The crazy year that was 2020 through the lens of the App Store charts

Picture this situation: you’re in a confined indoor space wearing masks with a group of strangers. Tensions are high because there’s danger in the room, maybe even deadly danger. Many of those strangers surrounding you are trustworthy and trying to protect everyone’s wellbeing. But other strangers are not and instead being intentionally reckless and destructive. It’s up to you to figure out who’s friend or foe in the interest of everyone’s safety.

Sound familiar? In the crazy, unprecedented, and unforgettable year that is 2020, this stressful situation could happen to anyone, anywhere. Maybe you’re at a grocery store, or a doctor’s office, or a classroom. But how about in outer space on a starship? Because what I’m describing isn’t a moment from real life, but rather a scene from the breakout gaming hit of the year: Among Us.

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While it’s been around since 2018, Among Us exploded in popularity this summer as people around the world turned to the simple, entertaining, and highly social game to digitally escape the pandemic. In just a few weeks in July and August, the game went from being watched live by a few hundred people on Twitch to hundreds of thousands every day. When Congressperson AOC played Among Us on Twitch in October, the stream drew over 400,000 concurrent viewers making it one of the Top 20 most watched Twitch streams of all time. On YouTube and TikTok, Among Us videos amassed more than 17 billion combined views this fall. By November, the game had been downloaded over 217 million times.

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The popularity of Among Us on iOS is particularly noteworthy. Since it hit #1 in the iTunes App Store rankings in the US on September 4th, it has held the title of most popular iPhone app in this country for 64 days (including a stretch of 44 consecutive days) and never dropped out of the Top 5. To put that in perspective, Among Us has the most days atop the App Charts of any gaming app in iPhone history. That’s more days at #1 than any iPhone game ever made including legendary hits like Trivia Crack, Temple Run, Slither.io, Pokémon GO, and Candy Crush because of the effects of Covid-19. In fact, there are only 4 iPhone apps that have ever been ranked #1 in the App Store more times than Among Us: Facebook Messenger, YouTube, Bitmoji, and Zoom.

When you consider that Innersloth, the makers of Among Us, are 1/1000th the size of those other companies, what they’ve accomplished is equally impressive as it is surprising. Then again, lots of surprising things have happened during Covid-19.

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Covid-19 infecting the App Charts

2020 was a breakout year for mobile apps. There was a record 130 billion app downloads and $112 billion in mobile App Store spend as Covid-19 accelerated mobile adoption by 2–3 years according to analytics firm App Annie. This has made the App Charts that rank the most popular mobile apps an even more important indicator of consumer behavior shifts than ever before.

As I’ve written previously, you can see real world events, occasions, and trends reflected in App Chart rankings with startling accuracy. For example in the days following the US Elections, right-wing news and social networking apps Newsmax and Parler rocketed to the top of the App Charts reflecting the eventual conservative dejection over the election results. And guess what’s currently reflecting the Christmas season as the #1 most popular paid Entertainment iPhone app? Something called Speak to Santa — Santa Tracker whose purpose is pretty self explanatory. Like the old saying “you are what you eat”, in today’s mobile first world you are what you download.

But an even bigger event than Congress or Christmas this year has been the other “C”: Covid-19.

When Covid-19 quarantines started to rollout in the US around mid-March, the impact was immediately seen in the App Charts. iPhone apps in the Travel, Airline, Sports, and Jobs categories saw their mobile download numbers plummet, while Food Delivery, Grocery, Communication, Education, and Entertainment iPhone apps had huge spikes in demand. App Chart rankings perfectly reflecting consumer behavior changes.

The biggest Covid-19 app winner was no surprise Zoom, which has hovered near the top of the App Charts since March. In fact, Zoom was the #1 most popular iPhone app in the US for a staggering 68 straight days this summer, which set an all time popularity record for any app in iPhone history. Just as Zoom was dominating consumer behavior in the real world, it was also dominating the App Charts.

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As the initial shock of quarantine has passed and the US has settled into awkward new normals, what behaviors have changed as we’re forced to co-exist with this persistent Covid-19 threat? Are people acting differently now than during the peak of quarantine? Has any consumer demand rebounded to their pre-Covid levels? There’s a place to find the answers to all these questions and more: the App Charts.

The road to recovery

To measure changing US consumer behavior from Covid-19, I’ve examined the top 5 iPhone apps (courtesy of App Annie) at the beginning of the year that best represent demand of various App Store categories from Travel to Education to Entertainment. I then charted a running 7-day average of downloads of those apps throughout both 2020 and 2019 to visualize trends before and after Covid-19. Each chart is divided into 3 time frames:

  1. March — May: Covid-19 Onset, when the US first went into shelter in place
  2. May — September: Covid-19 Recovery, when the US started to emerge from shelter in place
  3. September — December: Covid-19 Steady State, the period now as the US is living alongside the virus

The hardest hit: Travel, Airlines, Sports, Jobs

Four App Chart categories that were particularly hard hit by Covid-19 were Travel, Airlines, Sports, and Jobs apps. During the Onset phase, downloads of Travel and Airline apps were down 72% and 80% respectively compared to 2019. In the Recovery phase, demand for Travel apps approached their 2019 levels but the category remains down 28% year-over-year as we exit 2020 in the Steady State phase. Airline apps have experienced a much slower bounce back during the Recovery phase and are down a more painful 41% year-over-year in the Steady State phase.

The story is similar for Sports apps, which had 78% fewer downloads during the onset of Covid-19 compared to 2019. And while the category has rebounded some, it’s still down 35% year-over-year at its current steady state. For many industries, a full recovery is still a long ways off as evidenced by less demand for their mobile apps.

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It’s not all mixed news as the Jobs category has more than recovered after being initially down 38% during the Onset phase. Demand for Jobs apps is actually up 9% compared to 2019.

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The most accelerated: Food Delivery, Grocery, Communication, Education, and Entertainment

Covid-19 was a huge boon for a number of App Chart categories as the onset of shelter in place spiked demand for iPhone apps that could bring activities and services from the real world into people’s homes. But for most categories, that spike has turned out to be short lived. In the Recovery phase, downloads generally fell back to normal levels and the steady state demand ended up looking a lot like it did in 2019, pre Covid-19.

For example, the Grocery, Entertainment, and Ecommerce categories had record download volumes during the onset of Covid-19. But the demand normalized over the summer such that in the Steady State phase, Grocery apps are up a more modest 15% year-over-year after initially rocketing up 306%. Similarly, Entertainment apps are also up 15% and Ecommerce apps are up 8% compared to 2019, far off their initial demand spikes in March and April.

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In the Education and Food Delivery categories, demand is now actually below their 2019 levels, which is surprising given these categories in many ways embodied the Covid-19 onset. Covid-19 definitely created dramatic shifts in consumer behavior as evidenced by all the above examples of huge download spikes during the Onset phase. However many of these changes now appear temporary, and consumer behavior is not shifting into a new normal, but instead settling back to the old normal.

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But Covid-19 did create lasting changes. The App Chart categories of News and Messaging have maintained far more of their Covid-19 acceleration with downloads for News apps still up 27% and Messaging apps up 24% year-over-year. Given the trend lines before November, the growth in News app demand is mostly from the US Election cycle — absent that, News app downloads looks the same as 2019. Messaging apps however have continued to maintain clear lift through Covid-19 onset, recovery, and now steady state. Covid-19 has created lasting demand for more ways for people to communicate.

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And finally for an example of a seismic shift in consumer behavior that has sustained throughout the entire year, look no further than the Healthcare category. Demand for Healthcare apps jumped 126% year-over-year during the onset of Covid-19, and has since accelerated even further during the Recovery and Steady State phase, now up 194% compared to 2019. Digital Health looks like a bonafide behavior change from Covid-19 that’s here to stay.

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Some form of normality

“Today is the first day on the long road to go back to normal”

Mona Moghareh, pharmacist who administered one of the first Covid-19 vaccines

On Monday, December 14th, the first ever Covid-19 vaccine shots were administered in the US, the beginning of a long process to end the pandemic which has at last count infected more than 16 million people in this country. Dr. Anthony Fauci estimates that most people in the US could be vaccinated by this summer if the collective willingness is there. And assuming that were to happen, Dr. Fauci says “by the time we get into the fall, we can start essentially approaching some form of normality”.

The idea of normal wouldn’t usually be something that captures the imagination and gives people something to aspire to. But after the crazy year we all just experienced, I think everyone would jump at the chance for a little normal. Who knows what form of normality we’ll get in the end and how familiar and recognizable it will seem. But whatever form it is, I’m betting it’ll be reflected with startling accuracy and for all to see in the App Charts of 2021.

Until then, stay safe and healthy, and have a very happy holidays!

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Written by

Leading Commerce Incubations at $FB. Was co-founder at Packagd (acq.), GP at Kleiner Perkins, and writing messy code at Hulu, Flipboard, Erly (acq.), and $MSFT.

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