Blog Post

Urban Airship prepares for its Super Bowl moment

Urban Airship (see disclosure below) is investing big in its infrastructure, scaling its push messaging service to deliver 100,000 messages in a single second. As Airship begins to refine push marketing to take into account location, time and context, it becomes of critical that the company not only deliver massive volumes of messages simultaneously, but also to deliver them in as near real-time as possible, according to the company.

In Urban Airship’s blog, Director of Architecture and Delivery Erik Onnen wrote that the company has quadrupled its capacity and is now capable of pushing simultaneous IP missives to huge gatherings of people, a feature that will come in handy when Airship launches its Segments service this quarter. Using technology from its SimpleGeo acquisition last year, Airship will be able to customize push updates based on location and prioritize based on relevancy.

“Specifically, we now have the capability to send a message in one second to every fan seated in the biggest stadium in college football, Michigan Stadium,” Onnen wrote in the blog.

Coincidently ESPN happens to be one of Urban Airship’s biggest customers, so the example is quite apt. At CTIA I sat down with Urban Airship CMO Brent Hieggelke and he explained that context and speed will be both key to both Airship’s future and the evolution of IP push beyond a mere marketing and notification tool. He said AirBnB uses Airship’s push for closing room transactions, so it’s critical that messages move at the speed of negotiation.

In the football example, a sports media brand like ESPN(s dis), which sends millions of score and news updates a day, could send you a completely different set of stats and information if the app was aware you were actually a spectator at a game, Hieggelke said. A Michigan fan might have set his preferences to receive updates every time a touchdown is scored. But if actually present at the game the app could automatically feed him play-by-play info and player profiles. Because the customer is experiencing the game firsthand, it’s of vital importance that the update is immediate, Hieggelke said.

“The possibilities are endless,” Hieggelke said. “The New York Times could detect I’ve left Portland and have arrived in New York and start sending me local restaurant reviews. Walgreens can detect you’re near a pharmacy and have a prescription that needs to be refilled. It then sends you an alert.”

Urban Airship just pushed its 20 billionth notification, and its growth trajectory is only getting steeper. To achieve that kind of scale, Airship is doing a lot of tinkering with its HBase and Hadoop database and analytics platforms. It’s rolling out new elements – with codenames like Gooey Buttercake and Metalstorm (my favorite) – that will manage associations between applications, devices and tags; parse location and presence information for millions of users; and assemble that information along with data from multiple outside databases into the notifications themselves. (If you’re curious, Onnen goes into much more detail in the blog post.)

Keeping the push name unsullied

In my conversation with Hieggelke, he also revealed that Urban Airship plans to start an industry education initiative called Good Push with the aim of reining in bad marketing practices using IP messaging technologies.

“For instance, location has been talked for a while as walking through a mall and having offers pushed to you left and right,” Hieggelke said. “That’s a terrible idea. We need to establish a certain level of trust.”

Push messaging is still a relatively new format, and it doesn’t yet carry the negative associations most customers have with other digital marketing formats like e-mail or pop-up ads. When downloading an app and prompted to allow push updates to an app, most customers give permission. But an increasing number of apps are abusing the practice, though Hieggelke wouldn’t name names.

It’s easy to guess at the biggest offenders. There’s been an increasing backlash against companies like Airpush that send ads directly to an Android(s GOOG) smartphone’s notification bar, often without even referencing the installed app that’s generating the ad. The danger here is that questionable and covert practices like these will sully the entire push marketing ecosystem. The worst thing that could happen is if consumers start automatically refusing permission to apps to receive updates, Hieggelke said.

“If the consumer starts thinking of this like spam, it’s a shame because it’s such a powerful and useful tool,” Hieggelke said.

So far Good Push is only in its infancy. Airship is working with the Mobile Marketing Association to create a set of best practices for marketers, that Hieggelke hopes will establish a baseline standard for the industry.

DisclosureUrban Airship is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, the founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.

6 Responses to “Urban Airship prepares for its Super Bowl moment”

    • Kevin Fitchard

      It does? I don’t believe that’s true, James, and I believe you know it. I’ve had to use third party software on numerous occasions to identify apps that use Airpush software to push spam to my notifications bar. In fact, Airpush is the culprit 90% of the time.

      To my knowledge, Airship pushes through the app, and it’s a simple matter of turning off notifications within the app to stop alerts. If that’s not the case, please educate me. I’ll look into it, and if it’s true, I’ll call Airship out on it.

      • Urban Airship

        Urban Airship and AirPush aren’t even in the same ballpark, or playing the same game. Urban Airship is used by apps to message, engage and alert their specific installed, opted-in audiences. Apps ask users to Allow or Don’t Allow for push notifications, and can also use our preferences to give users fine-grain controls, from setting quiet times to only receiving pushes for very specific topics, categories or actions. In our world, it’s always clear which app sent which message, and push is treated as a privilege. Check out the first videos in our Good Push campaign here:

  1. Sebastian Atwater

    This is a pretty cool idea for sporting events, but will be tough to implement given the usually-lousy data connections you have when surround by tens of thousands of other fans with phones.

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Hi Sebastian,

      Carriers are actually starting to implement a lot of technologies in stadiums to solve the problem: small cells, beamformed Wi-Fi. Hopefully it won’t be much of an issue for long