If 2020 was a year of unprecedented transformation, then 2021 was the year that transformation was integrated into normal life. Instead of mobile usage faltering in the face of easing lockdown restrictions, the global population embraced a new mobile lifestyle, with new global economies forming around the continuing growth of the app economy. What apps, categories and strategies won in 2021? We take a look back at the 2021 top app trends to equip you with the insights you need to better market your app in 2022 and beyond.

Global App Engagement

Last year, app downloads broke records. This year, they shattered them. Globally, 140 billion downloads were generated across the iOS and Google Play stores. This represented an 8% year over year increase from 130 billion downloads in 2020. Global Google Play downloads surpassed iOS by an expected 100 billion downloads.

The top geo driving this growth was India, which contributed to 20% of global downloads across the iOS and Google Play stores combined. This was followed by the US market (9%) and Brazil (8%).

top apps 2021

Source: App Annie

Global App Spend

Rather than showing a slowdown, total spend on iOS and Google Play continued to grow in 2021. Total global app revenue amounted to 135 billion. This represented a 25% year-over-year increase.

As has been the case historically, iOS users spent more than Google Play users. Sixty-five cents of every dollar spent in the App Stores was paid by iOS users. As a category, Gaming generated the most revenue; driving about  60% of iOS revenue and nearly 80% of Google Play revenue.

top apps 2021 by revenue

Source: Sensor Tower

In total, gaming revenue drove around $90 billion of total app store revenue. Outside of gaming, one third of revenue came from entertainment and social apps.

top apps 2021 gaming spend

Source: App Annie

2021 Top Apps

2021 Top Apps: By App Downloads

By downloads, TikTok held its position as the most downloaded app worldwide in 2021. As 2021's top app by installs, TikTok drove 745.9 million installs across both app stores. Interestingly , this is actually much less than the 980.7 million installs the video-sharing app generated in 2020. The dip in performance also reflects the long-term effect the India ban has had on TikTok’s performance — it’s top market at the time — back in June 2020.

This year, the app also reached the coveted 3 billion lifetime downloads mark. This milestone has only been reached by Facebook-owned and operated apps including Facebook app, WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger.

Coming in second was Facebook with 624.9 million installs worldwide. This was a 12% decrease from 2020 when it drove 707.8 million installs.

top apps 2021 by installs

Source: Sensor Tower

2021 Top Apps:By App Revenue

In terms of revenue, TikTok also held the spot for top-earning app in 2021. This 2021 top app drove $2 billion in revenue, up 67% from $1.2 billion in 2020. Current projections predict that TikTok will drive $2.3 billion in revenue by the end of 2021. This will mean the app has generated somewhere around a total of $3.8 billion in lifetime revenue since it was launched.

Interestingly, while TikTok was the highest-earning app in 2021 overall, on an individual app store basis it was not. TikTok drove the most revenue on the Apple App Store but on the Google Play store it trailed behind other apps. On Android devices, Google One continued to dominate in revenue. By the end of 2021, the app will reach $1 billion in consumer spending, up 123% from $448.5 million in 2020.

top apps 2021 by revenue

Source: Sensor Tower

UA & Retargeting Spend

No 2021 year in review of app trends would be complete without the mention of iOS 14.5 and the deprecation of the IDFA. On April 26, 2021, Apple’s iOS 14.5 changed how the mobile marketing game is played. No longer are traditional user acquisition and retargeting efforts based solely on user-level data as simple as they were before. Below we discuss 2021 UA and retargeting activities in light of the industry’s reaction to iOS 14.5.

UA Budgets Increased by 40% in 2021

By the end of the year, UA budgets will reach anywhere from $78-$83 billion. This range represents a 40% year-over-year increase in global UA spend from last year. This increase in spend is made up of a 50% jump in spend on Android and 26% rise in spend on iOS.

Why has the price of media gotten more expensive across platforms? For iOS, it makes logical sense in light of iOS 14.5: with the pool of targetable users restricted based on IDFA opt-in, it got more expensive to acquire the same amount of users acquired in 2020. The average effective cost per install rose, which drove budgets upward. In fact, ad prices have increased by 20% to as much as 50% across categories since the enforcement of iOS 14.5.

At the same time, demand for Android and its full data granularity capabilities surged in 2021. Paid installs rose over 40% year-over-year this year. Of course, the increase in demand affected CPIs. For non-gaming apps, the average global Android CPI rose 20%. Interestingly, for gaming apps, average overall global Android CPI was down 11% this year — but that also skewed based on Geo. In North America, Android CPI rose 23% while it decreased by 24% in Southeast Asia, for example.

The Rise and Fall of Retargeting Conversions

Around the time of iOS 14.5’s initial release, remarketing conversions dropped. This makes sense as the basis of retargeting — that is, user level data and personalization — is the data granularity the IDFA affects. That being said, from March to July 2021, conversions from retargeting campaigns fell by almost 35%.

As iOS 14.5 adoption increased and IDFA opt-in rates actualized, the share of retargeted conversions increased. It also increased as a reaction to innovations from Google in response to Apple’s changes. Google’s introduction of GBRAID – an aggregate and privacy compliant identifier designed to optimize re-engagement campaigns — singlehandedly increased the number of remarketing conversions by 12% from July to September, and another 14% in October. Overall, Android was able to boost it’s share of retargeted conversions over the entirety of 2021 by more than 45%.

top apps 2021 retargeting

Source: AppsFlyer

Given the challenges of retargeting in the new era of data privacy, owned media activities have seen a surge on iOS. The use of push notifications, email, and in-app messages has jumped almost 45% since April. This makes sense as owned media provides apps with a 1st party data environment and full data granularity.

Takeaways on 2021 App Trends

Instead of mobile usage faltering in the face of easing lockdown restrictions, the app economy continued to grow as the global population embraced a new mobile lifestyle in 2021.

  • Globally, 140 billion downloads were generated across the iOS and Google Play stores. This represented a 8% year over year increase from 130 billion downloads in 2020.
  • TikTok took the 2021 top app spot for the most-downloaded and highest-grossing app. This year the video sharing platform also reached the coveted 3 billion download and revenue mark.
  • UA and retargeting conversions felt the effects of iOS 14.5.
  • UA budgets increased by 40% due to rising CPIs.
  • The share of retargeted conversions fell initially, but built back over time.
  • Owned media has seen a 45% boost since iOS 14.5 was released.

Need Help Staying Up-To Date on Growing App Trends in 2022?

YouAppi can help! While we discussed the 2021 top app trends, we want to help your app get into shape for 2022. From Mobile App Retargeting campaigns to User Acquisition, we will help you retain, retarget and re-engage your mobile app users. Contact us today to learn more!