November 18, 2013

Native Messaging

I love Context, a “simple, fun photo texting” app by Ben Cera. The aptly named iOS app borrows elements from Snapchat and traditional text messaging to create an expressive experience that brings context to conversation. Each message is accompanied with a photo to color the interaction, as users share their point-of-view by taking a picture with the back-facing camera or snap a selfie using the front-facing camera.

I recently received this push notification:

“Cool! I wonder what Ben said.” I thought while instinctively swiping the notification to open the app. Inside, I found this delightful surprise:

Clever, eh?

Ben used the app’s own messaging to announce enhancements and new features. Even better, he turned it into an opportunity to gather direct feedback, prompting users to respond with their ideas of how to improve the app. And people responded! Ben informed me that 25-30% of weekly active users reply to the message, a fantastic response rate compared to traditional channels of communication like email which typical returns a measly 2-4% click-through-rate. This qualitative feedback is incredibly valuable in understanding what users (think) they want and can inspire new ideas but it also fosters a stronger relationship with users through personal, intimate messaging.

We’ve become desensitized to sterile marketing messages but when there’s a bit of personality and human touch to the message, it becomes more memorable and often results in higher response rates.

Of course, Ben isn’t the only one using native messaging to communicate with users.


Snapchat famously announced Stories, its biggest update to the popular photo-messaging app. Each of its millions of users received a message, highlighting the new feature in a fun way with musical support from Goldroom.

But the company doesn’t limit native messaging to big feature announcements. Occasionally “Team Snapchat” sends an amusing selfie or snapshot of office shenanigans to its fans, adding personality to the brand and inspiring creation.


Polar, a mobile polling app, uses native messaging to educate users and prompt them to take a specific action. As users scroll through user-created polls, the app presents friendly, polar bear branded messages within the feed, asking questions like, “Want to see if your friends are on Polar?” If the user chooses “Yes,” a prompt appears instructing them to connect with friends.

These native messages command attention with less obtrusion than traditional popups, asking users to review the app in the App Store, share it with friends, and other actions to help the app grow.


Another one of my favorite mobile apps is Umano, a catalog of interesting articles and blog post read by professional voice talent. Its feed of articles from the New York Times, Medium, Thought Catalog, personal blogs, and several other publications play one after another. On occasion, the Umano team includes audio messages to announce new updates, inform users of free premium subscription, or simply say “thank you.”

Unlike disruptive promotional announcements or ads found in Pandora, Spotify, and other music services, Umano’s native messages are no different than the content within the feed. Users can view them in the feed and skip if desired. Although self-promotional, these messages receive more attention and love in the form of “likes” and comments, than most of its other posts.

This should be obvious but a surprisingly large number of product creators fail to communicate with their users.

I see this often in gaming. Mobile developers continually invest resources and money into new levels, weapons, and other in-game content but fail to inform players they exist. One cannot assume users will discover it on their own - the app release notes don’t cut it, especially when apps auto-update via Google Play and the App Store. Much of the value - if not all of it - is lost if content additions are not made obvious to the user.

The beauty in native messaging is that it’s aligned with the user and relatively non-disruptive which is especially important where attention and real-estate in mobile is limited. Experiences that feel native are generally more delightful and result in higher response rates. According to a recent report, Facebook’s in-feed, native ads generate 28% higher click-through-rates (CTR) than its traditional desktop, right-hand-side banner ads. Another study used eye tracking technology and surveys to measure user behavior and sentiment to in-feed, native advertising vs. traditional banner ads. Unsurprisingly, participants viewed native ads 53% more but they also liked the ads more. Native ads resulted in a 9% lift for brand affinity and 68% more respondents said the native ads “is an ad I would share with a friend or family member.”

Although the industry is largely focused on the adoption and success of native advertising, the learnings and results of this growing trend apply not only to ads but any message that demands the attention or action of the user.

Consider how you can use native messaging to:

  • Excite users with new feature or content announcements.
  • Prompt people to share, review, or promote the app in creative, non-obtrusive ways.
  • Educate users how to use new functionality.

What other examples of native messaging have you seen? Let me know on Twitter (@rrhoover).

Interested in startups and product design? Subscribe to my blog to receive a free copy of the upcoming book, Hooked, written by habit design researcher, Nir Eyal in collaboration with myself.

Nick Chirls of betaworks wrote a thought-provoking, relevant piece on Native Money a while ago. Worth the read.

More Writing by Ryan