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How Circa is beating the NYTimes at push

How Circa is beating the NYTimes at push

Simon Dawlat

CEO @ Batch

On Friday we caught up with Anthony De Rosa, Editor in Chief at Circa. Circa News is a long-standing top news app (App Store Best of 2013) that delivers only the stories that you specifically care about, updated as they unfold, in a smartphone format. Push notifications are at the core of their product delivery and Anthony is the news executive and strategist who ensures they are used to maximum effect.

Our objective was to discuss push notification strategy and develop community knowledge to share with developers, elaborating on last week’s post, 10 tips and tricks for mastering push notifications. Below we address overarching themes, particularly in terms of the fragility of relationship you hold with your users.

Circa's strategy

As opposed to legacy news sources, when you subscribe to a topic on Circa News, you only receive the latest 300 character updates. Media is full of repetitive information. Circa News knows what you've read, pushing and displaying only new content. If you're new to the story, you get a brief on the key points. If you're already subscribed to a particular story, you are shown updates.

"Think about the situation with Malaysia Airlines MH370. You've been reading about it for a year. You're constantly rereading much of the details surrounding the story. With Circa News we only push the information that you haven't already read."

Love how I still get push notifications from @Circa about the missing Malaysian plane (yes, it's still missing). Best news source ever!

— Kevin Raposo (@Kevin_Raposo) June 17, 2014

Anthony and his team use push notifications extensively, but you'd be surprised to hear that they have only sent 60 global push notifications in the past year, as opposed to the typical 1-2 per day of most news apps.

Read: See the push history of Circa News on Insights by Batch.

"For us to use a global push notification, it must be something major where we make the judgement call that this content would be appreciated by the user."

Circa News uses push notifications almost exclusively on a per-story opt-in basis, giving the control of push back to the users. In this regard, they are leading the pack in opt-in notifications, with a 2 year jump start on the rest of the industry, as explained by Philip Bump in his 2015 forecasting article:

"2015 will be the year that one of three things happen. Option 1 is that more outlets will mirror the news app Circa, allowing users more detailed control over the notifications that they receive on their phone lock screens, the new front page. Or outlets will figure out how to get smarter about how they target users with notifications for things that aren’t breaking, above-the-fold stories."
Read: The year news notifications need to grow up

By contrast, New York Times' This Just In app has come under fire from Circa and other major news players recently due to their use of global push notifications, not just for breaking news, but also feature articles. They have even publicly discussed the uncertainty surrounding when deciding on the importance of a push:

"In cases like this, we are always second-guessing. No matter our decision, the reaction from our readers and from within The Times informs whether we would or would not alert something similar in the future."
Read: New York Times: Behind The News Alert

@d1gi if they were smart, they would have talked to us, nobody is better at doing notifications well than @Circa

— Anthony De Rosa (@AntDeRosa) April 2, 2015

"The Times still has a long way to go with notifications. I think it is odd how they use notifications almost from a marketing standpoint versus a content standpoint. It's not necessarily the right approach."

Push use is high-risk and high-reward

You have a direct line to your users' pocket. Push is widely abused, as it can become addictive to use as a blunt sword when attempting to improve engagement rates. While it is a powerful marketing tool, it should be implemented as a communications tool. Without establishing expectations and a relationship with your users, you can quickly erode your credibility, resulting in uninstalls.

Conversely, it is one of the best tools for engagement, one of the top items a developer should think about when designing their app. It should be planned and implemented as a feature.

Build trust and expectations

More important than the explicit operating system opt-in notification, is the implicit contract of expectation to which you and your user agree. The context implied here is based upon the user's understanding of how your app will use push. This can be established through brand image awareness prior to download and onboarding flows at the first launch of your app, prior to asking for push permissions. On some rare occasions use of push is an obvious central feature of your app, though this is the exception, not the rule.

Using these methods will build trust and set expectations. If your users understand how and why you're using push notifications they will not only accept them, but will engage with them, increasing your app's retention rates.

"It's about implicit opt-in decisions, they build trust. I'm willing for you to interrupt me at any point in the day to give me the latest developments on this story."

What's the takeaway here? The objective is to communicate with them, push is the means to achieve it. Stay focused on the user when using these tools.

Push with the user in mind

Once you've won the permission of your user, follow through based on both the explicit and implicit expectations that were communicated. With every push campaign, ask "What is the goal of this push?", "What is the value of this push for the user?" and "What are potential reactions to this push?".

That trust that you established when you requested permissions? It's fragile.

Send push notifications within the context that your users expect them. Is this push notification consistent with your brand image and will the push benefit the user?

Last week I sent an email to Batch users talking about my love of Fast Company's irreverent and strange push strategy. It was actually this that prompted Anthony to contact me, as he disagreed:

"With apps like Ping, the random odd nature of their push notifications is expressed through their marketing and brand awareness. With Fast Company, I don't believe this to be the case. My understanding of their brand doesn't imply that I should expect these kinds of notifications."

In short, be consistent with your brand image.

Permit feedback

Integrate functionality within your app to permit feedback. It's only fair, right? If you can reach them with push notifications, you should close the loop by letting them contact you.

"We've learned along the way and there certainly have been pushes that people reacted poorly to. When Rob Ford, the former mayor of Toronto, was diagnosed with cancer we thought that was big enough news to warrant a wide push. We definitely received a lot of feedback that this was not the case. Having two-way communications with our users helped us learn and react."

You will channel a percentage of frustrated users to communicate with you. This helps in two ways:

  1. It puts a step between the frustrated user and app deletion. This is effective if you respond swiftly and effectively. Turn a critic into an ambassador.
  2. This feedback will give you an opportunity to correct your strategy before you lose users that will not take the time to send you feedback before deletion.

Consider implementing a mail-to option or messaging forms within your app. Through the feedback you receive, you can make effective changes to your strategy.

Use your data

Measure the success of your push notifications and iterate, improving your technique over time. With Batch Analytics, you can easily track:

  • Open rates of individual campaigns
  • Engagement rate over time
  • Reengagement potential
  • Location of your users

Learn by example

Finally, I asked Anthony: "Which apps are currently doing push well and why?":

Breaking News

"They follow a similar approach to Circa News with opt-ins for notifications. They have taken the approach of topic-based versus story-based notification. The topics are pretty granular. They also have an interesting proximity notification where you can opt-in to news notifications nearby."


"They do a good job in being able to easily setup notifications for following specific users. Simple and effective."


"Foursquare has really learned well how to do this well based on the fact they've been studying it for so many years (with Dodgeball even before Foursquare). Having a long time to build up feedback and data around how people respond to notifications is super helpful and I think Foursquare, from a location-based-notification aspect, has a big advantage because of it."

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How Circa is beating the NYTimes at push by @batch @AntDeRosa

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