Period tracker Stardust surges following Roe reversal, but its privacy claims aren’t airtight

Period tracking app Stardust surged to the top of the U.S. Apple App Store in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade after the app promised it will encrypt its users’ private data to keep it out of the hands of the government.

But TechCrunch found on Monday that the current version of the now-booming Stardust app is sharing the app users’ phone numbers with a third-party analytics company, which could be used to identify individual users of the app.

The decision to reverse Roe overturned 50 years of constitutional protections for abortion rights in the United States, allowing individual states to create laws to criminalize abortion. The decision has led to calls for users to delete their period-tracking apps from their phones, fearing the data collected by these apps could be used against them to prove an abortion was obtained illegally.

Others are abandoning their current period trackers and turning to apps like Stardust instead as a result of the company’s strong statement issued in light of the decision to overturn Roe. Stardust said it would implement end-to-end encryption so it would “not be able to hand over any of your period tracking data” to the government, helping to draw in hundreds of thousands of downloads over this weekend ahead of the release of the new, encryption-featured app version slated for release on Wednesday.

TechCrunch ran a network traffic analysis of Stardust’s iPhone app on Monday to understand what data was flowing in and out of the app. The network traffic showed that if that user logs into the app using their phone number (rather than through a login service provided by Apple or Google), Stardust will periodically share the user’s phone number with a third-party analytics service called Mixpanel.

Mixpanel is an analytics service that’s used widely by app developers to track their app’s usage and help identify errors or other ways to improve the app. It does this by tracking how someone uses the app and sending the data back to Mixpanel’s servers. Stardust also shared with Mixpanel details about the phone that the app was installed on, which iPhone model and software version, and which cell carrier the phone was connected to.

During the network traffic analysis, TechCrunch saw no health data shared with Mixpanel. But sharing a phone number that’s tied to a specific user of a period-tracking app with a third party, like Mixpanel, could allow prosecutors to compel Mixpanel to turn over that data — even if Stardust claims that it can’t.

Stardust founder Rachel Moranis told TechCrunch that “The current (old) version of Stardust leverages several data collection mechanisms of Mixpanel that we have disabled/removed in the new version. In addition to not sending [personally identifiable information] to Mixpanel, we have also disabled IP tracking for our users to protect from that metadata being used to identify our users.”

In a tweet, Stardust said it was “working on” a way to allow users to sign in anonymously.

Stardust’s privacy policy, updated on June 26, indicates the app is not as protected as it claims. It notes the app collects a variety of data about users’ devices, activity, and location, including through cookies and other tracking technologies. It also carves out some exceptions with regard to data sharing, noting how it may disclose de-personalized data with some providers, with user consent, or when required by law — if it must “comply with or respond to law enforcement or a legal process or a request for cooperation by a government or other entity, whether or not legally required.”

This also seems to contradict the part of the policy that insists that the company will never share users’ ages or “any data related to your health with any third parties.”)

Since the overturning of Roe, tech companies are bracing for a new regime under which they could face legal orders compelling the turnover of pregnancy-related user data to state authorities and prosecutors. Some of the biggest tech companies still have not said how they would handle demands for data related to investigations relating to people seeking or providing abortions. That’s contributed to a rush to find apps and services that use end-to-end encryption, which prevents anyone — even the app maker — from accessing a user’s data.

Thanks to its announcement that it’s moving to encryption, Stardust’s app drew in 135,000 new installs on June 24, a 4,400% spike in the number of installs it saw on the previous day, about 3,000 installs, according to data from app intelligence firm Sensor Tower. On Saturday, June 25, the app saw another 200,000 installs and hit No. 1 on the U.S. App Store, up from its prior rank of No. 119. Combined, the two weekend days delivered 82% of Stardust’s more than 400,000 total lifetime installs.

TechCrunch asked the founders for more information about how the app is implementing end-to-end encryption. Stardust founder Moranis told TechCrunch that “all traffic to our servers is through standard SSL (hosted on AWS) and subsequent data storage on AWS RDS utilizing their built-in AES-256 encryption implementation.” Although this describes the use of encryption to protect data while in transit and while it’s stored on Amazon’s servers, it’s not clear if this implementation would be considered true end-to-end encryption.

Given its complexity and the stakes involved, implementing end-to-end encryption is often a time- and resource-intensive effort, where a single coding flaw could undermine the protections of the users’ data. It’s also not uncommon for companies that use end-to-end encryption to publish papers and technical notes explaining how their systems work – often even a point of pride for some companies – or even open-sourcing and publishing their code, as cryptographic proof that their systems are secure.

When asked if the company had conducted a third-party security audit of the app’s code, Moranis said that the company intends to “fully publish our implementation along with a third-party audit once it is complete,” but a timeline was not given. (TechCrunch will follow up when the results of the audit are available.)

After we heard from Stardust, the company quietly changed its privacy policy again to remove mentions of end-to-end encryption.

It’s hard to argue with people’s fears — the period tracking app industry was already found to have engaged in leaky data-sharing practices with third-party tracking and analytic firms, as well as tech giants like Facebook and Google. One app, Flo, had to settle last year with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission for violating its own privacy policy. Among other things, the app had falsely claimed it only shared “non-personally identifiable” information with third parties — which an investigation by The Wall St. Journal proved to be untrue.

Another app, Glow, had to settle with the state of California the year prior for exposing women’s medical information.

Consumer Reports said in May that many apps continue to use third-party trackers and don’t store consumers’ data locally on their devices where it can’t be shared or sold.

Plus, period tracking apps don’t have to comply with the federal privacy law known as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA.

With the threat of losing their entire user bases, however, many period trackers released statements to ensure customers their data is safe. Flo, which completed an independent privacy review in March, said that it will do “everything in its power” to protect users’ data and privacy. It also said it would launch a new “Anonymous Mode” feature that removes users’ personal identities from their Flo accounts.

Consumers swap period tracking apps in search of increased privacy following Roe v. Wade ruling

Consumers are ditching their current period tracking apps in favor of what they perceive to be safer options in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision that allows individual U.S. states to criminalize abortion. The app switching trend is impacting all manner of period tracking apps, including leading app Flo, which owns a 47% share of the period tracking app market in the U.S., according to data provided by Apptopia. The app may have both lost customers to rival apps while gaining new users from others over the weekend. Other apps are seeing similar trends.

The patterns of app switching indicate consumers are seeking out increased privacy, as many of those gaining from this trend are companies that have made public statements in support of strengthened data security and privacy practices. But it’s also clear that consumers don’t necessarily have a good understanding of which apps to trust given that the current beneficiary of this increased switching activity is a potentially problematic app called Stardust, which had yet to implement its new privacy protections at the time it was making promises to users.

As a result of its claims, Stardust saw its daily average downloads increase by as much as 6,000% over the past weekend, Apptopia said. The relative newcomer to the period tracking market drew attention by promoting itself as a small, women-led team who wanted to provide users with a more secure app. Those claims resonated with consumers, driving the app to No. 1 on the App Store on Saturday. But in terms of data security, being a small team is not necessarily an advantage. TechCrunch found various data privacy issues with the version of the app that users downloaded over the weekend, including its sharing of users’ phone numbers with a third party.

Despite these issues, app intelligence firm Sensor Tower said the app gained 82% of its total 400,000+ lifetime installs this past Saturday through Sunday.

Another top app, Clue, also benefitted from consumers seeking alternatives. Apptopia found Clue’s app saw a 2,200% increase in installs over the weekend after it made comments in the press that it won’t divulge sensitive information to states. Sensor Tower reported Clue had also reached its highest-ever rank on Saturday as the No. 15 overall free app on the App Store. It has since dropped to No. 93, which suggests the rank change had been the result of a surge of app switchers.

Several other apps saw increased installs on Saturday, June 25, too. Compared with the month of June, Glow’s ovulation app saw its average daily downloads jump 21% and its period tracker Eve saw average daily installs increase 83%, Apptopia said. An app called Natural Cycles – Birth Control saw average daily installs rise 53%; another called Period Tracker by GP Apps saw a 17% increase; and the app Femometer saw a 10% increase. Single-digit increases were also seen in apps including My Calendar – Period Tracker and Ovia Fertility & Cycle Tracker, the firm found.

Finally, leading app Flo moved up slightly on Saturday as a result of the app switching activity. Flo jumped from No. 197 on June 23 before the ruling to No. 187 on Saturday, June 25, Sensor Tower said. It’s now moved up more to No. 180 as of the time of writing. It’s worth noting that Flo’s average daily installs had been on the decline for several months, Apptopia had reported — in part, likely due to news of its 2021 settlement with the FTC over earlier privacy violations. That indicates consumers have been thinking about data privacy well before the Supreme Court ruling.

After the court’s decision on Friday, Flo issued a statement in hopes of stemming the tide of app switchers or those inclined to delete their accounts. It said:

“Flo will always stand up for the health of women, and will do everything in its power to protect the data and privacy of our users. To add to our security measures already in place (read more about that here), we will soon be launching a new feature called “Anonymous Mode” – an option that allows users to remove their personal identity from their Flo account. Lastly, Flo will never require a user to log an abortion or offer details that they feel should be kept private, and users can delete their data at any time. We firmly believe that our users deserve complete control over their data and we are here to support our users every step of the way.”

Clue also issued a lengthy response to Roe v. Wade on its website, which stressed its adherence to strict European data privacy laws and use of encryption. GP Apps, the maker of Period Tracker, published a strong statement, as well, though its privacy policy indicates that it would comply with legal requests and subpoenas. (However, it noted that consumers can opt to use its account without an online account, which would then only store data locally on the user’s device.) Other companies have published statements on their websites and social media accounts, as well.

But without a deeper analysis of each company’s privacy policy and more sophisticated testing of each app’s privacy and security protections, it’s hard to recommend that the use of any third-party period tracking app is a 100% safe decision at this time, regardless of their statements and claims.

One possible solution to this problem is to simply use Apple’s Health app alone for the time being, where end-to-end encryption of users’ Health records is available through iCloud. Unfortunately, data on Apple’s first-party apps isn’t available so we’ll never know how many consumers made this choice.

The next big social platform is the smartphone’s homescreen

BeReal, LiveIn, Locket… what do these new consumer social apps have in common besides a highly-ranked position on the App Store’s Top Charts? They engage their users through a combination of push notifications and homescreen widgets, instead of forcing people to spend a long time browsing their app, scrolling feeds, or watching creator content.

The popularity of this homescreen-based form of social networking is, in part, tied to Apple’s move to launch a widgets platform for the iPhone with the release of iOS 14 in 2020. In doing so, it invited a new ecosystem of apps to emerge.

Initially, this began with apps that allowed users to better personalize their homescreens with widgets and custom app icons that matched their backgrounds, sending apps like Widgetsmith, Brass, Color Widgets, and others to the top of the App Store. But over time, developers realized that widgets didn’t just have to be homescreen decorations – they could, in effect, be an active extension of their own platforms. Their widgets could serve as a tool to engage users in the most personal space on a mobile device: the prime real estate that is the phone’s homescreen.

When Locket first launched in December 2021, this idea was more of a novelty.

Developer and former Apple WWDC student scholarship winner Matt Moss thought it would be clever to use a widget to send photos to his girlfriend as they embarked on a long-distance relationship. But soon, his friends were clamoring for access to the app he had built as a simple side project.

Since then, Locket has expanded from iOS to Android and how now seen a total of 20 million installs to date, according to estimates from app store intelligence firm Sensor Tower. But its popularity has declined a bit as newer competitors emerged. While Locket was No. 9 in the Social Networking category, as of the time of writing, it was only No. 42 Overall on the U.S. App Store. That rank is largely due to the fact that there are so many other apps now playing in this space and gaining momentum.

For instance, another app called BeReal had originally arrived in December 2019 – before iPhone’s widgets became broadly available. This social app encourages users to capture a photo within 2 minutes of receiving a push notification using BeReal’s camera — which takes both a front-facing photo and selfie at the same time. The idea is to give users a way to see what their friends are up to in real-time. Before this year, BeReal had seen steady, but not groundbreaking, growth, achieving 1.9 million worldwide installs, per Sensor Tower data. The app is backed by $30 million in funding, led by a16z, Accel, and New Wave.

Then, in February 2022, BeReal tapped into the idea to leverage the homescreen to capture friends’ reactions to users’ posts, with the launch of a feature called “WidgetMojis.” This addition allowed BeReal to display friends’ photos in a live-updating widget on the homescreen as they reacted to users’ BeReal posts, or what BeReal calls RealMojis. By April, the app intelligence firm Apptopia had reported that BeReal had grown its monthly active users 315% year-to-date and that 65% of its lifetime downloads had occurred this year. That figure has since grown to around 86%, Sensor Tower says, as the app now has a total of 13.9 million lifetime installs.

Over the course of 2022, BeReal’s popularity has skyrocketed. This year alone BeReal has gained some 12 million installs, the data further indicates. And, as of the time of writing, BeReal was the No. 10 Overall app on the U.S. App Store, beating out traditional social networking and communication apps like Messenger, Snapchat, Telegram, Discord, Twitter, and Pinterest. It was also the No. 3 app in the Social Networking category.

For younger users, BeReal also becoming a part of their cultural lexicon and everyday app rotation. On TikTok, the hashtag #bereal has over 390 million views, while variations on the name bring in thousands or millions more.

But BeReal is now only one of many competing in this space. Another vying for a part of this emerging market is the newer addition, LiveIn, which launched in January 2022 after pivoting from a Clubhouse-like app, Livehouse. This homescreen social networking app comes with its own twist. Instead of just sending selfie photos to friends’ phones, users can send videos and drawings, as well. Another new feature lets users “duet” photos and videos — taking a cue from the similarly-named mashup feature found on TikTok.

The company said in a press release it reached 4 million monthly active users in the first two months after launch. At the time, the hashtags #liveinapp and #livepic had generated more than 40 million TikTok views. Today, #liveinapp has 279.5 million TikTok views and #livepic has 37.6 million.

@tuckerthorn Guys use the link in my bio so I can send photos to your Home Screen 😂 #liveinapp @liveinapp #fyp #app #foryou ♬ As It Was – Harry Styles

In addition to the casual photo-sharing and updated widgets, these new social apps include a photo archive so users can look back at their memories. This serves not only as a way to incentivize users to launch the apps outside of designated photo-taking times, but also as a way to lock in users and keep them from abandoning the platform.

This sort of photo archive isn’t a new concept – it’s inspired by Facebook and Snapchat’s Memories features, but is designed to achieve the same results with a younger crowd.

In fact, these new social apps have taken many of the core concepts more recently popularized by Snapchat – access to real-life friends, private photo sharing, spontaneous and casual photo-taking, and memories – and have built their own differentiated platforms that tap into the smartphone’s notification system and direct homescreen access via widgets.

These three apps are only a handful of a growing number of apps building for social via the phone’s homescreen widgets.

Other top downloaded apps include Noteit Widget, which has gained 18.8 million lifetime installs per Sensor Tower data; Loveit: Live Pic & Note Widget (1.4 million installs); Widgetshare (3.1 million installs); Peek (704K installs); Widgetpal (374K installs), Snapwidget (185K installs); Rocket Widget (127K installs); Comet: Live Friends Widget (112K installs); and others.

There are even clones capitalizing on the names of popular brands like the not-so-subtly named app called “LivePic, Locket Photo Widgets” which has managed to pull in 79K installs — some of which likely came by way of misdirected App Store searches.

Gen Z’s shift to authenticity

Another one of the many things these apps have in common is that they promote sharing real-life photos that don’t involve heavy editing, filters, or AR effects – features Snapchat and Instagram had become known for. This speaks to a broader shift that’s helping fuel this trend: the end of the Instagram aesthetic and the increased desire for authenticity on social media.

We already saw hints of this emerging with the launches of other newcomer social photo apps like Dispo or Poparazzi, both of which focused on uncurated photostreams – the latter, where photos were snapped and posted by the user’s friends, not users themselves. There were also the apps that aimed at photographers abandoned by Instagram — like Glass, or Herd Social, which had positioned themselves as being “anti-Instagram” apps.

This broader group of photo apps promoted their defiance of Big Tech with its manufactured algorithms, the overabundance of features, and the hyper-competitiveness that now sees mainstream social networks chasing TikTok with short videos, not to mention their collective drive to incorporate all sorts of other activity — like e-commerce, creator subscriptions, virtual tipping, NFTs, and more. When it’s not trying to be an online mall, Instagram is trying to clone TikTok, for example. Snapchat is hosting creator content and now wants users to shop using AR.

Meanwhile, younger users – the key demographic that uses social apps – seemed to have actually just wanted simpler apps that focused on what they wanted social networking to be about: their friends.

It’s funny that it’s come to this. The “social graph” was once the holy grail of consumer social platforms – to know who someone was connected to in real life was perceived as valuable data. For one thing, it meant you could lock users into a walled garden they wouldn’t want to leave because their friends were all there, too. And making this social graph inaccessible to competitors meant every new network had to start from scratch. But these days, mainstream social networks are more heavily focused on connecting users with creators – after all, that’s where the money is. Users can subscribe to, shop from, and virtually tip content creators. Monetizing true friendships is much more difficult.

But Big Tech’s greed left a gap in the market where they began to underserve those in search of real-world connections. This impact isn’t just visible within the homescreen social app trend.

It’s also helped drive users to the almost too numerous to count “friend-finding” and friend discovery apps, like Yubo, LMK, Wink, Hoop, Wizz, Vibe, Fam, Itsme, Lobby, Hippo, LiveMe, Swiping, and others – many of which had built on top of Snapchat’s APIs until the company tightened its developer policy over child safety concerns.

The trend is similarly impacting dating, leading to Match’s biggest-ever acquisition of Hyperconnect for $1.73 billion, which had been building “social discovery” apps that weren’t designed specifically for romantic connections. Bumble today is beefing up its “BFF” feature as younger people are shifting their interest to friend-finding apps.

But this broader shift in social isn’t without concerns. Though mainstream social apps are now being held accountable regarding their user protections, newer social apps are flying under the radar. Parents haven’t heard of these new apps and don’t know to monitor or restrict them as a result. The same goes for lawmakers and regulators, too, who have their eyes affixed solely on tech giants. And as reports have shown, the apps’ privacy protections and policies, in some cases, are fairly weak. This is particularly concerning given that many are marketed towards and used by tweens and younger teens, who may inadvertently post to global, public feeds instead of to friends, post inappropriate content, or become the victims of cyberbullying.

But the apps’ freewheeling nature isn’t the only reason why homescreen social networking is having a moment. Beyond those mentioned above, there are many other factors at play here — including the apps’ clever use of TikTok to drive downloads, influencer marketing, and college ambassador programs to spread the word about new apps more “organically.” There’s also the continuous background noise related to social networking’s ill effects that Gen Z is aware of, even if only mariginally. Data scandals, high-profile leaks and whistleblowing, Congressional hearings, regulatory inquiries, and the resulting media coverage have helped fuel consumer demand for apps that weren’t created by today’s dominant players.

The market’s readiness for this type of networking is demonstrated by how well these “homescreen social” apps are currently doing. They’re dominating the Social Networking charts and are staking their position in the Overall Top Charts. While, longer-term, they could end up being another flash in the pan the way location-based social networking apps were in the 2010’s, there’s a sense that some Gen Z users no longer consider these apps experimental.

@carolinelusk it’s time sensitive man #fyp #foryou #foryoupage ♬ original sound – AnxietyGangOfficial

And while TikTok is certainly a viable threat in terms of capturing the valuable – and profitable – connection between users and creators, users’ social graphs are still up for grabs. In fact, many among Gen Z don’t want to share their real-world relationships with TikTok, they’ve said in videos posted to the platform. They appreciate that’s TikTok a network that’s about creativity and individualized interests, not their real-world connections.

@420koreaboono every time damn stop asking♬ ITSJULYSKI – JULYSKI

TikTok has realized this too and understands the risk it poses for its own business. It even got so pushy about acquiring users’ address books that it destroyed its own Discover page in favor of a Friends page in hopes of capturing that data.

If the trend continues, it could impact other mainstream social networks, which have largely ignored this new avenue to gain users and haven’t adopted the “live pics from friends” widget format, either.

With the social graph filtering to smaller, simpler homescreen social networking apps, there also now comes the potential to build a different kind of social network that could be monetized in new ways beyond ads. These apps could roll out premium features, a subscription service, direct payment, and more. But that future is still in question, as it remains to be seen whether homescreen social networking apps have long-term staying power among the historically fickle younger crowd who have adopted them.

This Week in Apps: WWDC preview, hitting the Top Charts, Instagram’s AMBER Alerts

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.

The app industry continues to grow, with a record number of downloads and consumer spending across both the iOS and Google Play stores combined in 2021, according to the latest year-end reports. App Annie says global spending across iOS and Google Play is up to $135 billion in 2021, and that figure will likely be higher when its annual report, including third-party app stores in China, is released next year. Consumers also downloaded 10 billion more apps this year than in 2020, reaching nearly 140 billion in new installs, it found.

Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that was up 27% year-over-year.

This Week in Apps offers a way to keep up with this fast-moving industry in one place with the latest from the world of apps, including news, updates, startup fundings, mergers and acquisitions, and much more.

Do you want This Week in Apps in your inbox every Saturday? Sign up here:

Top Stories

WWDC 2022 Preview

It’s that time again. Google I/O has come and gone, which means it’s now WWDC season. Apple’s big developer conference is back this year as a hybrid event with invites sent to some developers (and press), and a keynote that airs Monday, June 6 at 10 a.m. PT. Amid the possibility of new Macs (or maybe even the rumored AR headset?), app developers are most interested in the coming updates to Apple’s development platforms and what’s ahead for its mobile operating systems, including the big new release of iOS 16.

Thanks to leaks largely from Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman, iOS 16 — code-named “Sydney” — could be a fairly big upgrade. Rumored changes include an updated lockscreen that features the Today View widgets, perhaps — more real estate for app developers to capture users’ attention — as well as the chance that an iPhone 14/iOS 16 combo will include an always-on display. Other updates could see first-party apps like Messages and Health getting updates, the former with enhancements to its audio features, the leaks claim.

Elsewhere, we’re expecting multitasking improvements for iPadOS, plus updates to macOS, watchOS and tvOS, including other first-party app updates (Settings, Mail, Safari, Podcasts and Notes, potentially), new watch faces and more.

If Apple wanted to surprise us, it could announce the rumored homeOS or its smartglasses, but for the time being, we’re not betting on those releases.

Daily downloads to reach top of the App Store have increased 37% since 2019

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

New analysis indicates it’s gotten harder to get an app to the top of the App Store, in terms of downloads, over the past several years. According to new data from app intelligence firm Sensor Tower, the number of downloads needed for an app to break into the No. 1 position on Apple’s iPhone App Store in the U.S. has climbed by 37% since 2019. Specifically, it estimates an app now requires approximately 156,000 downloads on a given day to hit the top spot on the U.S. App Store, up from 114,000 daily downloads back in 2019.

Meanwhile, Android apps only need 56,000 daily downloads, down from 83,000 in 2019.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Of course, developers know that downloads alone don’t move an app to the top of the charts. It’s only one of several factors that Apple’s ranking algorithm takes into account for managing its Top Charts. Still, it’s an interesting metric to track as it does matter — and Sensor Tower has done the work to analyze the median needed per marketplace, by categories, and even among select markets. You can read our write-up here.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

  • Apple updated its Apple Developer App in advance of WWDC. The app will allow developers to browse the WWDC tab to watch the complete schedule of each day’s session videos, as well as access Digital Lounge activities and the Coding and Design Challenges. The app also now supports SharePlay so developers can watch videos together with colleagues or friends.
  • Apple also launched a new webpage, Beyond WWDC, devoted to listing a number of other events and gatherings related to WWDC, many of which are sponsored by or led by developer organizations.
  • Ahead of next week’s reveal of iOS 16, Apple released the latest iOS 15.6 beta 2, as well as the second developer betas for iPadOS 15.6, tvOS 15.6 and watchOS 8.7. Notably, the update fixed the bug that saw the Apple Music app pushing other apps out of the iPhone’s dock.
  • Mixpanel noted that Apple’s iOS 15 is now installed on 85% of active iPhones as we head toward the reveal of iOS 16.
  • Apple featured a selection of its WWDC22 Swift Student Challenge Winners, which this year total 350 students from 40 countries and regions. Among the apps that Apple highlighted were Ivy, an app for gardeners; an app that teaches CPR; and an app that lets people try out different pronouns using sample texts.

Platforms: Google

  • Google said Android users will soon be able to apply their Play Points to in-app purchases for apps published on Google Play. The points will be available right in the checkout flow.
  • Google announced the General Availability (GA) of App Actions using shortcuts.xml, part of the Android shortcuts framework. By using the Shortcuts API, developers can add a layer of voice interaction to their apps, by using the Android tooling, platform and features they already know, Google said.
  • Google’s latest Android update included new Gboard stickers, 1,600 Emoji Kitchen combos, new Play Points features and accessibility app improvements. Most notably, the company is bringing custom text stickers to all Android devices, after first launching them on Pixel phones in March.
  • A number of South Korean app developers and content providers upped their paid subscription and service fees on Google’s Play marketplace due to the 15-30% commissions now required following Google’s policy changes that force apps to use its first-party billings and payments system. While South Korean law permits app developers to use a third-party payment option, this only reduces Google’s commission by 4% — and that’s not enough, developers believe.
  • Google is said to be shutting down Android Auto for phone screens, according to messages users are seeing in the app.


  • Amazon added an invite-only ordering option to its website and app designed to limit bots’ ability to score high-demand, low-supply products. The system launches in the U.S. with the PS 5 and Xbox Series X console preorders.
  • Kohl’s is the latest retailer to sign on for Apple’s Business Chat, which allows customers to talk to live chat customer service agents through Apple’s Messages app.


  • SEC filings indicated banking app Varo, the first U.S. neobank to receive a bank charter, had $263 million equity, an $84 million burn rate and 98% of its income came from interchange and fees, according to an analysis by Fintech Business Weekly. The report suggested Varo could be out of money by year-end if it doesn’t cut costs and raise more capital.
  • Visa and East Africa’s biggest telecom, Safaricom, the operator of the M-Pesa mobile money product, launched a virtual card that will allow M-Pesa users to make digital payments globally.
  • Square said it would roll out support for Apple’s new Tap to Pay on iPhone feature inside its Square Point of Sale app later this year, and it launched an Early Access Program for select merchants.
  • Coinbase said it will extend its hiring freeze for “as long as this macro environment requires” and said it would also rescind a number of accepted offers.


Instagram Amber Alerts

Image Credits: Instagram

  • Instagram launched AMBER Alerts on its app to tap into its wide user base to help find missing children. The alert will appear if you’re in the designated search area and will include information about the missing child, including an image, description, location of the abduction and other details.
  • Twitter is said to be restructuring to focus on user growth and personalization, which is impacting staffing for other features like Spaces, newsletters and Communities, Bloomberg said.
  • After 14 years, Meta announced COO Sheryl Sandberg is leaving the company. The resignation follows reports that the exec used Meta’s resources for personal interests, like wedding planning, and used Facebook resources to pressure Daily Mail to kill a story about then-boyfriend Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick.
  • Meta announced a series of updates and new features for its Reels products across both Facebook and Instagram, including a Sound Sync feature on Facebook Reels and support for longer Instagram Reels of up to 90 seconds, instead of 60 seconds. It also rolled out more creative tools, including bringing Instagram’s Story stickers to Reels.

Image Credits: Meta

  • Snapchat launched a new “Shared Stories” feature that makes it easier for users to collaborate and share memories. It also partnered with restaurant review website The Infatuation to help users to find local eats on its Snap Map.
  • The Uvalde shooter used the Gen Z social app Yubo to meet people who he would then follow on Instagram and with whom he discussed buying a gun in private chats, The Washington Post reported. Yubo additionally announced new age estimating features to separate minors from adults on its app.
  • Twitter said it’s shutting down TweetDeck for Mac, the social media dashboard app aimed at power users who want to view multiple columns within a single screen. The app will sunset on July 1 after which users will be directed to the web version, which is being updated.
  • TikTok is testing a new feature, “clear mode,” that allows for a distraction-free scrolling experience on the app. The feature is in limited testing with select users and removes all clutter on-screen, like captions and buttons.
  • Tumblr rolled out a way to gift ad-free browsing to friends at a rate of $4.99/mo or $39.99/year. It also introduced a way to turn off the ability for users to limit reblogs on their posts.
  • Discord said it will give voice channels their own text-based chat rooms where users can share links and other texts without having to channel hop. The feature will roll out across platforms by June 29.
  • Social events app IRL is laying off 25% of its team, or around 25 people, citing market dynamics. The cut comes around a year after the startup landed a $170 million SoftBank-led Series C and reached unicorn status.

Messaging & Calling

  • Google announced plans to combine its Google Duo and Google Meet calling apps into a single app that uses Duo’s tech as the foundation but leverages the Google Meet branding. The Duo app will gain all of Meet’s features, including scheduled meetings, but users will also be able to use the new app for ad hoc calls. Google had previously sunset Duo’s chat-based sister app Allo ahead of this move.
  • The Jonas Brothers-backed startup Scriber forgoes a standalone app to connect fans with exclusive celeb content over SMS updates to their preferred messaging app. The Jonas Brothers charge $4.99/mo for their fan subscription but plan to donate half the earnings to charity.

Streaming & Entertainment

Image Credits: YouTube

  • YouTube announced its mobile app can now sync to your TV without using casting, for a “second screen’ experience.” The app will instead ask users if they want to sync to their TV, which will then allow the users to interact with the video, by liking, commenting and supporting the creator, as well as shop the products being featured.
  • Google launched the Google TV for iOS app after moving the Movies and TV section from the Play Store to the Google TV app. The new app replaces the Play Movies & TV app for iOS and lets TV viewers use their phone as a remote control.
  • A top streaming service in China, iQiyi, majority owned by Baidu, reported its first quarterly profit of $26.7 million in Q1 2022, after spending cuts.
  • Apple is now injecting first-party ads for its own radio shows within the premium Apple Music service, to the anger of some users.
  • Spotify faced a streaming outage on Monday and Tuesday when podcasts on Spotify-owned Megaphone were unavailable for more than eight hours from Monday night through early Tuesday morning due to an expired SSL certificate.
  • Singapore-based TIYA, a Clubhouse-like social audio networking platform, launched a Spotify integration that lets its users listen to music and podcasts with friends. The app is a subsidiary of Chinese app maker LIZHI.
  • TikTok is launching a live subscription comedy series in partnership with social media collaboration company Pearpop and creator Jericho Mencke. Episodes of the show, “Finding Jericho,” will air twice a week in June on TikTok LIVE, with eight 30-minute episodes in total. It will cost $4.99 to watch the series.


  • Google announced the return of the Indie Game Accelerator program for 2022. It said selected game studios from 78 eligible countries will be invited to take part in the 10-week acceleration program starting in September 2022 as the Accelerator Class of 2022. The program includes a series of online classes, talks and game development workshops. Develoeprs also get the chance to meet and connect with others from around the world.
  • Epic Games is hosting its first major in-person competitive Fortnite event since the Fortnite World Cup in 2019. The upcoming FNCS Invitational 2022 will take place November 12-13 at the Raleigh Convention Center and will feature a $1 million prize pool.
  • Popular iOS mobile games from Ustwo, the developer behind Monument Valley, will come to the PC with a launch on Steam on July 12.

Travel & Transportation

  • The world’s second most frequently downloaded ride-hailing app after Uber, inDriver, was profiled by Rest of World this week. The Siberia-based app, which lets drivers haggle over prices, hit unicorn status last year with a valuation of $1.23 billion. It now serves 42 countries worldwide.

News & Reading

  • Amazon removed in-app purchases from its Kindle and Amazon Music apps for Android, as well as direct audiobook purchases from its Audible app for Android, following Google Play’s policy change that forces developers to use its own first-party billing and payments service.
  • Substack’s latest updates included the ability to embed TikToks into posts, a new reactions section at the bottom of posts, a new profile section that shows your recent likes and several updates to its mobile app. For the latter, readers can now change the font, text size and background color to enhance their reading experience, as well as for better collapsing and threading of comments.


  • Apple Maps began testing its more-detailed maps in more countries including France, Monaco and New Zealand. Users in these areas spotted updated maps with better renders of 3D objects, like the Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame Cathedral and Mont Saint-Michel in France.

Security & Privacy

  • Canada’s privacy regulator found that coffee shop chain Tim Hortons had illegally collected customer location data through its mobile app without adequate user consent. An investigation found the app was tracking customers’ locations even when it was not in use.

Funding and M&A

💰 Indian short video app ShareChat’s parent company Mohalla Tech raised nearly $300 million from Google, Times Group and Temasek Holdings at an approximately $5 billion valuation, according to Reuters sources. Google had previously backed rival short-form video app Josh.

💰 Indonesian delivery app Astro, which offers 15-minute grocery delivery, raised $60 million in a Series B led by Accel, Citius and Tiger Global, bringing its total raise to date to $90 million. The app offers delivery within a range of 2-3 km through a network of dark stores and operates around 50 locations across Greater Jakarta.

💰 LA-based metaverse startup TRIPP raised $11.2 million in a Series A extension led by gaming-focused investment firm BITKRAFT, and acquired world-building platform Eden. TRIPP’s vision for the metaverse includes AR smartglasses, VR headsets as well as smartphone apps, as it expects AR, VR and mobile to ultimately converge.

💰 Latin American local on-demand delivery and transportation super app Yummy raised $47 million in new funding led by Anthos Capital. The app offers delivery of items, ridesharing and grocery delivery in less than 20 minutes, and the purchase of experiences like concerts and sporting events.

💰 Sanlo, a San Francisco-based fintech startup that offers small to medium-sized game and app companies access to tools to manage their finances and capital to fuel their growth, raised $10 million in Series A funding led by Konvoy.

💰 Super, an Indonesian social commerce app that focuses on small towns and rural areas, raised $70 million in Series C funding led by NEA, bringing its total funding to $106 million. The startup plans to use its funding to expand into Kalimantan, Bali, West Nusa Tenggara, East Nusa Tenggara, Maluka and Papua over the next few years.

💰 Railway, a startup offering a dashboard for building, deploying and monitoring apps and services, raised $20 million in Series A funding led by Redpoint Ventures.

💰 Poparazzi, the anti-Instagram social app that hit the top of the App Store last year, announced its Benchmark-led Series A round, reported last year but not confirmed by the company until now. The company said it raised $15 million in funding, a bit under the $20 million being reported.

🤝 Pinterest acquired the AI-powered shopping service for fashion known as The Yes, founded by e-commerce veteran and former Stitch Fix COO Julie Bornstein and technical co-founder, Amit Aggarwal. Deal terms were not disclosed. The service will be used to help Pinterest personalize the shopping experience on its platform.


New report examines the number of downloads it takes to hit the top of the App Store

A new analysis indicates it’s gotten harder to get an app to the top of the App Store, in terms of downloads, over the past several years. According to new data from app intelligence firm Sensor Tower, the number of downloads needed for an app to break into the No. 1 position on Apple’s iPhone App Store in the U.S. has climbed by 37% since 2019. Specifically, it estimates an app now requires approximately 156,000 downloads on a given day to hit the top spot, up from 114,000 daily downloads back in 2019.

But to be clear, downloads alone don’t move an app up to the top of the charts. It’s only one of several factors that Apple’s ranking algorithm takes into account for managing its Top Charts.

In the early days of the App Store, Apple soon realized that downloads alone would give developers an easy way to buy their way to the No. 1 spot,

It then expanded its ranking algorithm to make it more complex — and more of a mystery. Another firm, Apptopia, believes it’s reverse-engineered the current version of this algorithm, which is said to consider numerous factors like velocity, app usage, quantity of new users, and more.

That said, downloads are still a part of the equation here and an interesting factor to examine given how little information there is about how Apple’s App Store ranks actually work.

Among the new findings, Sensor Tower noticed that Apple appeared to have adjusted the ranking algorithm to address the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020.

It reports that in 2020, the number of downloads it was taking an app to hit No. 1 on the U.S. App Store hit a record high of 185,000, up 62% year-over-year. That would be in line with the overall boost seen in app downloads and usage that was occurring as consumers stayed at home under government lockdowns, while schools, stores, and workplaces closed.

Getting to the same position on Google Play was easier at that time, however, as the number of daily downloads required grew just 5% year-over-year to reach 87,000 in 2020.

Since then, the number of daily downloads needed to reach No. 1 has declined on both marketplaces as post-Covid trends (or rather, post-lockdown trends) have normalized app usage.

This year, Sensor Tower estimates apps must reach a median of 156,000 daily installs to reach No. 1 on the App Store, as noted above, but Android apps now need just 56,000 installs, down 33% from the 83,000 required in 2019.

Breaking into the top 10 on the U.S. App Store also requires more effort than hitting that same position on Google Play.

Per the report’s findings, it now takes approximately 52,000 daily downloads to get into the Overall Top 10 on the App Store, up 2% from the 51,000 required to reach the Top 10 in 2019. But Android apps only need 29,000 daily downloads, which is down 9% from 2019 levels.

Still, these figures are approximations reached from trends across the respective app stores.

When looking at figures in more detail on a per-category basis, there are different trends to be found. For instance, on the App Store, it’s tougher to break into the Top 10 free iPhone apps for those ranked in the Entertainment category than others like Shopping, Social Networking, Travel or Finance. Android is similar in that it also sees Entertainment as needing more daily installs, but this is followed by the Shopping, Tools, Finance, then Communication categories.

It’s worth pointing out that these trends only hold true for mobile apps, not mobile games. That’s an entirely different matter.

When looking at mobile games, Sensor Tower found iPhone games now require a median of 93,000 downloads to hit No. 1 while Android games need 37,000 installs. These figures are down from 2019 levels, dropping by 46% and 68%, respectively.

The report also notes that, historically, it’s taken fewer installs for games to get into the Top 10. So far in 2022, iPhone games have needed 26,000 daily downloads to reach the Top 10, down 40% from 43,000 in 2019. And Android games needed just 16,000 daily installs, down 52% from 33,000 in 2019.

While much of the new report is focused on the U.S. market, Sensor Tower did examine how the U.S.’s Top 10 compared to other countries.

Here, it found that it’s much tougher for non-game apps in China to reach the Top 10 — requiring more than twice the number of daily downloads as in the U.S. at 108,000 (China) versus 52,000 (U.S.)

But on Android, it’s India that the most difficult market to top, requiring 292,000 daily downloads to reach the Top 10 in the free charts for non-game apps.

While the data here is worth investigating, this analysis doesn’t take into account the other factors apps and games require to climb the charts so it’s not a complete picture of how or why apps can climb to the top of the app stores.

In addition, there have been some hints that Apple may have been adjusting its algorithms even more in recent weeks, as bigger apps like Facebook, Netflix, Snapchat and others have taken ranking hits since around mid-April, Apptopia told us last month, when we inquired how relative unknown apps had been finding their way to the Top 10. This could be a test or a more permanent change meant to give smaller apps a chance to stand out and be discovered amid the tech giants, but more time will be needed to conduct that analysis.

Still, this sort of tweaking could help to highlight a variety of apps that are benefitting from marketing, promotions, and other trends. This might explain why Planet Fitness is No. 2 on the Top Free Charts in the U.S. today, for instance — the company gave teens free gym passes for the summer. Meanwhile, DIRECTV’s recent consolidation of its apps has driven it to No. 3, while the newcomer social networking app LiveIn, popular among teens, is now sitting higher than Facebook and Snapchat at No. 7.

Poparazzi hits 5M+ downloads a year after launch, confirms its $15M Series A

Poparazzi, the anti-Instagram social app that hit the top of the App Store last year, is today, for the first time, detailing the growth stats for its business, future plans, as well as its previously unconfirmed Benchmark-led Series A round. The L.A.-area startup now reports its iOS-only has seen over 5 million installs in its first year, with users primarily in the Gen Z demographic.

The startup says that 75% of its users are between the ages of 14 and 18 and 95% of users are between 14 and 21. Most of its users are U.S.-based and, to date, they’ve shared over 100 million photos and videos on the app.

While the startup positioned itself as an Instagram alternative where friends create your profile, the app’s competition today is not really the established tech giants. Instead, it’s the newer set of “alternative” social media apps that are targeting a younger crowd, like Yubo, Locket, LiveIn, HalloApp, and BeReal, among others. In general, this group of apps shares a thesis around how big tech is no longer the best place to connect with your real-life friends. With differentiated angles, they all claim to offer that opportunity.

Some of these are already outpacing Poparazzi. Yubo says it’s seen 60 million sign-ups to date. BeReal, which has declined press, has an estimated 12.3 million global downloads, according to app intelligence firm Sensor Tower. The firm also reports that Locket has seen about 18.7 million worldwide installs to date, while LiveIn has hit a little more than 8 million installs. (Sensor Tower also sees 4.6 million downloads for Poparazzi, which is largely in line with the startup’s claims as these estimates aren’t an exact science.)

This heated competition among alternative social apps could explain why Poparazzi is taking to its blog today to share its metrics and confirm its financing after a year of silence. (Or it could be that it’s hiring.)

Image Credits: Poparazzi

Though Poparazzi appears to be an overnight viral sensation, it’s actually taken three years to get to this point, explains co-founder and CEO Alex Ma. He along with his brother, co-founder Austen Ma, went through several pivots to get to Poparazzi, he told TechCrunch.

“Poparazzi was maybe the 11th or 12th app that we built,” Alex says. Among those was the audio social network TTYL, a sort of “Clubhouse for friends.” But, says Alex, nine months into TTYL the team realized that things weren’t working and they made the decision to wind it down.

The co-founders understood that most social apps fail, and had decided the best thing to do was to keep building and experimenting until one hit. At other points, they tested a live texting app called Typo and many other social experiences. But when they built Poparazzi, they knew from day one it was something special. The app blew up, primarily among high schoolers, who were testing the app via TestFlight.

The app’s idea was, effectively, to turn one of Instagram’s core features — photo tagging — into a standalone experience. But in its case, photo tagging wasn’t an afterthought, it was the full focus.

On Poparazzi, users can create social profiles for photo-sharing purposes, but only your friends are allowed to post photos to them. That makes your friends your own “paparazzi,” of sorts — which is how the app got its name.

“It started off almost like a novel, dumb idea — like, what if you could build Instagram but didn’t let people post photos of themselves?,” Alex says. “But the more we thought about it, the more we realized we were actually fundamentally changing the engine of what drives social today. And that was the big bet.”

To its credit, Poparazzi perfectly executed a series of growth hacks to generate buzz for its app that drove downloads at launch. The app launched on May 24, 2021 and quickly shot to the No. 1 position on the App Store.

Like many apps now, it smartly leveraged the TikTok hype cycle to drive App Store pre-orders. This helped to ensure the app would hit the Top Charts as soon as it became publicly available, given how the App Store ranks apps based on a combination of downloads and velocity, amid other factors. Poparazzi also implemented a clever onboarding screen that used haptics to buzz and vibrate your phone as its intro video played — something that helped generate word-of-mouth growth as users took to Twitter to post about the unique experience.

But the app also bypassed some best practices around user privacy by requesting full access to users’ address books to get started. This allowed it to instantly match users to their friends based on stored phone numbers and quickly build a social graph.

However, it overlooked the fact that many people, and particularly women, store the phone numbers of abusers, stalkers, and exes in their phone’s Contacts, so they can use the phone’s built-in tools to block the person’s calls and texts. Because Poparazzi automatically matched people by phone number, abusers could gain immediate access to the user profiles of the people they were trying to harass or hurt.

Alex says Poparazzi has since taken steps to address this, but explains the thinking around the original decision.

“It’s really hard to compete with Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram for the social graph,” he says. “So the starting point for building a social app typically is the address book because that’s the place where we can get information.” Plus, he adds, “I think the value of the app is close to zero without that initial friend graph.”

The app also rolled out other new features over the past year, including the ability to block and report users, and it’s invested in machine learning-powered content moderation for detecting things like nudity or hate speech. It’s added the ability to upload from the Camera Roll, support for video, messaging, comments, and captions, and introduced in-app challenges that encourage participation — like “pop a friend eating ice cream,” “pop a friend at a mall,” or “pop a road trip,” for example.

It’s now working to allow users to set their profiles to private and is planning an Android version. Longer-term, it may monetize via events or merchandise, not ads — but this is still largely to be determined.

Prior to today’s update, the broad strokes of Poparazzi’s A round were already known.

In May 2021, Newcomer scooped the news that Benchmark partner Sarah Tavel had led Poparazzi’s “approximately $20 million” Series A, beating out Andreessen Horowitz for the deal. Alex says the round was actually a $15 million Series A, and confirmed Tavel joined its board.

This is on top of the company’s $2 million seed round closed in late 2018, before Poparazzi was developed. That round was led by Floodgate and included other investors like SV Angel, Shrug Capital, and various angels. (Disclosure: unbeknownst to us until now, former TechCrunch co-editor Alexia Bonatsos, was among them.) Floodgate’s Ann Miura-Ko joined the board with that fundraise.

The funding gives Poparazzi, now a team of 15 full-time, a runway of over two years, Alex says.

And although some of the competition may be ahead of it for now, the startup believes in its potential largely because its premise is unique. Unlike every other social app on the market, it’s not for performative social media.

“We’re very different in the sense that it’s not about yourself,” Alex points out. “We’re putting the attention on the people you’re physically with, and the people that are in your life, rather than on yourself.”

Metaverse app BUD raises another $37M, plans to launch NFTs

BUD, a nascent app taking a shot at creating a metaverse for Gen Z to play and interact with each other, has raised another round of funding in three months.

The Singapore-based startup told TechCrunch that it has closed $36.8 million in a Series B round led by Sequoia Capital India, not long after it secured a Series A extension in February. The new infusion brings BUD’s total financing to over $60 million.

As with BUD’s previous rounds, this round of raise attracted a handful of prominent China-focused investors — ClearVue Partners, NetEase and Northern Light Venture Capital. Its existing investors GGV Capital, Qiming Venture Partners and Source Code Capital also participated in the round.

Founded by two former Snap engineers Risa Feng and Shawn Lin in 2019, BUD lets users create bulbous 3D characters, cutesy virtual assets and richly colored experiences through drag-and-drop and without any coding background.

The company declined to reveal its active user size but said its users have created over 15 million custom experiences i.e., virtual spaces with gameplay that others can join since the app launched in November. Virtual assets, including costumes and accessories that users design for characters, have changed hands more than 150 million times on BUD’s marketplace.

These transactions are clearly a promising way to generate revenues, but BUD is not charging commissions for now. Nor has it started monetizing in other means via the app.

Perhaps partly due to its free-to-use and ad-free nature, the app has been among the top 10 social apps in nearly 40 countries across North America, Southeast Asia and South America. It’s currently the top free social Android app in Thailand and Vietnam, according to market intelligence company SensorTower.

Apps like Roblox and South Korea’s Zepeto have also made it easier for anyone to design virtual characters and spaces. BUD is taking the user experience a step further with plans to introduce a marketplace for non-fungible tokens (NFTs). That means the ownership of virtual items sold on BUD will be recorded on the blockchain. Reselling of digital assets will likely become possible in the form of NFTs, of which authenticity and provenance can be more easily verified.

BUD declined to disclose which chain the NFT project will be on or what tokens it will use, but said the marketplace will “soon be live.”

“While BUD makes 3D content creation possible for mainstream Gen Z consumers, we will continue to bring blockchain to mainstream consumers and allow our creators to truly own and monetize their creations,” said Lin in a statement.

The company is quickly expanding and has a team of 130 employees spread across its headquarters in Singapore as well as its offices in Shenzhen and the U.S.

Use data from Q5 to boost mobile app growth for the entire year

Wondering how to improve the marketing performance of your mobile app in the spring without experimenting and extra costs? Take advantage of results from the high winter season, also known as Q5.

The tremendous amount of data received during the winter holidays can improve your marketing strategy and boost your app growth. Here’s how to extract insights that will make this approach work, enhance your ad creative strategy, transform hypotheses into proven facts, personalize your product and increase lifetime value.

What (or when) is Q5?

Q5 is a high season for marketing in the mobile app field. Though it takes place only during the winter holidays, its results equal the whole quarter in revenue. But it is not only a winter story. Q5 can be of use in the spring and summer seasons as well.

Why is Q5 data so valuable?

  • You get a more expensive audience. The business period of e-commerce ends right after Christmas, when mobile apps come into play. As e-commerce is the largest rival of mobile apps in terms of digital advertising, reduced e-commerce ads frees up the market for apps, which allows app campaigns to get more reach for less money. They also get access to a more expensive and, as a result, more affluent audience at a lower cost than usual.
  • Gain a deeper understanding of users’ behavior. Many people make resolutions at the beginning of the year to become better versions of themselves. The “New Year’s resolution” mindset makes people ready to invest in themselves. And that makes Q5 incredibly successful for fitness, health, self-growth and education apps.
  • Higher engagement rates. During the Christmas holidays, people spend more time at home and, of course, on their phones. Accordingly, app ads get more of their attention.

All these reasons help mobile apps grow in profit. For instance, the revenue of the Headway app increased 200% compared to other periods.

Chart of Headway app data from Sensor Tower.

Headway app data from Sensor Tower. Image Credits: Headway

Four ways to leverage data from Q5 right now

Improve your creative ad strategy

During Q5, you can estimate your hourly traffic more effectively to build a daily trend. Because you get much more traffic than usual, trends begin to appear. After building your daily trend, you can extrapolate it for the following periods.

For example, we noticed that our ads performed better in the morning and evening — right at commute times. We couldn’t discern this trend clearly during normal times, but a significant amount of traffic during Q5 made it crystal clear for us. So, based on this discovery, we’ve changed our creatives. Now, we tell people that they can effectively spend their downtime with our app.

Estimating traffic on an hourly basis can help identify top-performing ad creatives much faster. You will incur fewer ineffective costs when you notice them and start scaling in different variations. And as a result, you get more revenue from top performers.

When our team notices a top-performing ad, we scale it in a variety of ways. For example, changing the placement or using an image with a different ad copy. Once, we decided to experiment more and randomly rotated a bed on an ad about procrastination. The creative continued performing with the bed in a new position and was even more successful than the previous version. From that time on, we haven’t hesitated to change such tiny details, because even minor tweaks can be significant for Facebook ads on a large amount of traffic.

Image of a Headway app ad

Image Credits: Headway

Transform your hypothesis into proven facts

During Q5, marketers usually try new creatives and ad placements that they hesitated to use at other times of the year. It’s a great strategy to follow because you can check your hypothesis on a much broader audience and draw some conclusions. But don’t limit this approach only to the Q5 period. Use verified ad techniques to boost your upcoming year’s marketing strategy. But how do you apply it in practice?

Earlier, we thought that our Instagram feed was the best ad placement for us and didn’t believe that Reels would work as well. We tested this ad placement a couple of times, but it didn’t appear efficient enough. Therefore, we put it aside and decided to give it a try on a massive audience during Q5. Eventually, it worked well. With a great amount of cheaper traffic, we not only validated Reels as a successful ad placement but also created a strategy for our regular ads on Instagram Reels.

Improve marketing metrics through cheaper access to expensive audiences

Subscription model apps can increase their LTV (customer lifetime value) by getting new audiences that weren’t accessible before. How does it work?

Let’s say you usually reach users with a $15 CPM (cost per thousand). You would like to get users with a $25 CPM, but they are expensive for you. Since prices drop during Q5, these “expensive” users become “affordable.”

But why do you need more expensive users instead of reaching your good old $15 CPM users at a much lower price? Because the higher the CPM, the greater the users’ purchasing power. Therefore, users with a $25 CPM are more likely to convert to purchase than those with a $15 CPM. So, a more expensive audience has a higher potential to buy a subscription on your app after the trial and a better chance of renewing it after a month or a year.

As you get more users with greater purchasing power in your app, the LTV increases. This approach also helps you accumulate a margin of safety for subsequent less favorable periods for your app.

Now that you know your users better, personalize more

A huge amount of data from new creatives, new users and new ad techniques gives you many insights to use throughout the year after Q5. So don’t miss your chance to maximize these insights.

First, analyze and draw conclusions by observing users’ behavior during this period. How did they behave in your store, during onboarding, on the payment wall and during the trial? Is there a correlation between the creative that users came from and their behavior in the app? Second, turn these insights into an action plan to improve your product and personalize more.

This method enhanced our work: During Q5, we noticed that our ad creative about decision fatigue became one of the top performers, and many users converted to purchasers because of it. Therefore, we had two hypotheses: First, this topic is highly relevant to our users, and we have to create more content about it. Second, users like the layout of the ad creative, so we can use its visual element for the onboarding screen. We tried both hypotheses, tested them and got positive results. As a result, we use both approaches in our app.

Using these methods, you can come back to insights from Q5 throughout the year to improve your marketing strategy and your product.

Wordle! (but not that Wordle!) is now in the hands of mobile tech firm AppLovin

After the popular online game, Wordle, went viral, an unrelated older mobile game that shared the same name benefitted, gaining an explosion of downloads as iPhone users mistook it for the web game making headlines. Now the developer of the iOS game “Wordle!,” Steven Cravotta, has cashed in on this case of mistaken identity — he’s handed off his game to mobile marketing firm and game maker AppLovin in an undisclosed deal.

Neither AppLovin nor Cravotta would comment on the deal terms, but AppLovin confirmed the iOS app Wordle! is now run by its studio Lion Studios Plus. A rep for Cravotta said “Steven cannot comment on the acquisition at this time.”

While you may have now heard of the popular online game Wordle, later bought by The NYT, you may have missed the story earlier this year about how a mobile game of the same name was blowing up on the App Store. Cravotta said he had been surprised to find a game he created as a teenager five years ago suddenly being downloaded 40,000 times per day, up from just 10 downloads per day the month before, The WSJ had reported at the time.

As it turned out, iPhone users had gone to the App Store in search of the Wordle game everyone was talking about and had been downloading Cravotta’s game by mistake.

Cravotta’s Wordle! game was similar to the online version that everyone was playing. He said he had created it as a teen because he wanted to make something that would challenge people’s minds and be a great game for kids. But the app never took off. Cravotta promoted it for around half a year, he says, before deciding to move on to other things.

“It just sat in my developer account for the longest time getting maybe one to two downloads a day for six years….until all this craziness happened,” Cravotta tells TechCrunch.

The popularity of the web game, however, continued to boost the downloads for the mobile title in 2022.

“It was more than 40,000 [downloads],” Cravotta notes, correcting the earlier estimates. “It was up to six figures of downloads — hundreds of thousands — at one point,” he says.

The mobile game monetized through paid advertisements and in-app purchases. While Cravotta could have tweaked the game to make even more money to capitalize on the surge of users, he left it untouched.

“I just kind of let it run and do its thing,” he says.

According to data from Sensor Tower, the mobile game was downloaded approximately 18.9 million times. The vast majority of the installs (>99.6%) arrived after the web game went viral — with downloads spiking on Jan. 12, 2022. From Feb. 12, 2022 onward, the game has seen 13.7 million downloads — or about 72% of its lifetime installs since its April 2016 launch, the firm said.

And despite the fact that it’s not the game users were seeking out, it’s managed to hold some gamers’ attention.

Today, the iOS game is still the No. 19 mobile game in the U.S. by average monthly active users as of the first quarter, right behind bigger titles like Among Us, and just ahead of notable games like Minecraft and PUBG Mobile.

While no one would have really blamed Cravotta for just sitting back and cashing checks, he wanted to do something more with his good fortune.

In February, Cravotta reached out to the founder of the viral web game, Josh Wardle, whose hit title had given his own such a boost. He then announced he would donate $50,000 of the revenue generated by his Wordle! game to a charity that both he and Wardle agreed upon — an Oakland tutoring center, Boost Oakland.

“I think my generation really wants to come together to make the world a better place instead of going after each other,” says Cravotta, 24. “There’s a million ways Josh and I could have gone to battle over this whole thing. But instead, we united forces and did something great.”

What’s interesting, however, is that the game’s publisher account was updated from Cravotta to AppLovin-owned Lion Studios Plus on Feb. 16, 2022 — which indicates the actual acquisition would have likely taken place before that date. News of the $50K donation, though, started making the rounds after Cravotta announced it via Twitter on Feb. 24, 2022.

Asked if perhaps the donation was funded by way of an AppLovin acquisition, and not just Wordle!’s revenue, Cravotta declined to comment. He couldn’t speak to anything related to the deal, the game’s proceeds, or even if he was under some sort of NDA with regard to the AppLovin agreement. AppLovin similarly declined to comment, noting only that  Lion Studios was bringing Wordle! to millions of mobile players around the world, and that the game is “exclusive to mobile devices.”

Sensor Tower estimates Wordle! has generated close to $3 million to date.

Cravotta, who still has a day job at an ad agency, says he’s moved on to a different side project following the Wordle! craze. He’s now working on an app called PuffCount, which aims to help people quit vaping. The app now has 200,000 downloads and is being promoted across TikTok, where the account has 90,000 followers and has generated 50 million views.

The developer says he’s happy that what happened with Wordle! has given him the opportunity to promote this project, which he views as
“an opportunity to help people live healthier lives.”

“I’m really happy that I was able to donate $50,000. And I’m really proud to have this platform to encourage young entrepreneurs to take bets on themselves,” Cravotta says.

HBO Max app just had one of its best quarters to date, but app performance still has room to improve

Sensor Tower’s “Q1 2022: Store Intelligence Data Digest” report saw HBO Max as a top contender for the most downloaded apps in the U.S. Not only did the app make the top five list, but it also had the second-best month overall in the month of January.

In addition, HBO Max had the best quarter on the U.S. App Store for any SVOD (subscription video on demand) app since Disney+ launched in late 2019, passing Netflix for only the second time.

In recent years, there has been a continuous rise in video streaming downloads as more consumers value watching content on the go. The top six apps had more than 10% U.S. download market share in Q1 2022, with HBO Max in the lead (21%), Disney+ (17%), and Netflix (15%). Meanwhile, Peacock, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video had at least 10%.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Additionally, HBO has had success adding new users since its launch in 2020. Its U.S. MAU (monthly active users) market share rose from 4.5% in Q2 2020 to 10% in Q1 2022.

While Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video were the top three video streaming apps in the U.S. from Q1 2018 through Q3 2019, with 80% of combined downloads, by Q1 2022, the three streaming apps combined for only 37% of downloads.

All in all, improved content offerings have resulted in a sustained upward trend in monthly users. In Q1 2022, events such as HBO Max’s season two of “Euphoria,” along with major U.S. sporting events such as the Super Bowl (Peacock TV) and March Madness (Paramount+) all contributed to a boost in adoption, giving these streaming services a competitive edge.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

The Flaws of HBO Max’s App Platform & Plans for Improvement

More and more consumers are turning to their mobile devices to stream their content, so it’s no surprise that HBO Max’s app got the attention of subscribers. However, users are frustrated with the platform and have complained for years about its performance. If the user interface is flawed, no amount of valuable content is worth dealing with outages and errors.

On the App Store, the app has a 2.8 rating, with many reviewers complaining that the app is “super buggy,” slow, and poorly designed. Google Play users were a little nicer, giving the app a 3.7. However, most still complained about an “unfriendly” interface and constant buffering.

HBO Max is notorious for having unstable app performance. Its platform overall has had many issues, and not only were their outages last year in June and December, but there have also been crashes like the finale of “Mare of Easttown,” and more recently, “Euphoria” season two, and “The Batman” were both down.

Sarah Lyons, head of HBO Max’s Product Experience, told Protocol that at launch, the company willingly released an imperfect app because the team figured it could get a facelift once the app garnered more success. “We’ve been changing out the engine of the plane while we’re flying the plane,” she said.

The original app was based on the old HBO Go and HBO Now mobile and TV apps. HBO Go was only meant for cable subscribers, so it lacked a strong discovery function like its competitors, Netflix and Disney+.

Earlier this month, WarnerMedia finally got around to fixing its Apple TV app and promised it would be rolling out upgrades such as enhanced stability, a more simplified sign-in process, and other new features. It previously improved the app experience for Roku, PlayStation, Android TV, LG, and Vizio. The desktop version also got a new shuffle button in March.

According to Lyons, crashes of the HBO Max Roku app have decreased by 90%, and load times on Android TV decreased by 50%. She also told Protocol that Fire TV and Xbox apps would also be improved after the relaunches of the mobile and web experience. The platform will get a decent makeover as the team plans to improve in-app discovery, among other changes.

Warner Bros. Discovery now has plans to merge the two streaming services, HBO Max and Discovery+, into a single app. While Discovery+ has a lower U.S. download market share than HBO Max in Q1 2022, its app rankings on the App Store and Google Play are significantly higher at 4.9 and 4.7, respectively. While this obviously isn’t an overall comparison, since reviews and rankings are only from a low number of users (less than one million), it is something to note.