App download data suggests we have passed peak quarantine

When the COVID-19 quarantine first started, its impact on the app economy was easy to predict: apps in verticals like travel, ridesharing, and dating saw significant declines in relative download numbers (as measured by the Top Downloaded chart) whereas apps in verticals like mobile grocery shopping and mobile learning saw increases.

But now an acute inflection can be seen in app download rankings from around the middle of March: some of the apps that benefited most from the quarantine, such as Houseparty, have seen their daily install numbers decrease from peak.

Using Darkpool, I filtered app download data over the past 90 days to find the apps that are experiencing Top Downloaded chart position declines relative to mid-March values. These apps generally fall across verticals that would be expected to grow during a quarantine: education, news, messaging, shopping, etc. And the trend with almost all of them is distinct: a considerable rise in downloaded chart ranks in February, a peak in March, and a decline in April.

The trend is perhaps most pronounced in the Messaging category:

The same general shape of the Top Downloads chart trajectory can also be found in the Shopping category:

As well as in News and Education:

There are a few possible explanations for this this rapid increase-peak-decline pattern. The first is simply that there are only so many people, and an app can only be Top Downloaded for so long: at some point, the app has penetrated a large number of the total potential user base.

This is plausible for some categories, but not the ones being considered here: for example, news apps are so broadly appealing that it feels unlikely that either CNN or SmartNews reached saturation of their potential user bases. Also, keep in mind that the Top Downloaded chart variant being considered here is for the All Categories genre, which means that these apps are being ranked against all other apps — not just against apps within a given sub-category.

The second explanation for such a trend is simply that many people suddenly became interested in these apps in February and that their interest waned after peaking in March. This could coincide with a general abatement of shelter-in-place (Communication, Shopping apps), or in some cases, fatigue over COVID information (News).

The trend that potentially carries more insight than rise-peak-decline is decline-nadir-rise. Some of the app categories that were hit hardest by the outbreak of COVID are now experiencing a resurgence — in some cases, rising to rankings that are higher than their pre-COVID watermarks.

Retail / secondhand trading:

Food and Beverage:

And most surprising (personally), travel:

And these trends are supported by a general increase in CPMs across major mobile advertising channels; Common Thread, a marketing agency, reported CPMs at near pre-COVID levels for the week of May 11th.

These V-shaped charts make it clear that consumer behaviors on mobile have changed twice since the beginning of the year: once at the start of the global quarantine effort, and again in mid-March, with something approaching a reversion to pre-COVID levels of app downloads. Yet major economies don’t seem to be eluding the worst of the pain that COVID has wrought: US unemployment numbers remain grim, although the rate of increase is beginning to subside:

Perhaps what the recoveries in these app verticals’ download ranks positions reveals is a waning in levels of fear — or, more directly, a renewed enthusiasm for life as it was remembered. Whether this line of thought is rational or even tenable in the short term remains to be seen. While it is puzzling to see just how divorced the stock market has become from the real economy, it’s important to remember that a vast swath of the world was so utterly devastated by the 2008-2010 global financial crisis that they never fully recovered.

Perhaps the detachment of the tech economy from the real economy mirrors that of the divide between Wall Street and Main Street. Certainly Airbnb must relish such a perfectly-sculpted V shape to their recovery: the company laid off 25% of its employees, mostly from functions outside of its core business, and raised $1BN in new funding (as a mixture of equity and debt) to stockpile during the COVID pandemic. Airbnb will emerge from COVID leaner, more focused, and with a healthy war chest. Rahm Emanuel’s words from the global financial crisis ring true: never let a serious crisis go to waste.

Photo by Adhy Savala on Unsplash