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Mobile news notifications emerge as new battleground as publishers fight for attention with Facebook and other aggregators

Mobile alerts are becoming a critical new way for publishers to engage the smartphone generation with news, according to a new report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. The report finds significant demand for a wider range of personalised alerts, beyond breaking news and points to the opportunities opened up by the recent introduction of richer notification options in both Apple and Android devices. In one of the first comprehensive studies of consumer attitudes to mobile alerts, the Institute surveyed consumers in four countries finding that around a third of smartphone users receive news alerts each week in the US and Taiwan and around a quarter in the UK and Germany.

Of those not receiving mobile news alerts, over half of respondents across the four markets say they would be happy to get them, provided they are personally relevant and offer ways of controlling the number and timing of notifications. With young people in particular using and liking mobile alerts there is a clear opportunity for growth. Looking forward, it will be important for publishers to engage their target audience via these notifications that, unlike distributed forms of discovery via search and social, provide a direct connection with users and new ways of serving their needs in personalised, and convenient ways.  However, report author Nic Newman also warns that many consumers are still wary of having irrelevant alerts pushed to them on this personal device.

“Alerts can build loyalty to a news brand through more regular use of an app or mobile website, but if publishers send too many alerts they risk alienating their most valuable consumers”

Mobile alerts have been growing fast over the last three years as a form of news discovery, beating email in many countries but still well behind search and social media. The report says that news brands with a reputation for breaking news tend to do best, such as CNN and Fox News in the US and n-tv and Spiegel in Germany. In the UK, the BBC’s alerts reach 63% of those who receive news notifications in the UK.

During the recent US election, publishers like the Guardian and NBC experimented with new functionality that allows data, video and graphics to be sent directly to the lockscreen along with a richer set of interactions. However publishers face a stiff challenge from a range of aggregators including Apple News, which has recently launched its own notifications service on the iPhone. News alerts also compete for attention with Facebook updates, WhatsApp messages and calendar alerts

Key data

  • Almost two-fifths of smartphone users in Taiwan (39%) receive news alerts and a third of Americans (33%), but only around a quarter in the UK (27%) and Germany (24%).
  • Younger people get significantly more news alerts than older smartphone users and possibly for that reason they are less likely to have sounds (pings and buzzes) turned on. They are also more likely to adjust alert settings.
  • The majority of those receiving news alerts are happy with the number of alerts they receive (80% in the UK, 75% in the US). Taiwanese smartphone users are most likely to complain they get too many alerts (22%), compared with just one in ten (10%) of those in the UK.
  • Around a quarter of smartphone users (23%) say they have uninstalled an app because of the number of alerts, though many of these are not news apps.
  • Breaking news (66%) is by far the most important type of news alert that is accessed but valued by users. This is partly because this makes up a significant proportion of alerts sent but also because people are generally prepared to wait to catch up on less time-sensitive news.
  • In terms of tone around serious news, alerts were valued when they were delivered quickly using straightforward language. Clickbait headlines and emojis were strongly disliked in this context. There is far more latitude with feature content, lifestyle, entertainment, sport, and technology
  • People click on the alert about half the time. This depends on the context and the decision is primarily driven by type of alert, the headline, and the interest this evokes. They are happy to receive ‘a few too many’ alerts (so they don't miss stories) in the knowledge that they can easily ignore them or swipe them away.
  • In terms of prospects for growth, around four in ten (38%) of those not getting news alerts say they have ‘no interest’ in taking them in the future. Of the rest about a third (31%) might use them if more personally relevant alerts could be sent, while an even bigger group (36%) might use them if they could control the number and timing of alerts

Overall, these data show the surprising extent to which news alerts are already used and valued by existing users. Notifications are increasing the regularity with which people come back to their favourite news brand in the face of rising competition from social networks and other aggregators.

But the research also suggests there is considerable growth potential for publishers because (1) smartphone use continues to increase, (2) those markets where smartphones have higher penetration have a higher number of alerts (Taiwan), and (3) younger groups are disproportionally using notifications and building them into their daily habits.

There is a danger that a greater volume of alerts sent by publishers and advertisers in the future will lead to a consumer backlash. In this regard, the report suggests that publishers should focus as a matter of urgency on improving the relevance of their alerts though a combination of passive personalisation, active personalisation and more transparent and explicit controls.

Read the full report here.

On Thursday December 1 from 15.00-15.45, author Nic Newman will host a webinar discussing this report. To sign up email: philippa.garson@politics.ox.ac.uk