Last update: May 2021

4 mins to read - 2017/07/07

Push Notifications vs. SMS – Which One to Use and Why

It’s long since been established that the most effective way to get your customer’s attention is through their mobile device. Let’s face it. We’re attached (sometimes literally!) to our phones. We use them for work, entertainment, social media, streaming content, browsing the internet, playing games, and sometimes even making phone calls. We use our phones for a good portion of our waking hours. And even when we’re not actively on our phones, they are never very far away. So it makes sense that if a company wants to get their message out to users, the best way is to send it directly to our device lockscreens. There are two ways of doing this that developers can us: push notifications vs. SMS messaging.

To the end user, they can look pretty similar. They’re both short snippets of content sharing information, sometimes jazzed up with emoticons or other rich media. But in fact, push notifications have long since pulled ahead of SMS. Both in terms of technical capabilities, and in terms of the superior user experience they provide. All of this results in greater app open rates and CTR with push notifications… but let’s break it down.

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sms vs push notification

A Closer Look at SMS

There’s a reason why text messages have mostly died away in the face of more engaging messaging formats, such as WhatsApp or Skype. SMS can be unreliable, clunky, hard to interpret, and they lack automation. And more importantly, they cost an arm and a leg! Depending on what carrier you use, a standard text message fee is $0.20. Worse yet, they often result in your users receiving a charge from their phone company as well!

Plus, in some US states, marketing sent via SMS qualifies as soliciting, and is illegal. SMS, unlike push notifications, falls under the purview of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC). This means that government bodies reserve the right to regulate the sending of SMS for marketing purposes, whereas push notifications fly under the radar. In an age when push notifications are the most effective, real-time way of communicating with users, there’s no reason for a company to use SMS for anything other than the odd case of two-way authentication

If SMS is so outdated, then why is anyone still using it? Let’s take a look at the pros (and yes, there are one or two pros) and gauge whether they hold water against the advantages of push notifications.

pros and cons of sms

When Should I Use SMS Over Push Notifications?

While nearly everyone and their grandmother owns at least one smartphone these days, there are still a few outliers who cling to their old Nokia phones from the early 2000s. For these customers, SMS is the only way of getting in touch with them. Or, for owners of smart devices who haven’t downloaded your app yet, for whatever reason, SMS can be a way of suggesting they install it. (Although again, as mentioned above, be aware of your local regulations around soliciting, as this may be illegal.)

SMS also has a much higher click rate than push notifications, with users reading 90% of text messages within 3 minutes of delivery. While this stat is quite incredible, industry reports show an average 4% click through rate of SMS across all verticals. However, it is common to have 5% of your audience opt-out for SMS as a messaging channel for every marketing campaign.Apps often use SMS to alert customers when their delivery is ready, or when a recent order has been confirmed. For example, Uber sends text messages when a driver accepts your ride request. They also alert users via SMS when their drivers are nearby, keeping the user in the loop in real-time. SMS can often pair with mobile apps, as they can convey an invitation to download an app along with a deep link or discount code to ease the process along.

which is better, sms or push notification?

On average, apps spend 8 cents per 1,000 app users per month and in Europe and the UK. This rate can be much higher. This expense is either fronted by the app or sometimes passed directly along to the consumer.

No matter your budget, email and push notifications almost always turn out to be a cheaper option. Depending on your preferences, push notifications can even be free for you. (They are always free for your customer to receive. This is another point in their favor because, let’s face it, who wants to be associated with a brand that costs them money to receive their marketing?) Because of this, more apps are shifting their focus from SMS to the more versatile and personalizable push notifications. Benefits largely outweigh the use of traditional forms of communication, as marketers look to improve user experience and consumer engagement.

comparison of sms, email, and push notifications

What Is the Value in Push Notifications vs. SMS?

SMS has always had the advantage of being a familiar communication channel for mobile users. And if you are looking to communicate your marketing with a broad, horizontal target audience, then SMS will help you reach even users without smartphones. However, if your brand has an app, and your goal is to build a meaningful, personalized rapport with them that results in long-term engagement and revenues, then push notifications are the perfect vehicle for your mobile marketing campaign.

SMS associates itself more with the one-size-fits-all marketing blast. That’s analogous to trawling the ocean with a net, hoping to catch a fish big enough to keep. Whereas push notifications are more like targeted harpooning of the exact fish you want. Dynamic push notifications, then, are the next step in the mobile marketing evolutionary chain.

Push notifications can access device-side personal data to mark out a user’s purchasing habits, online behavior, weekly schedule, and more. They then use this contextual information to tailor their marketing campaigns for each individual user’s convenience.  Leveraging device-side data, they personalize the content of the message and the moment of delivery, to optimize the likelihood that a user will read it and engage with the app. Ultimately, the goal is to achieve a better end user experience and optimize delivery, all while being trackable.

Push Notifications vs. SMS… the Final Outcome?

A good push notification SDK will let you track metrics, and provide A/B testing of your notifications, so that you can slowly improve your campaigns over time. Ultimately, your decision to choose between SMS and push notifications will depend on your approach.

SMS are valuable for sending urgent messages with external information unrelated to an app. Push notifications are preferable if you’re sending information or alerts about your product or services that requires users to take action inside your app. Basically, SMS is generic and outdated, but can reach a wider audience. Push notifications are versatile and customizable, but can only be sent to app users you have already acquired.

SMS is a beeper, and push notifications are voicemail. SMS is a VHS tape, and push notifications are Blu-Ray. Push Notifications vs. SMS is essentially the shape-shifting liquid metal T-1000 Terminator in a cage fight against the classic Arnie T-800. And so on.

If you would like to learn more about the benefits of using push notifications to drive your mobile marketing campaign, get in touch with one of our experts.

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