Push alerts can be an effective way for news organisations to engage with audiences on their lock screens, giving them the latest news and features that they need to know on-the-go.

In fact, speaking at newsrewired on 19 July, Des Shoe, senior staff editor at The New York Times London bureau, said "it drives readership like nothing else".

One day, the news organisation hopes to have an actual dialogue with readers via the lock screen for ultimate engagement, but is currently focusing its efforts on using push alerts not only to notify readers of breaking news, but to help inform audiences as to why the news is important – to give them a reason why they are being alerted.

Sasha Koren, editor, the Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab, explained that the audience's understanding should be at the heart of every idea.

"Pushing the boundaries is great, but it can leave users confused about what you’re trying to do on their phone screens," she said, adding that her team has found some of their more experimental alerts have been misinterpreted by users.

Indeed, audiences are generally used to static alerts, so anything new can seem unnecessary and even be annoying, just as constant alerts can.

Subhajit Banerjee, product manager, mobile, Condé Nast International, spoke about his disappointment over how little progress has been made with the push alert for this reason.

"Assumed knowledge is the enemy of the push alert," he explained.

"We can do a much better service by explaining and contextualising. Is this alert waking someone up or interrupting someone? We need to explain why this alert matters to them."

The industry is still at an early stage when it comes to working with push alerts, Nic Newman, research associate, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, explained.

"We are definitely frustrated," he said.

"We’ve got this dilemma in that the phone is still a very private space and we don’t know what we should be doing."

But the panel agreed that while innovation and boundary-pushing might be at the top of everyone’s agenda, it is important to get the basics right first before experimenting in the unknown space.

"Don’t try anything fancy – keep language simple and unequivocal," said Matt Wells, senior editor, programming and alerts, CNN Digital Worldwide.

Spelling errors, incorrect information and other mistakes can damage reputation fast, he said, explaining that it is better to be right than first all the time.

"Gone are the days where they could be brushed off and entrusted to junior members of staff. At CNN, we have realised, only in the last year or so, that we have to have experienced editorial eyes on these alerts."

So where do we go from here? For all the panellists, segmenting push alerts – that is, allowing users to customise which alerts they receive and which they don’t – is one of the most pressing issues.

Keeping news relevant to specific users is the key to making sure push alerts are helpful and not annoying.

"It can either go very wrong or very right," said Banerjee, "it is a great opportunity."

Free daily newsletter

If you like our news and feature articles, you can sign up to receive our free daily (Mon-Fri) email newsletter (mobile friendly).