Guide to SMS & Push Notifications

Understand the strengths and weaknesses of SMS and push notifications. Follow these best practices in order to meet your customers’ preferences and optimize your messaging campaigns.

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Guide to SMS & Push Notifications

Let’s say you have two customers, Steve and Sarah. Steve prefers SMS when communicating with your business. Sarah pays more attention to push notifications. No two customers are alike. It’s up to you to spot their differences and tailor to them. It’s all too tempting for businesses to focus their efforts on a particular channel, especially if it’s delivering results. However, a single-channel strategy will never deliver the long-term engagement and retention of an omnichannel approach. Pairing your message to the medium that each customers prefers helps boost retention, conversion, and engagement.

Throughout the customer lifecycle journey, there are times when your business might use push notifications effectively and other times when SMS will deliver a better result. By understanding the relative strengths and weaknesses of each channel and keeping track of your customers’ preferences, you can optimize your messaging campaigns.

All About SMS

Short Message Service (SMS), also known as a text message, is a simple but powerful communication tool by which businesses and organizations send messages via text to receptive customers. SMS has become an essential part of our lives. As of 2007, users were sending more text messages than phone calls, and usage among all age groups continues to skyrocket. Businesses, too, increasingly rely on SMS to support customers, ask for feedback, and reward loyalty with special offers. All told, there are over 15 million texts sent every minute. That’s 22 billion SMS messages a day!

Since SMS is the one messaging function that’s baked into every mobile device—pre-installed by default—this communication channel is a permanent fixture on everyone’s phone. The diversity in use of messaging apps also makes native SMS (including iMessage and Android) the lowest common denominator for business messaging. In fact, 47% of consumers prefer using native SMS to communicate with businesses over all other messaging platforms.


While commonly used for alerts, reminders, and customer notifications, bulk delivery of SMS messaging has more recently been embraced by marketing and sales teams to deliver surveys, rewards, seasonal offers, and promotions. With some SMS platforms, you can engage customers even more by sending MMS (short for Multimedia Messaging Service) to deliver impactful multimedia such as pictures, videos, calendar invites, and other attachments over text messaging channels. You can even send messages in local languages. Organizations in every industry are finding entirely new ways to engage customers with greater immediacy through SMS.

One downside of SMS is that content is limited to 160 characters. Standard SMS messaging also lacks rich capabilities, such as text formatting, link unfurling, and images and multimedia because MMS is not uniformly supported by carriers across the world.

All About Push Notifications

In contrast to SMS, Apple and Google don’t charge an underlying cost for receiving push notifications on their iOS and Android operating systems. Push notifications are a form of one-way communication that can provide useful information while also directing users to your app. These messages do not require a particular application to be open on a device for the message to be received by the end user, so a smartphone user can see notifications even when their phone is locked, or when an app is not running.

push notifications

Concerns about sending too many push notifications have caused many businesses to underutilize this messaging channel. A 2017 Urban Airship study revealed that apps that don’t message users waste 95 cents for every dollar spent on user acquisition. According to the data, which was based on an analysis of 63 million app users’ first 90-days, push notifications greatly influence mobile user retention on both iOS and Android platforms:

The general trend shows a very strong correlation between notification frequency and greater mobile app retention rates. App users who receive any amount of notifications in their first 90-days have 190 percent higher retention rates than those who do not, while more frequent messaging increases mobile app retention rates by 3X to 10X. In fact, moving from zero notifications sent to weekly notifications doubles 90-day app retention on iOS and is a 6X multiplier on Android. Moving from zero notifications to a greater than daily frequency triples iOS 90-day app retention rates and produces a ten-fold improvement on Android.

People who opt in to an app’s push notifications are about three times more likely to open an app than those who opt out. And thanks to receipts and real-time status updates, you’ll also know precisely when your notification has been delivered and read. Finally, push notifications enjoy fewer technical and legal limitations than SMS. The regulations that apply to promotional SMS and email messages don’t apply to push notifications, making it a good channel for marketing messages.

The downside of push notifications is that the end user must opt in to receive them from each application. Push notifications are not enabled by default when a user installs an app; a customer will have to agree to receive them the first time they use the app, or go back and subscribe to them later. Many consumers opt out or turn off app notifications to avoid what they fear will be a spam-like messaging. While it varies across app categories, 40% or fewer of people enable push notifications. However, since push notifications are entirely opt-in/opt-out—Apple and Google controls make them impossible to send if a user has push notifications disabled—they may help reduce the risks of potential litigation.

SMS and Push Notifications Best Practices

Making sound business decisions around what, when, and how frequently to send both SMS and push notifications is critical to relevant and appropriate communication with your customers. With both SMS and push notifications, these best practices can help you achieve better results and engagement:

1. Get permission.

One of the most important rules of business messaging is that, regardless of the messaging channel, you must first gain permission from customers to contact them. Failing to do so can damage your brand and result in hefty legal fees.

2. Choose your timing wisely.

Respect time zones and sleep patterns, as well as user engagement habits. Aim for times when your customers won't be busy, like before or after work, or during lunch hours. Since both SMS and push notifications are geared to inspire immediate action, sending them after hours is rarely effective.

3. Personalize your messages.

Target your SMS and push notifications to user segments and personalize your messaging for specific users to help ensure you aren’t flooding people with unwanted messages. A little personalization goes a long way, such as using your subscribers’ first name or adding a conversational touch that reflects your customers’ interests. You can also target your customers with more relevant messages based on their preferences. Refrain from sending messages without a true customer benefit.

4. Keep your message simple.

Keep your messages clever, engaging, and brief. Provide customers with an offer they can’t refuse or with information that really matters. If you don’t strike the right balance, you run the risk of opt-outs and your contact list rapidly shrinking.

5. Integrate your communications.

You’ll likely run SMS and push campaigns alongside your communications on other channels, such as email or in-app chat. When designing your customer experience on multiple channels, make sure you can add customer information from your CRM, ERP, and other business systems. Every bit of data should bring context to your customer conversations to improve the customer and agent experience.

6. Track and measure your results.

Using the right tools, you’ll be able to track downstream conversions rather than just surface metrics like click-through rates. Measure the unique metrics that apply to your business in order to understand your campaigns’ ROI. When you identify areas that need to be improved, take swift action, so you can continually improve your user experience.

7. Choose the right infrastructure.

Whether you’re deploying SMS messaging, push notifications, or communication on other channels, you want a platform that can respond and evolve with the varying needs —and preferences—of your audience. Using one platform across channels lowers ongoing maintenance, eliminates the learning curve, and speeds up your time to market.

Matching Channel Preferences at Scale

When you diversify your outreach across platforms and devices, you can better serve and delight all customers, whether they prefer push notifications or SMS. In fact, 55% say that communicating with a business via their preferred channel results in a positive experience. But at scale, sending messages to match individual preferences can be tricky.

Twilio takes the hard work (and the guesswork) out of tailoring messages to customers using flexible, software-powered tools. Twilio’s messaging suite enables you to build a comprehensive view of your customer’s interests so that you can find the best channel for your message. It gives you the power to segment groups of customers based on their behavior, letting you build marketing campaigns that are infinitely flexible and instantly responsive.

Consumers are clear: they want options. They want to interact with businesses on the channels they prefer, and they want businesses to keep track of their shifting preferences. The only way this can be accomplished is through an omnichannel communication platform that provides an integrated and seamless customer experience.