Facebook’s filtered News Feed was never very good at real-time news. So today Facebook released Notify, an app for reading customizable breaking news, info, and entertainment push notifications right on your lock screen. Notify lets you select from over 70 publishers and customize your alerts to only send you news about specific companies, cities, sports teams, music genres and more. Each is sent as a push notification and shown in the Notify app’s feed for 24 hours, and can be clicked through to read an associated link.
Today Notify becomes available on iOS in the US. It doesn’t offer the real-time discussion and independent voices of Twitter, but could provide an alternative for Twitter lurkers who just wanted real-time information and aren’t interested in building another audience to broadcast to.
Though Notify won’t feature any ads for now, there are certainly opportunities to offer sponsored suggestions for accounts to follow. As long as Facebook can get enough of its 1.55 billion users on Notify to justify the work publishers are putting in to produce content there, it could create the real-time, urgent, high-signal information channel the News Feed could never be.
Killer Feature: Sub-Topic Alerts
I spent some time with the Notify team and played with the app myself, and here are my hands-on thoughts.
What’s really special about Notify is the granularity of alerts you can get. While general Twitter accounts feature a broad range of content that might not all be interesting to you, Notify lets you subscribe only to the very specific sub-topics that are relevant.
For example, you can have Bloomberg Business alert you with news about the S&P 500 companies you’re interested in, CBS Sports lets you choose your favorite teams, The Weather Channel lets you select your ZIP code, and Vevo lets you choose which genres of music videos you want to know about.
“The key here is for people to create the mix that matters to them. We really wanted to build a platform that’s diverse so that people can tune it,” says Notify product manager Julian Gutman.
That level of control is critical for an app built around push notifications because alerts about irrelevant sports teams, news, or entertainment would get extremely annoying. Most people would say they already get too many pushes.
How To Get Notified
Notify was built by a small team in New York City. The original spark came when the team thought “Wouldn’t it be cool to know when our favorite food truck were around. Or MTA schedules or and train stuff?” says Facebook Director Of Product Michael Cerda. There was no consolidated way to find that information without a lot of irrelevant clutter.
“We’re excited about exploring the medium of push notifications. We think today we’re only experiencing the tip,” Cerda tells me. “Notifications are only used to re-engage you with an app or give you a message status or something. What we’re trying to do is look at that as a surface for people to consume the information and entertainment they care about, and for publishers to reach people.”
When you first download Notify and log in with Facebook, the app will pull your Page Likes and follows to create a personalized set of recommendations to follow. This gives it a leg up over Twitter’s onboarding, which has to build your interest graph from scratch. To get you invested in the app, you’ll have to choose at least three channels to follow to get started.Facebook has worked with 70 launch partners to create Notify stations, including The New York Times, CNN, Huffington Post, Vanity Fair, Techmeme, Fox Sports, Epicurious, Comedy Central, Fandango, BandsInTown and The Weather Channel. Many offer both general news stations and ones with options to follow specific sub-topics. Tapping a station lets you preview its content by showing the last 20 notifications it sent.
Publishers use a special interface to write notification text, select a link, and then publish or schedule their alerts. There’s also an API for programmatic distribution of weather forecasts, sports scores and other structured data. Working out these partnerships is what led to the leaks about Notify this summer from The Awl and Financial Times.
The alerts are delivered to a user’s lockscreen where they can be read without opening one’s phone. Tapping through opens a notification’s link, and you can also save it to read later. Inside the Notify app is a feed of the last 24 hours of your notifications, which you could use as a digest of what you care most about. There’s also a tab for parsing any notifications you’ve saved.
From the feed, you can easily swipe to manage what alerts you get from a station. If you want more, the + button reveals a way to browse categories of stations like sports or business news, or you can dig into a single source like Bloomberg and see all the stations it offers.
Cerda hinted that Notify could expand to other platforms, perhaps including the desktop. “It’s on mobile phones now. It could be other places in the future. But it’s a medium we’re excited about.”
For publishers, Notify creates a way for them to send push notifications without building and popularizing their own app. Ideally it could help them grow their audience through Notify’s discovery features, or deepen their relationship with existing fans.
However, similar to Facebook’s Instant Articles, there’s the risk that people won’t ever go back to publisher’s own site where they earn money and can convert visitors into loyal readers. If Notify can’t deliver enough eyeballs or cannibalizes a publisher’s audiences, they might quit dedicating resources to producing notifications on the platform.
Alert, Alert, Alert, Alert, Alert…
At its best, Notify serves as an invisible app. You rarely need to open it. Instead you just consume the alerts on your lock screen and click through to view the related websites when necessary.
But at its worst, Notify could overwhelm users with Notifications, driving them to silence the alerts or delete the app.
“We know notifications are a highly sensitive distribution channel,” Facebook’s Director of Media Partnerships Nick Grudin says. “If you get them right, they’re really awesome. If you get them wrong, they ‘re really annoying.”
To that end, Facebook is giving publishers detailed analytics regarding how many people receive, view, click through, share and, most important, unsubscribe from each notification. This way publishers know what content they should stop pushing because its driving away readers.
The problem is that if publishers aren’t careful, they won’t just burn their own subscribers, but Notify as a whole. People pissed off by the volume or quality of alerts they receive may just ditch the app entirely rather than modify their subscriptions.
That’s the strength of Twitter’s feed. Since not everything notifies you, you don’t have to be so stingy with the subscriptions. When asked if he thought of Notify as a Twitter replacement, Grudin told me “Definitely not a replacement. It’s just different. Different medium, different distribution channel. It’s a new way for people to receive information.”
Facebook’s had trouble popularizing its standalone apps like Paper and Slingshot, and its last invasion of the lockscreen, Home, was a giant flop. But with a totally different value proposition — true real-time information — than Facebook itself, Notify could push people to stay connected to the news that matters most to them. The question is whether we want more notifications, even for things we care about.