Pandemic pushes greater mobile app engagement

January 18, 2022

Businessman with modern mobile phone in his hand switching pictures
Jonathan Bennett, Chief Commercial Officer

Jonathan Bennett

Chief Commercial Officer

The latest State of Mobile 2022 report compiled by mobile app analytics firm App Annie tracks how smartphone users in different countries engaged with mobile apps in 2021 and generated increasing revenue for their developers and the app stores that host them.

Improved mobile network connectivity, bigger smartphone screen sizes, and more powerful device processing capabilities have made it much easier for people to enjoy premium applications and games on the go over the past couple of years, factors evident in their usage statistics. The report estimates that consumers worldwide collectively spent almost 3.8tn hours using apps on their mobile devices in 2021. Total spend across Google Play, Apple’s App Store, and other third-party Android app stores in China expanded 19% year on year to US$170bn in 2021, with a parallel 5% increase in new app downloads (230bn).

The extra US$10.4bn spent on mobile apps in the country last year represented a 30% year-on-year increase and was primarily driven by mainstream adoption of mobile gaming and in-app subscriptions, suggested App Annie. The US accounted for an astounding US$43bn of that consumer spend, over a quarter of the total. Despite spending more, the US was only the third most active country in terms of app downloads in 2021; however, surpassed by both China and India but ahead of Brazil and Indonesia in fourth and fifth place, respectively.

More time spent on mobile than watching TV

Long periods of economic lockdowns and social distancing restrictions have also pushed people to spend more time using their devices. The average daily time spent per user on Android mobile phones across the top ten markets analyzed increased 30% to 4.8 hours, for example, higher (and over 5 hours a day in Brazil, Indonesia, and South Korea).

For example, the average American watched 3.1hours of TV a day but spent 4.1 hours on their mobile device in 2021. And many mobile apps make more money for their developers than movies make for their producers, with 20% more (233) making over US$100m in 2021 compared to 2020. Thirteen made over US$1bn, up from eight in 2020, primarily multiplayer combat games like Fortnite, Garena Free Fire, and Player Unknown Battleground (PUBG). That contributed to an additional US$16bn spent on mobile games in 2021, estimates App Annie, taking the total to US$116bn, 68% of total app spend across all categories.

But on a global basis, it is social and communication and photo and video apps such as Facebook, WhatsApp Messenger, Instagram, and TikTok which occupy most people’s time. According to App Annie, these apps command roughly seven out of every ten minutes spent using all apps. ByteDance’s TikTok registered phenomenal growth in engagement, with an average of almost 20 hours per user per month in 2021, up from just over thirteen hours per month in 2020.

Though they remain a long way ahead in revenue generated, mobile games and entertainment apps trail by a considerable distance when measured in time spent using them. The latter were boosted by the return of live sport during 2021, notably the resumption of the delayed UEFA football championships in Europe and the return of the NFL in the US, while the ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup boosted audiences in the APAC region. Time spent in sports streaming apps was up 30% globally in 2020, reaching levels not seen since before the coronavirus pandemic took hold. The most significant rebounds came in Singapore and Canada (up 125%), Russia (up 120%), Argentina (up 105%), and Indonesia (up 90%).

App Annie’s 2021 report confirms that despite access to bigger screens, consumers still watch a lot of video content on mobile devices. YouTube, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+ top the charts based on worldwide downloads with exclusive content and strategically timed releases of new movies and TV shows fuelling growth in individual countries. Time spent using the top 20 video streaming apps increased by around 18% globally in 2021, despite notable declines in India and China.

Live streaming apps grow fastest

However, App Annie calculates that the growth of time spent in the top 25 live streaming apps outpaced engagement with social media and messaging over the last four years. However, one category of video streaming app expanded at a much faster rate. These include live sports apps and live stream gaming apps like Twitch, Facebook Gaming, YouTube Gaming, and other platforms that allow end-users to create and share video and audio content. These include TikTok Live, Instagram, and Facebook Live.

Though this category of the app started from a much smaller base than social media apps, an average year on the year growth rate of 40% has pushed the global total of time spent using them from around 35bn hours in 2018 to almost 280bn hours in 2021. In China, this form of short-form video app has rocketed in popularity at the expense of video streaming apps.

Whether growth rates witnessed in 2020 and 2021 will be repeated in 2022 may be more difficult to predict. Pandemic-induced economic disruption and social distancing requirements undoubtedly played a significant role in driving higher smartphone and app usage over the last couple of years. As those restrictions are progressively eased, the world’s consumers are likely to find other uses for their time. But history tells us the smartphone habit is a hard one to break. At the same time, app engagement levels will continue to be driven up by new users in emerging economies accessing the mobile Internet for the first time.

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