I was recently listening to Patrick O'Shaughnessy interview Tony Xu, the founder of DoorDash, on his podcast Invest Like the Best. About 26 minutes into the episode Patrick asked the question:
“When you did get to the consumer side and started building that UI, what did you learn then about generating demand?”
Tony’s response made me stop what I was doing and then kept me thinking the rest of the day:
“I think there were a couple of different inflection points. The first was just the realization that consumers came for really the content that we were showing them, the amazing local Mediterranean hummus shop, the amazing cake store, your favorite fast food place. Whatever it was, that was probably the first recognition that the content was what people were coming to look for, more so than any other consideration.”
Tony is making an insightful observation about most B2C mobile apps in 2021. Apps are working to earn their users’ and customers’ attention in an attention-scarce world. “Content” is just a techno-startup term for stories. The best way to get and hold people’s attention is through stories. In DoorDash’s case, these are the stories that frame the food we eat: memories of amazing meals, imagining far-off places and their incredible local dishes, the beauty of delicious ingredients prepared skillfully. The best content triggers and interacts with far richer and more complex stories that happen inside a person’s head.
Unfortunately, the food delivery apps that I've interacted with across the U.S. and Asia are under-delivering stories. Specifically, they’re failing to use their push notifications to tell stories. In this post I’ll use push notification data to show how that’s the case for DoorDash and other major food delivery apps. Aampe is building a product to turn push notifications into powerful stories, for food delivery and all the other apps that in 2021 are really content (story) and attention apps.
First, the problem (starting with data*)
Between January 1 and April 1, 2021 I was residing in San Francisco and I received 43 push notifications from Uber Eats, 71 notifications from Postmates, 11 notifications from Grubhub, 10 notifications from DoorDash, and 111 notifications from Foodpanda (because I'd just come from Singapore). Here is a sample of three notifications from each of the U.S. apps. If you’re interested in seeing all 246 notifications, ping me on twitter (@pmeins) or send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll send you a file.
There isn't much story going on here. Postmates stands out occasionally because its notifications sometimes have a bit of ‘personality’ to them:
Depending on your perspective, those notifications might make you chuckle or raise your eyebrows. But in any case they’re the exception. Most of the notifications I receive from food delivery apps are bland, generic, repetitive, not useful, and therefore annoying. When Tony Xu said DoorDash users were coming for the content DoorDash was showing them, I don’t think these push notifications were what he was talking about. Search Twitter for any of these apps with the text “push notifications” and you’ll find plenty of people with similar takes:
At this point you might be thinking something along the lines of “yea, push notifications are absolutely awful. Just turn them off!” There are undoubtedly many people who respond this way. But that personal response doesn’t account for how push notifications fit into a product marketing strategy. Push notifications do work as a form of communication. I shared some twitter examples above complaining about push notifications. Here are some that illustrate how they are capable of communicating effectively:
Many (most?) push notifications aren’t very good. But they still work at some level. The rest of this post is about how push notifications could be so much better.
Making push-notifications for Food Delivery better
I order food delivery frequently. But the notifications I receive are still disconnected from my food ordering behavior. In January and February 2021 I used Uber Eats to order from the restaurants on the left. During the same period I received notifications from Uber Eats about the food items on the right.
A good recommender system should be able to identify that I’m not the target user for Cheetos or Spicy McNuggets. Why can’t push notifications interact with me, instead of having a one-way conversation that consists of spamming me with the same message they’re using to speak to every other app customer? I’d be happy to be reminded of food I’ve eaten, and I’d like to receive recommendations based on the actual dishes I’ve ordered. I hate generic recommendations. But making choices is hard on busy days and I’d appreciate recommendations that are actually personalized.
Notifications about food instead of about prices
The fact that delivery app push notifications overwhelmingly focus on fast food and price discounts suggests that at one level that aspect of food delivery is important. They probably work with a significant number of people a good portion of the time. I’m pretty sure that there are more orders from McDonalds in San Francisco than from Cha-Ya Vegetarian Japanese Restaurant. But recommendations that are based on an average or a mode don’t work with everyone and they don’t work all of the time. If you add up all the users ordering from long-tail restaurants, you’ll have a fairly major minority of your overall customer population. This is an example where the lack of personalization leaves a whole lot of “value” on the table.
Tony’s observation makes it clear that the founder of one of the largest food delivery companies knows that food is more than just a “fast” activity constrained only by cost. And yet, notifications almost exclusively recommend fast food and appeal to interest with pricing discounts. They remind a user over and over that she can save $5. They never tell her about “the amazing local Mediterranean hummus shop” nearby.
But they could! Notifications could be food-centric. If I’m in Santa Fe, New Mexico and there’s a great pizza place, they could tell me about some of the dishes that are popular there, like the notifications I’ve written for illustration purposes below on the left:
Put food in my notifications; ingredients, recipes, dishes, descriptions.
Food is often about experiences, memory, and community. Notifications should be too.
When I imagine and start to crave lasagna, I care about more than just filling my mouth and stomach. I might be remembering an incredible trip to Italy with dear friends, or fantasizing about such a trip. Or perhaps I’m remembering time with family and friends around a warm and hearty meal. I may be imagining vine-ripened tomatoes tumbling out of a basket onto the kitchen table. Notifications should engage with me on these levels. If they’re constantly just telling me I can save $5 on delivery, they’re missing the point. Notifications could look like these:
Fill up on a hearty lasagna with ricotta, mozzarella, bechamel sauce, and assorted mesquite vegetables
Technically, Lasagna can be traced way back to Ancient Greece, not Italy. The name Lasagna comes from the Greek word ‘Laganon’. But whatever, it's delicious
“Once again, my life has been saved by the miracle of lasagna.” -Garfield. Centro’s, saving lives one delivery at a time
Make it a lovely family dinner with a delicious hot dish of lasagna!
I'm not terribly clever or experienced in writing copy, but that's not the point. There are professionals that are. The point is that notifications can be written in a way that tells a story and that taps into the immense range of 'value' that food provides.
Aampe - making personalized notifications possible
After leading several product and data science teams across multiple B2C businesses, and speaking to many, many more, the fact that food delivery notifications are so uniform and non-personalized isn’t that surprising to me. There are some evident technical reasons why it’s hard to use push notifications effectively. Most teams just don’t have the time and attention to make notifications achieve Tony Xu’s insight that content drives engagement. To make this work you have to have three capabilities:
1) You have to be able to generate personalized notification copy at scale, and both the copy (things like Calls to Action and Value Propositions) and the content (the specific offering, e.g. a restaurant menu item). Messaging 5 million people with 20 different notifications is not personalization. But generating 1 or 2 million personalized messages is not possible to do manually.
2) Once you have personalized copy at scale, you have to assign long-tail messages to appropriate user segments. That’s a major matching problem.
3) Personalization includes timeliness. The world is changing rapidly and a message that worked six months ago isn’t going to remain effective. With thousands of experiments running in parallel and a rapidly changing inventory and user base, managing personalization at scale requires a purpose-built system.
Push notifications can be so much better, more meaningful and more effective than they usually are, for delivery apps and for so many other categories of consumer mobile apps. If you’re interested in learning more about how we’re making that possible at Aampe and aboutthe value you can generate with personalized notifications, please reach out!
*I've logged over 5,000 notifications from over 134 mobile apps.