Is Mobile the New Normal? COVID-19 and Its Potential Lasting Effects on Mobile Consumer Behavior

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COVID 19 Impact Header

For the past several years, forecasts of mobile adoption and engagement have been focused on meaningful, incremental changes: With steady metrics up and to the right, the world has been inching towards one where the smartphone becomes the primary portal for the logistics of life—mobile-forward to mobile-first, in due time. Yet, no one could have been prepared for the global seismic shift we’re now experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In response to sudden changes in everyday life, mobile businesses that have often marketed themselves as creating convenience for daily tasks are now viewed as a necessity. The mobile laundry, grocery, or meditation app that once seemed a luxury is now viewed by some consumers as worth the extra expense.

As a result, 2020 thus far has seen an unprecedented year of mobile growth: According to Sensor Tower data, mobile downloads and revenue in Q2 both spiked more than one-third compared to the same quarter last year, netting 33.2 billion installs and more than $14.5 billion in total consumer spend (excluding the Chinese app market). Additionally, five countries, including the United States and China, saw more than 20 percent growth in mobile downloads after their 200th confirmed case of COVID, indicating that these changes were sparked by the pandemic.

COVID Downloads Top Countries Q2

What’s left to discover is whether this shift has left any lasting behavioral effects on the mobile app economy. Can this temporary change in our daily lives have permanent effects on how we view the utility of mobile apps? Are we shifting to mobile-first faster than we ever could have anticipated? Some leading global indicators from the Sensor Tower platform make that theory plausible. In the wake of COVID-19, mobile just might become the new normal.

The Data to Watch

The speed with which COVID-19 forced governments around the world to enact shelter-in-place and social distancing measures led to distinct spikes in mobile downloads in some of the countries experiencing the brunt of the virus and enacting the most stringent procedures to maintain control. Countries such as China and South Korea—which were markedly ahead of the U.S. in terms of utilizing lockdowns in response to the pandemic—saw significant spikes in app downloads as their citizens went inside.

COVID Normalized Downloads 2020

It’s difficult to compare behavior at the country level, as differences in timing and subsequent protocol make it difficult to make an apples-to-apples analysis—so Sensor Tower’s data is centered around the 200th confirmed case of COVID-19 in any country. This marker was created as it was the most common indicator of a country’s decision to move indoors and take advised orders for shelter-in-place.

The spike in downloads that occurred after the 200th confirmed case on both the App Store and Google Play is unmistakable, showing that users rushed to adopt new mobile services that helped them adjust to a different lifestyle. However, for many countries, the surge in downloads tapered off in the ensuing months for those that had seen successful implementation of shelter-in-place guidelines, such as China and South Korea.

China saw an increase of more than 60 percent in mobile downloads in the first three weeks after 200 confirmed COVID cases. However, as the country began to tentatively reopen roughly three months later, downloads dipped and eventually reached below pre-COVID levels, showing that behaviors had shifted back to normal. A similar pattern was seen in South Korea, which has been widely acknowledged for its expedient handling of COVID, indicating that countries with successful responses have seen a taper in mobile downloads.

In the U.S., however, downloads peaked at more than 33 percent compared to pre-COVID levels by a few weeks into the pandemic, and have stayed above pre-COVID levels in the ensuing months. According to the Sensor Tower platform, behavior in the U.S. is currently the most reflective of the global average: a pronounced and extended lift in downloads that has led to a lasting average increase.

When Will We Know What Sticks?

There’s an important difference between a temporary bounce and a lasting impact in the mobile economy, but in these unprecedented times it may be difficult to initially understand whether we’re seeing one or the other. When will we know if mobile behaviors have truly changed, and how can we say for sure that they’re here to stay?

Utilizing Sensor Tower data, our Mobile Insights team was able to create a model of how we might be able to approximate a persistent shift in download trends. Like any conventional wisdom around habit development, the main factor that increases permanence is time. While the majority of the downloads that have spiked in the near term can’t be sustainable due to a variety of factors, there’s a noticeable shift over time that indicates download numbers will remain persistently boosted.

COVID Baseline Downloads 2020

The returns do not accelerate, however—over a period of time, downloads once again flatten out and do not increase much beyond the original baseline. But even a small shift makes a significant impact over time: Never before have we witnessed an event that could have such lasting and important changes on the mobile ecosystem as a whole, maturing the audience of so many different app categories in just a span of a few weeks.

Downloads are a leading indicator of mobile behavior, and it is the most noticeable in the near-term. Over time, however, the specific way this massive uptick in installs affects overall mobile revenue will also be an important measure of how much behavior has changed.

While engagement metrics will be a lagging indicator, they’ll perhaps become more important, as users develop stronger and more consistent mobile routines.

Lastly, as app developers adapt and iterate to improve the transition from status quo to a more mobile-enabled business strategy, usage and engagement will compound over time, finally articulating the shift in daily activities that would indicate lasting permanence.

While there’s no doubt that 2020 will be an outlier year for mobile downloads and revenue, Sensor Tower will be keeping an eye on a handful of countries to understand how their behavior this year converts into lasting change for the mobile app economy.

The New Mobile Future: A Hypothesis

There are still many unknowns when measuring the impact of COVID-19 over a period of time, but the data is indicating that the pandemic could fundamentally change the way users around the world view the apps on their mobile devices. As we collect more data on this unprecedented year, we’ll continue to devote portions of our quarterly reports to COVID-related insights. Alongside that, we have a working hypothesis for what we may see over the rest of the year and into 2021.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the surge of global mobile installs will undoubtedly supercharge app development and adoption, creating a prolonged consumer base for apps of all kinds. As a result, we will see dramatic maturation of a handful of categories—particularly Business, Health, Education, and Lifestyle—that will ignite a period of unprecedented growth in sophistication for these app-makers.

While it’s likely that the surge in mobile in 2020 will not be replicated again anytime soon, it has become a significant growth moment for the mobile app economy. These large spikes in downloads and revenue are very likely to subside. The longer we continue to adapt and change our behaviors in response to this global health event, however, the more likely they won’t do so anytime soon.

Sensor Tower is the leading, trusted source of enterprise-grade market intelligence and performance metrics in the mobile app ecosystem. Interested in learning more? Reach out and request a demo today.