The One Holiday Engagement Cliff We Didn’t Tell You About

Earlier this month we detailed initial findings from our annual study of retailer apps during the kickoff to holiday shopping. Today, we released our complete analysis; get yourself a copy.

From a top-level perspective, there are a lot of reasons to point to 2015 as the year mobile won the holidays. For the first time, online shoppers surpassed the number of people venturing into physical stores, and mobile overtook desktop to account for the majority of online traffic. Mobile achieved massive gains in direct sales, accounting for 40% of all online sales on Thanksgiving, in addition to being responsible for the majority of growth in digital influence that impacts 64 cents of every dollar spent offline.

Throughout November, retailers significantly ramped up mobile engagement efforts and it shows in the results above. They sent 63% more push notifications than last year, and both average response rates and opt-in rates increased. In fact, one-third of all app opens during the month came from a push notification.

However, the results were mixed for in-app message centers — as message volume shot up 152% year-over-year, read rates plummeted from 82% last holiday season to 22% this year.

That’s a pretty dramatic drop. Shocking even. But no, the sky is not falling.

A 22% read rate makes any other marketing channel pale in comparison. However, it’s a far cry from the massive read rates that proved to be attainable last year. Understanding the reasons for the decline is particularly valuable strategically, given the role message centers play in reaching all app users. So, our strategy consulting team dug in past the data to see what happened.

The Rush to Message Centers
A lot of what the team noticed reminded us of what we saw in 2011 with push notifications, except this year it was an unbridled enthusiasm to adopt in-app message centers.

Four times as many retail apps used message centers this holiday season compared to last year, and, among all industry verticals, retail is adopting them the fastest. We both expected this and advised our clients of it, since our prior research found that retail saw the steepest year-over-year decline in average notification opt-in rates. While both average and high-performing retailers saw opt-in rates edge up this holiday season, there is still a significant portion of the total app audience that can’t be reached with targeted messaging without message centers or other forms of in-app messaging.

Additionally, as message center adoption grows past early adopters with their above-average ambitions and resources, some softening of read rates can be expected. However, as we dug into how retailers were actually using message centers it became clear many simply rushed to adopt them with blunt messaging strategies or even a checkbox mentality.

Some message center messages were nothing more than a massive block of text with all the visual appeal of a big chunk of legalese. Other messages were exact duplications of rich content already seen on app homepages. Those issues may not have impacted the read rate for the initial message, but every message received sets the tone for what users expect (or avoid) in subsequent ones.

From effective implementation practices and use of rich content, to deep-linking push notifications to the message center and targeting audience segments with specific in-app messages, we anticipate read rates will improve as apps adopt more practiced approaches.

This one holiday engagement cliff is only a single example of how new opportunities present new challenges. Every year, we see mobile become more and more ingrained in retailers’ holiday sales efforts, as well as consumers’ shopping behaviors.

2015 will likely go down as the year that mobile won the holidays, given the growth in direct sales, offline influence and share of traffic. But it’s in the details of how this happened where actionable insights emerge, and that’s something we can uniquely provide with our annual study of hundreds of retail apps.

Download our complete 2015 Holiday Shopping Report to understand how mobile’s role in holiday shopping is evolving, and why Cyber Monday should really be called Cyber Month. Consumer motivation and energy are at their highest during the holidays, and mobile has clearly become part of their tradition. Ensure you can seize the moment during this most wonderful and critical time of the year by learning what’s working and what to think about next in our 2015 Holiday Shopping Report.