Urban Airship announced two new features this morning that mobile savvy marketers are sure to find compelling. In a world fast becoming more mobile, more real time and more data-centric, these technologies are very well timed. Hopefully they'll be self-correcting enough that app users won't be driven crazy.Cross-platform mobile push notification and in-app purchase service
The company's new Push Composer is a simple web-based publishing platform for publishing messages that will be delivered to app users' iOS, Android or BlackBerry screens. Messages can be scheduled ahead of time and delivered to groups of users segmented by a variety of tags. The second new feature, UA Reports, displays daily metrics about notification open rates by time of day. With nearly 10 million notifications sent each day, Urban Airship says it intends to offer mobile marketing benchmarks, best practices for maximizing engagement through push and more data-centric insights in the near future.
An Unusual Company
We first wrote about Urban Airship eighteen months ago, when the then tiny startup unveiled its plans to act as a technology middle-man for app developers interested in outsourcing the infrastructure required to take advantage of the new push notifications and in-app purchasing on the iPhone. The company was founded by a scrappy group of engineers with a bizzarre story: their previous employer collapsed overnight, offering company computers in lieu of final checks, they built and sold an online bacon delivery website and a number of them were fortunate enough to receive unemployment payments for bootstrapping entrepreneurs under an innovative program from the state of Oregon.
Fast forward to today and the now venture-backed startup says it has more than 7500 customers, using the company's services in almost 16,000 different apps, and adds an average of 43 new customers each day. In addition to push and in-app sales, the company was powering some of the first experiments with iOS content subscription. Urban Airship's list of customers is long and interesting, from Target to the Guardian, Warner Brothers, the Vancouver Canucks and Groupon. That's right - this little startup powers the push notifications for the fastest growing tech company in history. Say what you will about Groupon (I'm no fan) but that's impressive.
As we discussed in depth when it was revealed that push notifications were coming to the Twitter iPhone app, push enables new forms of interaction with mobile apps. Beyond increasing user engagement, push offers users opportunities to interact with apps in ways that are real-time, synchronous and rich with flow. The interruptive nature of push allows for finer-tuned prioritization of certain messages from certain sources. Push is a big deal, and Urban Airship makes it easy and systematic for app developers to implement it.
From its humble beginnings, the startup has now grown to 25 employees, has taken over a spacious office in Portland, Oregon and is quickly hiring many of the most cutting edge engineers, designers and sales people in that tech-rich town. The building now houses a number of mobile startups, including former Twitter engineer Alex Payne's forthcoming BankSimple. A publicly available mobile device testing lab is in the works as well, gathering devices from manufacturers around the world for anyone to come and test their apps on.
Moving Beyond Speaking to Geeks
Urban Airship says that companies come to it to save time and money on deploying push notifications, but there's far more than can be done once the customers are in the door. The startup is building new features quickly - some go over well (like RSS to push) and others have been slower to gain adoption, like the feature the company calls "rich media push."
The two features the company is releasing today speak to a new audience, though. While the legacy product is ultimately an API play, the new features adress the needs of marketing organizations. Both features are being tested with existing customers but will be made generally available once that testing is complete.
The new Push Composer is like a little blogging platform, or a Twitter client, but for writing Push Notifications. An attractive UI allows anyone to compose short messages, schedule them for delivery and segment the audience based on tags that users may have opted-into or that a mobile app provider applied to people themselves. For example: one group of recipients might like the Portland Trailblazers, another group may be people who have opened a push notification within the previous 24 hours. Tagged groups can be whatever you like. Click send and boom, the message will be sent and received in seconds.
At launch the Composer does not allow users to determine what screen in an app gets opened when a notification is viewed, but the company says that may be offered in the future. Right now when recipients view a notification, the app simply opens up its front page.
Even more interesting are the new UA Reports. At first the reports are simple. They just track app opens, time in app, and push volume over time.
In time, Urban Airship hopes to see what kinds of data their customers want and to offer a wide variety of information based on that data it collects, cross referenced with other data sources. The company says it believes that app developers will eventually make decisions based on the data the reports deliver: what kinds of notifications get the most response? What kinds of features are users best alerted to by push? Which features or content types should be more prominent in the experience of the app?
The company says, for example, that one of its magazine customers found that push notifications and icon badges for its mobile apps were being opened more often at 9 PM than at any other time of the day. In response, the magazine now regularly pushes new content and notifications around 8:30 to prime the pump for evening readers.
Push notifications are great for keeping users engaged with apps, but some mobile devices handle them better than others. On iOS they are frankly terrible - though rumors are flying that drastic improvements may be forthcoming.
Will putting push composition in the hands of marketers lead to notification overload, a declining user experience and consumer backlash? That seems like one of the risks, but one that Urban Airship hopes to tackle with data-based education about best practices. The company says it has one full time engineer dedicated to metrics right now, but does not offer any formal training or guidelines in pushing just right instead of too much.
"2011 is the year that mobile apps need to prove their value," says Urban Airship's Jason Glaspey in the company's announcement today. "With thousands of apps fighting for consumer attention and an average app lifespan of one month or less, developers and marketers need powerful tools."
With a full-speed-ahead attitude and plenty of momentum, Urban Airship will now try to provide just that kind of tools. Hopefully the data analysis the company shares with its customers will help keep trigger-happy push composers in check and not lead to an overwhelming flood of notifications. Time will tell. It looks like this new mode of communication is about to become easier and smarter than ever before.