How Usage Of Retailer Mobile Apps Evolved In Holiday 2014 [Data]

How are retailers engaging mobile shoppers with push notifications, and what's the impact? Columnist Brent Hieggelke examines data from 150 retail apps.

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Mobile engagement is the fastest moving target marketers have ever faced. Its pace of adoption is growing exponentially faster than any technology that’s come before.

Just five years ago, mobile apps were a nascent and unproven market. Now, apps are ushering in a new paradigm of customer interaction, accounting for 86% of the time spent using mobile devices.

In prior columns, we’ve covered systematic processes and new innovations to drive greater app engagement, as well as how brands are re-thinking approaches to maximize mobile’s opportunity.

This time around, we’ll take a data-based observational route to understand how retailers are advancing the state of mobile engagement in the ultra-competitive holiday shopping season.

What you are about to see is one of the only truly comparative data studies of holiday mobile engagement. Our strategy consulting team analyzed data from the same 150 retail apps through the Cyber Week shopping period in November for 2013 and 2014. The findings, as well as their recommendations, can help guide your strategies for 2015.

Overall findings indicate that retailers grew adoption of mobile messaging and received a very positive response from shoppers:

  • Retailers sent 34% more push notifications compared to last year
  • Consumers’ engagement rate with push notifications doubled compared to the 2013 holiday season
  • More than one-third of all retail app opens were the result of a push notification

Push Goes Mainstream

It’s well-established that app audiences opted in to receive push messaging are much more engaged and retained, opening apps four times more and retained at double the rate of opt-out users. In fact, our prior Good Push Index study found Retail led all industry verticals, achieving the largest engagement and retention improvements comparing opt-in to opt-out audiences.

Add to that push messaging’s greater response over email marketing — 50% higher open ratesten times higher click-through rates and even 1200% greater conversion — and it’s no small wonder that every app you download asks for the privilege to send you notifications.

What was different this holiday season is that retailers doubled down on notification send volumes on key shopping days including Thanksgiving and Black Friday.

Notification send volume

Notification Send Volume, 2013 vs. 2014

Last year, send volume was more evenly distributed, with only small spikes on Black Friday and Cyber Monday. This year, retailers made mobile engagement a core part of their messaging strategy, with a particular focus on using notifications to hit shoppers as they were making final preparations and heading out the door for Thanksgiving and Black Friday deals.

Overall, consumer engagement rates in 2014 doubled compared to the 2013 holiday shopping season. But again, it’s in the details where actionable insights begin to emerge.

Notification Engagement rate

Notification Engagement Rate, 2013 vs. 2014

As you can see, shoppers were most receptive to retailers’ notifications on the Saturday before Thanksgiving with a 19% average engagement rate. While retailers seem to promote holiday sales earlier each year, mobile’s role in pre-shopping activities is abundantly clear. Shoppers are planning ahead, making their mobile list and checking it twice.

Weekends, where they have more leisure time, consistently show greater spikes in engagement. This represents a huge missed opportunity, as send volumes regularly dip outside the workweek. Next year, we anticipate seeing retailers’ send volumes more closely align to pre-shopping activities rather than maintaining such a steep ramp-up on key shopping days.

We also anticipate even more focus on the best time of day to send notifications. Notifications sent during afternoons (12pm-5pm) and evenings (6pm-12pm) achieved more than twice the engagement rate of those sent during the night (12am-6am) and morning day parts (6am-noon).

engagement by day part

Engagement Rate By Day Part

Some other interesting and directional insights for mobile engagement on key shopping days:

  • On Thanksgiving, notifications drove 42% of all app opens
  • On Black Friday, notification engagement rates jumped 30% compared to Thanksgiving and remained steady at 14-15% through the weekend
  • On Cyber Monday notification send volume increased 50% from the day prior, but engagement rates dropped 12%

Considering The Medium & The Message

It’s clear that retailers have integrated push messaging into their overall marketing strategies given the increase in messaging volume on key shopping days. This day-of focus makes a lot of sense as smartphones remain at shoppers’ sides to immediately command their attention, even if it’s ungodly early and hectically crowded.

However, comparing message volume to message engagement seems to indicate that retailers under-appreciated mobile’s role in pre-shopping activities. As for Cyber Monday, it seems as if many people were done shopping or making their lists, and that they were either busy and back to work or push fatigue started to set in.

In addition, while similar to retailers’ use of other marketing channels, the vast majority of notifications were of the generic broadcast variety, offering 40% off or free shipping for a limited time. There’s nothing wrong with sales promotions, but retailers could engage earlier in the pre-holiday shopping period to determine which products shoppers demonstrate affinity towards in order to target offers to segments of users.

Highly targeted push notifications are found to increase response rates by nearly 300% over messages that are broadcast to most of an app’s users (Urban Airship, GPI: Targeting study).

App browsing behavior and purchase history are great places to start.  For a more dynamic and up-to-date understanding, try sending a rich landing page survey or gift guide to figure out who’s still shopping, and for what.

Think about the day of week and time of day. Our aggregate data found Saturday to be a very engaging day for mobile messaging. What does your own data say?

The holidays are very busy times, and shoppers will miss push messages. You can leverage an in-app message center to ensure your customers have a place to go to access your messages later at their convenience. For a superior customer experience, remember to remove these offers from the message center as they expire.


Also, remember it’s not all about promotions and offers. Mobile offers a unique opportunity to build a direct relationship with your best customers, and it can be extremely engaging to offer them something they can’t get elsewhere. We love this example from Famous Footwear alerting email subscribers of app-exclusive offers.


Pink Nation built more APPeal by indicating its most loyal mobile customers would be able to see Black Friday deals first, while Saks Fifth Avenue took a more experiential tact, giving its app users livestream access to a highly anticipated holiday tradition — its iconic window display unveiling.


Making Mobile Merriment

Retailers’ growing adoption of push messaging and the doubling of consumers’ response to it are very positive signs for the growing influence of mobile app engagement. Yet, just like every other marketing channel that reaches a crescendo during the holiday season, it is important to keep in mind what makes mobile unique and how you can use it to grow relationships that go beyond the sale to inspire, educate and entertain.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.

About the author

Brent Hieggelke
Brent Hieggelke is a seasoned entrepreneurial executive leader, who focuses on fast growing startups in a variety of marketing and business development roles. Brent is head of marketing for Brandlive, a live interactive streaming video platform for brands and retailers. Brent spent four years in the CMO and lead evangelist role Urban Airship and prior to that was CEO/founder of Second Porch, a vacation rental site sold to HomeAway.

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