A conversation with Urban Airship CEO Brett Caine.
When Caine took the reins at Urban Airship in 2014, the mobile marketing software company powered 8.5 billion push notification messages per month; today it’s 60 billion. Push notifications are the messages that show up after you download an app — they run the gamut from news alerts and sports scores to events and sales announcements.
Founded in 2009, Urban Airship employs 183 people, 127 in Portland, and does business in 120 countries, with a growing presence in Latin America, India and Asia. Its software fuels 45,000 apps on almost 3 billion devices.
Caine, who works out of Urban Airship’s San Francisco office, talks about mobile marketing trends, the company's path to profitability and why the modern consumer has the attention of a goldfish. (Interview excerpts have been edited for space and clarity.)
OB: Urban Airship was one of the pioneers in push- button notification. Today alerts are ubiquitous. How do you lead the market in 2017?
Caine: We’ve introduced a wide variety of products and services, including data services to help businesses get a better understanding of the mobile system they are powering. We recently launched a product that delivers a notification process on the web. Our digital wallet product is expanding at an incredible rate. Consumers want to see boarding passes, tickets and coupons — all the things they traditionally carry in their wallet
OB: So the notification-style message is becoming a normal way to consume information, as well as products and services.
Caine: The sheer volume of notification-style experiences has grown by a factor of 10 since I joined Urban Airship. We’ve passed the tipping point from interesting to primary. A few weeks ago, we launched a digital growth platform offering notification-style messages across apps, email, websites and other channels. So regardless of how you want to communicate with the consumer, our platform will support all of that.
OB: People are flooded with marketing content. How do you keep users from tuning out messages?
Caine: Our pattern recognition allows us to scan up and down and see what information is relevant, and select or swipe at a much faster rate than on email. You can curate it at a very fast pace. When done well, with rich content, pictures and videos, the response rates are very high.
OB: What do analytics indicate about consumer response to push notifications?
Caine: We have data that points to this: Marketers who communicate with new app users within the first 30 days preserve the majority of marketing spend to acquire those users. You’re more likely to retain app users as a result of communicating with them and giving them information. Historically people thought that that view wasn’t true.
OB: So how should marketers use notifications to engage with consumers?
Caine: Refine the way you deliver notifications. Make it easy for them to select how they want to be communicated with. We advise our customers to inform and educate their customers as early in the life cycle as possible. If you download somebody’s app, our recommendation is to provide a carousel of information about why opting in is valuable. For example, the best content comes to the app; the most interesting and timely information comes here first. Consumers always have the option of opting out.
OB: How many notifications do you get on your phone?
Caine: A lot. I’m curious and interested in it. I can look up and down the list, what I want to see, what I want to delete. Relative to personal email, this is way simpler.
OB: There’s a lot of angst about marketing messages contributing to a decline in our collective attention span.
Caine: Our attention span is low; some might argue it’s that of a goldfish. Whatever is happening on mobile seems to have people distracted and focused away from real life. Social media has a bigger hand in it than we do. The challenge for brands is to cut through all that noise, whether it’s Instagram or Facebook.
OB: How do you manage the user experience across cultures and countries?
Caine: We’re all human, and the good news is there is enough pattern recognition on mobile. We work with a variety of digital agencies around the world. They bring a lot of cultural relevance to that experience. We have a great team of digital strategists who map out a journey of what they want the experience to look like. As part of the strategy sessions, we help uncover other opportunities that may arise in other types of systems. That process is something we do around the world.
OB: How do you market Urban Airship?
Caine: We demonstrate industry insight, leadership and vision. We do other industry-first things. We were the first company in the industry to support loyalty points with Apple Pay and USA Technologies, the company that operates vending machines. We often publish on our website and on the very technical blogosphere. We produce an enormous amount of information on best practices. Lastly, we have our city tours in Paris, London, New York, where we share with the community our vision within the broader ecosystem.
OB: You live in San Francisco, and most of your employees are in Portland. How does remote leadership factor into company operations?
Caine: We use a lot of video conferencing, remote-communication technologies. My personal approach is this: To be a global company, you have to think globally. You have to bring the best talent into the company regardless of where they live. Helping people to work wherever they are makes them stronger. It lets us build business closer to customers.
OB: Half of the executive team has turned over since you became CEO.
Caine: Leadership changes are common for tech companies that are growing and expanding.
OB: You cut 8% of your workforce last summer and in a blog post said you were focusing on operational efficiencies leading to profitability.
Caine: In the broader investment community, the market has shifted away from growth at any cost to demonstrating you have operating leverage. So we’ve been working on that. We anticipate being profitable exiting this year. Certainly since I walked in the door, the company is in the strongest financial position its ever been in. It’s not just about being able to scale but about building a company that is sustainable for investors.
OB: Another source of angst is lack of diversity in the tech community.
Caine: We have a number of executives who are women: our CMO, head of legal, head of HR and vice president of operations. We have a diversity guild, an employee-led effort to promote diversity learning. One of our data scientists, Lisa Orr, was highlighted as one of AdAge’s marketing technology trailblazers. She was the brains behind the predictive churn model. [Predictive churn involves predicting and targeting consumers who are likely to stop using your app.] She’s not an example of diversity in executive ranks; she’s a data scientist and she does a great work. We wanted to point to people who do the great work.
OB: How would you define the broader challenge around diversifying tech?
Caine: The challenge is broad availability. The big problem for women and minority communities is availability of people who can meet the experience or requirement of the role. So what are the local universities, what is the infrastructure doing to bring that up and bring more of that talent into the workforce? At a fundamental level, we have to create more opportunities at the entry level. We’re not a company that can hire people off the street and teach them. We don’t have resources, we don’t have infrastructure. When the talent emerges, we are ready, willing and interested.