App Downloads Are A False Metric

Joe McCann

As a voracious reader and consumer of data and infographics, I've come across a growing trend that many companies, agencies and developers are using to measure the growth or impact that an app may have and they measure that by aggregate app downloads. This is fool's gold. Usage is ultimately what matters.

Why Downloads Don't Matter

"App fatigue", is a phrase I use to describe a user's condition of being overwhelmed with too many apps on their devices. In a nutshell, people download loads of apps; yet eventually, be it weekly, monthly or sporadically, they end up at some point culling their phone's "desktop" of apps by removing them altogether. Many times it is because they don't use them but also, apps take up space on the device's hard drive and that space is extremely precious to the device owner, so naturally, users remove the ones that are not worthy of a spot.

If an app has been downloaded by a user, that app's individual download will be added to the ever growing download tally for that app. However if the app has been deleted by the user, its deletion is certainly not removed from the aggregate download total.

This one way street leads to a false sense of success when the app downloads' tally continues to climb.

Billions and Billions Served


Years ago, McDonald's ($MCD) began leveraging this concept of an aggregte consumer metric of total "downloads" whereas "downloads" were the number of customers whom had purchased food from McDonald's. In this case, the aggregate total makes complete sense -- upon purchase of your Big Mac, you are highly unlikely to well, return or delete or remove your purchase.

The aggregate total leads to big numbers which consumers typically associate with success or at least find it note-worthy and/or interesting. This marketing gimmick has worked for decades and of course has been exacerbated in the mobile industry by companies like Apple ($AAPL) and Google ($GOOG).

There's an App For That

Recall the "there's an app for that" marketing campaign Apple so successfully launched. "We have hundreds of thousands of apps, if not millions of apps", they proclaim. And certainly, Google would need to follow suit to play catch-up and stay abreast of other platforms. Well, that time has come. Google Play recently tied the App Store in total number of apps available so this metric is soon to be table stakes for consumers -- the availability of loads of apps is just part of having a smartphone (something Windows Phone 8 is currently struggling with).

However, therein lies the rub. The more apps that are available to consumers, the more users will download overall. Which in turn means the more users will be forced to remove unused apps or apps that are taking up space (app fatigue). Even though the total number of minutes a day users are using apps is increasing (see below) there are only so many minutes a day in total so an increase in the total number of apps available to them makes it even more difficult for your app to capture their attention.

The Truth: Usage Matters

The reality is the majority of apps downloaded do not end up staying on people's devices long term. How bad is it? According to Flurry Analytics, an app has about a one in twenty chance of being used 6 months after it is initially downloaded and installed (6% to be exact).

The focus for app developers, brands, businesses, startups and the like should be focusing on the what instead of the how when it comes to app development. What will keep users coming back? What are examples of apps that people use everyday and why? Discoverability of apps is still a problem including the cumbersome experience of trying to "share" an app with someone else (it is non-trivial to send them a link to an app), but these are solvable problems. Compelling content, utility, entertainment and a solid omnichannel experience will keep users from dropping your app from their collection.