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1 Oct

The boy who cried wolf

A few days ago, I was on a call with Abhishek, my school friend. We were talking after a long time, and before we could realise it, we were discussing school crushes, where our other classmates were, the tough math papers, and Abhishek’s funny habit of highlighting every paragraph, till it looked like...

It was funny mainly because, despite reading the textbook, Abhishek regularly complained that he couldn’t recall that definition or the four causes we had to discuss in the answer.

It was all fun till I realised my phone notifications and email inbox evokes similar feelings that Abhishek’s notes did. I don’t know what to do with all information claiming to be “important”.

I am sure you’ve felt the same at some point.

Why is all information claiming to be important though?

Back in the day before data and connectivity weren’t as cheap as today, we had to think twice if the information being sent was specific, relevant, and actionable. I remember using ₹35 for 350 messages in a month. I would also have to delete messages regularly because my phone inbox would get full, and unable to receive any further messages.

But the need to think twice before informing or receiving information changed drastically because of the internet speed, cheap mobile data, and improved phone storage capacity.

However, I am unsure if it took a turn for the better or worse.

When I think about being informed, for some reason the first thing that comes to mind is the Facebook notification tab. The blue and red contrast, and the anticipation it created to find out how many messages, friend requests, comments, or likes I had gathered. It used to be a thrill — till I used Facebook.

But currently, the first thing I opt out of when installing any application or registering on any new website, is the notification.

In a matter of a few years, the thrill of being notified first became the thing I want least. I am unsure because notifications have become constant but something about them changed.

What exactly changed in the last few years?

Business presence increasingly took an online form. Online presence meant that a business had to replicate what it had achieved through traditional media.

For instance, traditionally, if TV ads meant the announcement of a new product, a business had to find a digital equivalent of what a TV ad did.

Marketing and customer relations are the two main functions where the business’s online presence had to replicate what the traditional methods had achieved.

On the marketing front, the tasks were: creating nudges to be on customers’ minds, building a brand or running ad campaigns. Customer relations entailed tasks such as providing information on the status of a transaction, collecting feedback, and grievance redressal.

SMS and Email notifications were the first few steps all businesses took. It was soon followed by Email and SMS promotions for new products or discount offers.

But what truly changed other than the mode of communication, was the ease.

In the offline, physically transacting world, businesses could not follow every customer that came to the bank or a store.

Apps made it easy for these businesses to keep in touch with their customers.

But a few other things got complicated the process.

I mentioned earlier, the thrill of Facebook notifications ensured I visit the website every day. Using the Facebook mobile app became a habit. But Facebook was a social media platform and those notifications were ones from my friends. I actually cared about them.

But the natural usage frequency of a banking app or an e-commerce app is way lower when compared to a social media app. Here’s where things became complex.

As more websites became phone apps, any business selling goods and services through the app lazily adopted metrics social media platforms were optimizing for.

Essentially, any app, be it shopping apps, banking apps, e-commerce apps... all were considered successful if the number of app downloads, daily active users (DAU), monthly active users (MAU), churn rate, and retention rates held up against a certain benchmark defined by social media apps.

Hence, the intent to stay on a customer’s mind for longer or be top-of-mind wrongly incentivised apps to use notifications much more than they were really necessary.

What followed is a flood of notifications — countless, mind-numbing notifications.

As business apps defining the success of their apps using the Daily Active Users (DAU) metric, every business made attempts to hook customers and optimize for it.

But I don't need to use my banking app daily.

We are now served with about two to five phone messages every hour from the multitude of apps in our phones and probably double the number of email notifications. And the only thing saving us from this deluge of notifications is the silent mode on our phones. Or if you’re annoyed enough, like me, you don’t allow apps to send you notifications anymore.

So should we cancel notifications right away?

Technically, we can’t. It is important to understand that they might be a necessary evil for a business to flourish. How so?

Notifications can mean genuine utility

When a bank notifies me or my parents about the status of a transaction, I appreciate being in the loop.

For a traditional user, who is used to physical interactions with a business, the shift from physical transactions to online ones needed reassurance.

Notifications provided reassurance to new users. A customer knew they had completed a task correctly and that a process was complete.

Notifications can mean awareness

Sometimes a business may need to nudge the users to check out a new feature or update them about some change. Sometimes there could be a **legitimately** amazing offer the customer could benefit from.

For example, after using an Apple music subscription for quite some time, I was a bit annoyed when they recently changed the payment mode. I wasn’t aware of what to do next and my apple subscription expired even though I had enabled auto-renewal.

A notification would have helped me be aware of the change in payment options.

Notifications can mean brand-building

On an everyday basis, I see at least one user on Twitter mention how delighted they are to read notifications from Zomato.

It is difficult to stand out with a feature as ubiquitous as notifications, but for a brand to be associated with their notifications goes to show how powerful a feature can be, when used with intent.

But all businesses don’t make as much of an effort as Zomato, Dunzo or Swiggy in crafting their notifications. The notifications I feel apathetic towards most are banking and news app.

Why do I still feel that apathy?

Bank and news notifications remind me of the relative at a function who won’t stop talking. They’re so full of themselves that they don’t bother or care if the person they’re speaking to is even interested in listening to them. It as good as talking to a wall.

As soon as a feature is overdone, it loses meaning.

And if you look at the image below, the person’s point on not increasing stickiness hits the nail on the head.

That is what overdoing notifications can do for a business. Make the customer indifferent to anything you have to say.

Another important thing a business could keep in mind is that regardless of how important and useful your product is, a customer’s life doesn’t revolve around it.

So is there an alternative to being notified?

I am not sure if the deluge of notifications will stop anytime soon because any business that sends them out is aware of the responses they get. Sometimes a business may use notifications the way a fisherman uses a fishing net. Cast wide, and pray for a good catch.

But imagine if banks stopped sending any promotional emails for a month and only sent automated written email updates on the status of every transaction. Wouldn’t it make you pause and actually go find out what was happening at the bank?

Or what if news apps didn’t release paparazzi photo shoots as breaking news?

But I fear they probably won't do that because their usage metrics will take a hit. And even if they did, users are so numb at this point that they probably wouldn't care.

Till businesses accept that pushing out information for the sake of it doesn’t add any value, we will continue to be baited as fish in the sea. And we can only win by not allowing any app to send us notifications.

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