for us.

Our smartphones will cease to be digital toolboxes and become dynamic, interactive feeds of information.

Beware The Eager Marketer

The future looks exciting, to be sure. But tread with caution.

Push notifications should not be approached in the same “spray and pray” strategy we see in digital marketing currently. Too many donation requests or scare tactics and users will opt-out in droves.

Remember to consider the intent, the context of an interaction.

Mobile push (and Web push for that matter) should be reserved for significant events or activities that will interest the user. An example would be a time-sensitive piece of information that provides benefit, new in-app content, special offers, or reminders.

Like SMS, push notifications shouldn’t be used for information that the user will need to reference later on. Push is easy to delete, so timing must play a critical role in your marketing strategy.

Most importantly, don’t over send. The fact that push is easily dismissed is not a license to kill. It only takes a few annoying or irrelevant notifications to prompt an opt-out.

All Politics Is Personal

I look forward to what the 2016 election cycle will bring.

I imagine we’ll see more digital consultants strapping on the tool belt, building the tools they need to enact the strategies of tomorrow.

My hope is that this new evolution will force the industry to dive into growth engineering, user experience, digital intent, content marketing and accessibility, concepts mostly foreign to political strategy today.

In addition, the “push economy” begs for inter-consultancy work. The years of institutional knowledge in the direct mail business may prove invaluable to push notification marketing.

Retargeting visitors with pre-roll ads (arguably a push) could benefit from one’s years of media consulting and traditional television experience.

One thing is for certain though, we’ll all have to start asking ourselves how we can convince voters to interact with our cause in the most contextual way. Not until we begin to think about what the user actually needs, can we begin to build tools and applications that aid in their political process.

It’s no longer enough to communicate locally with a targeted ad or social graphic. We have to communicate personally.

A shiny mobile app or creative push strategy isn’t going to win you an election. But, it just might help us create the type of personal communication that alters perception.

And perception is the reality in this business.

Perhaps former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill was a bit nearsighted when he boldly claimed that all politics is local?

With the rise of the push economy, maybe all politics is personal?

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