Mobile App Sessions Growth Slows in 2016; Category Cannibalization Begins

Year after year, mobile app sessions growth – while slowing – has been robust if not eye-opening. But that decade-long streak seems to be coming to an end, finds Flurry in its annual report, with the firm declaring that “on their tenth anniversary, mobile apps start eating their own.”

The reason for this is that amid slowing session growth, app categories are no longer uniformly rising in lockstep, as seen in prior years. Consider the environment, first: app usage (defined by the number of sessions where a user opens an app) grew by just 11% last year. That compares with a 58% increase in 2015, a 76% increase in 2014, and what was reported at the time as 115% growth in 2013.

That slowing growth is to be expected from a maturing market. What it does mean, however, is that some app categories are now beginning to grow at the expense of others.

This past year, it was the Messaging & Social category that enjoyed the biggest growth in sessions, with a 44% year-over-year rise. Even more impressively, this category experienced an explosion in time spent: a 394% increase. Flurry attributes this to the use of these apps not only as calling utilities (both voice and video), but also to social media having “absorbed” the media industry.

Another growing category last year was Sports, which saw a 43% increase in sessions and a 25% rise in time spent. This probably has some ties to 2016 being an Olympics year, but Flurry’s analysts also note that sports is likely to be immune to declines due to its real-time nature. It’s possible that continuing drops in traditional TV viewing among youth may also lead to more consumption of sports in mobile apps.

The Business & Finance category, meanwhile, is also one to benefit from a more real-time nature than Shopping or Games. Business & Finance apps experienced a 30% increase in sessions last year and a 43% rise in time spent.

Finally, Shopping apps were also among those to gain last year, with a 25% increase in sessions and a 31% rise in time spent. While recent data indicates that one-fifth of US e-commerce spending now comes from mobile devices, shopping apps face an uphill retention battle, as 60% of shopping apps are used less than 10 times.

So which apps are the biggest losers amid growth for Messaging & Social, Business & Finance, and others? Interestingly, Personalization apps (such as Android lock-screens and Emoji keyboards) saw the biggest decline in sessions, with a steep 46% drop year-over-year. That’s an intriguing result, given that this category was by far the fastest-growing in 2015, recording a staggering 332% increase that year. That implies that the decline may have been due somewhat to comparisons with a banner year in 2015, with personalization apps still seeing a sizable amount of user sessions compared with earlier years. It remains to be seen whether these are on a downward trend or will stabilize this year.

One category that does seem to be on a downward trend is Games. While the decrease in number of sessions for the Games category (-15%) was not as stark as for Personalization apps, this category also saw a 4% decrease in time spent. That compares with a 69% overall increase in time spent (though that was buoyed by Messaging & Social’s 394% jump), suggesting that time spent with apps is moving towards social applications and away from games.

It’s also worth looking at the trend in session growth for Games over the past few years:

  • – 2013: 66% (vs. an 115% increase for apps overall);
  • – 2014: 30% (vs. a 76% increase for apps overall);
  • – 2015: -1% (vs. a 58% increase for apps overall); and
  • – 2016: -4% (vs. an 11% increase for apps overall).

It’s clear that the gaming category has suffered as the mobile app market has matured.

However, a maturing app market does not equate to one that’s in decline. It’s worth remembering that while session growth was only 11%, time spent in apps increased by a a healthy 69%.

For its part, App Annie notes in its 2016 retrospective [download page] that time spent in apps grew by 25%, with downloads worldwide increasing by 15%. That seems to follow a trend noted late last year by Adobe, where app launch growth was outpacing app install growth.

Meanwhile, 2016 was also a year of numerous milestones for mobile devices: smartphone apps grew to command a majority of all time spent online in the US; mobile devices overtook desktops in online video plays; and mobiles accounted for a majority of e-commerce transactions in 2 countries for the first time.

Our deck outlining these and other major mobile milestones in 2016 can be downloaded directly below.

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    About the Data: The Flurry data is based on an analysis of more than 940,000 applications across 2.1 billion devices in 3.2 trillion sessions.