How the push notification came to rival the Six O'Clock News

The power to reach millions of phones has made deciding when to send a push notification a serious business for news outlets.

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On Thursday night at 10pm, phones in millions of pockets across the UK buzzed briefly. Those who glanced at their screens would have seen a BBC News headline: “Labour promises free broadband for all”.

There are few more effective ways to gain cut-through than to have news organisations deliver a policy announcement direct to readers' phones. 

Traditionally, parties would have fought each other for the top spots on the evening news – preferably the BBC news at 6pm or 10pm, which both reach more than ten million people at least once a week – timing announcements to maximise their chances of becoming the lead news item on coveted broadcast slots. 

But change is underway. Younger voters are switching off their TVs, or selecting programmes from an array of channels and screening services. The push notification is one of the only ways to cut through the noisy filter bubbles that many of us now occupy. In our fragmented media landscape, push notifications are becoming as important as traditional TV news slots.

Still, the number of people who actually click through to read a whole story is tiny. Across the news industry, the rate of people clicking through from an alert is around 1 per cent. The BBC, which sends notifications to around eight million users of its news app in the UK, and six million more internationally, says its response rate is higher, though won't provide an exact figure. 

Although most people won't read the full story, 1 per cent of millions is still a lot of people who will. And even if most users just see the headline, push notifications are a powerful way of securing even a couple of seconds’ attention.

That makes deciding when to send a notification a pretty serious business, even more so during an election campaign, when political parties are desperate to get their announcements, talking points and policies in front of the electorate.  

The BBC will inevitably be criticised for what it chooses to notify on during the election. The rules on governing the BBC’s online output are not as strict as they are for broadcast content, which is directly regulated by Ofcom. However, the BBC is required to follow its guidelines on “due impartiality” and these are applied to the way it uses push notifications.

“We are aware of the comments that people make," says BBC News website editor Nick Sutton. “If another party were to have a similarly engaging policy announcement [as Labour’s broadband pledge] given in an interview the BBC had, we would consider alerting.”

Sutton points to other issues the BBC has notified people on during the election, including Nigel Farage’s announcement that the Brexit Party would not contest Tory-held seats, and the first in a series featuring party leaders in which Boris Johnson answered questions from BBC listeners and viewers.

“Now that we’ve done the Boris Johnson one, we will have it in the back of our minds that we need to treat the other parties who are doing the same programmes in the same way”, he says. “You have to think about due impartiality in relation to our push notifications in the same way we think about our front page.”

While the BBC keeps its additional obligations as a public service broadcaster in mind, all news organisations use a similar combination of editorial judgement and knowledge of readers to decide when and what to push.

Some notifications will be planned in advance when a big event is expected. Others will be issued as breaking stories emerge.

“While most news organisations will have some general criteria, it often comes down to the decisions of individual editors on the day,” says Matt Wells, director of programming and alerts for CNN International. 

“Generally I think the best criteria is ‘should we tap our readers on the metaphorical shoulder and tell them about this story?’”

Groups of editors will be involved in deciding what should go out, but most newsrooms will have an individual on duty who is responsible for making the call and pressing the button. At the BBC, this is normally the front page editor – the person who decides what goes on the homepage and where. 

Push notifications differ from other ways of broadcasting the news on TV or social media in two very significant ways. First, they appear on the devices that most of us now use to manage myriad conversations and interactions. Second, those receiving them do not get to choose when a push notification arrives.

On top of editorial judgements about what is and isn't newsworthy, this adds an extra layer of consideration: how will a notification fit into the lives of the people receiving it? 

“We think quite a lot about how many pushes we send on a subject,” says the BBC’s mobile and new formats editor, Nathalie Malinarich. “We don’t send that many. We give guidance that people shouldn’t send too many a day. We aim for three [because] it is very intrusive.”

In response to these considerations, Malinarich has introduced the ability to send silent alerts for less important stories or those going out when an audience is likely to be asleep. The BBC also offers users the option to sign up for additional notifications about the election, which has led to a higher rate of engagement from the UK’s politics nerds who are also more likely to read a whole story. 

The power and responsibility of being able to intrude on millions of people with a piece of news are not lost on the editors who send the notifications, and the fear of making an error that can’t be reversed is constant.

“Front page editors, and us as their editors, are keenly aware it is something important,” says Sutton. “Once we’ve sent it there’s no recalling it. It’s got to be accurate. It is very scary.”

Jasper Jackson is the New Statesmans digital editor. He was formerly assistant editor of Media Guardian, and editor of TheMediaBriefing.