First, Kim, Khloé, Kourtney, and Kylie announced that they were shutting down their apps (Kendall’s went kaput last year). “We’ve had an incredible experience connecting with all of you through our apps these past few years, “Kim wrote in a December 20 post on her site. “But have made the difficult decision to no longer continue updating in 2019.”
Then, shortly after the new year, Taylor Swift hopped off the celebrity-app bandwagon, too, announcing the death of her social-networking-slash-gaming-app, The Swift Life. Launched only one year ago alongside her album, reputation, the app “provided a creative and inclusive place for Taylor and her fans to connect with each other while expressing themselves,” and “is no longer available to download,” according to a statement released on Twitter.
So do these high-profile deletions signal the end of the celebrity app as we know it?
First, some history: the celeb app economy kicked off in 2014 with the launch of Kim Kardashian West’s Hollywood, a game that allowed users to live the virtual life of Kim by picking daily looks, interacting with other celebrities, and getting into glitzy adventures with her in L.A. It was an instant success: 67 million downloads and a Forbes cover that dubbed Kardashian West a “mobile mogul.” Celeb-specific apps promised fans something they desperately wanted: closer access to their favorite stars, and in some cases, a chance to live (via avatar) within their glamorous world.
Soon it seemed like everyone had one, from Demi Lovato, who launched a storytelling app called Episode in 2015 (it allowed users to become characters in a variety of Hollywood-esque plot lines) to Justin Bieber, whose Justmoji gave users access to customized stickers, gifs, and “official Justin Bieber meme maker” for $1.99. Mariah Carey, Madonna, even Tom Hanks got in on the action.
The celeb-app heydey brought copious amounts of downloads—and cash. Kardashian West’s Hollywood, while free to download, included an option for users to spend real money within the app, and they did so to the tune of a reported $157 million in sales between 2014 and 2016. Episode boasted $18 million in revenue and 27 million unique visitors between 2015 and 2017.
But then, beginning in 2016, the Great App-ocalypse saw the demise of apps tied to some of the biggest names in entertainment: Katy Perry’s Pop, Britney Spears’ American Dream, and Nicki Minaj’s Empire, all of which were built by Glu Mobile, a San Francisco-based mobile game development company that’s also behind Hollywood and The Swift Life. While Glu did not respond to requests for comment for this article, a public statement by the company indicated plans to scale back on celebrity apps and games after finding that they weren’t “commercially viable.”
As Somdip Dey, a mobile platform researcher and computer scientist at the University of Essex, explains: Licensing agreements require Glu to pay extensive royalties to each celebrity whose name they use. “For Glu, it’s not really lucrative to continue developing or supporting celebrity apps from a business point of view,” Dey says. Kardashian West’s success had proved difficult to replicate, and most new celeb app launches fell flat.
Case in point: The Swift Life’s rather swift life. Just days after hitting the market on December 13, 2017 (yes, Taylor’s birthday), the app rose to number one in the App Store—but one week later, it had fallen to 793.
It seemed that starry-eyed users were growing quickly disillusioned by the apps.
Fans of The Hills villain-turned-influencer, Kristin Cavallari, weren’t happy when she slapped a $2.99 monthly subscription fee onto her previously free app, especially when there are many no-cost platforms for style inspo and fitness tips. “An app has to be a super exciting experience with something extra so people really feel part of something special, especially if they’re paying for it,” says Karla Campos, founder Social Media Sass, a Fort Lauderdale-based social media company. Instead, users often found themselves downloading the app and wondering, Now what?
But the primary reason users tired of them was that the celebs themselves did. “It might be interesting for a while, but even the biggest stars in the world only have so many superfans, and if you’re not keeping the content fresh and changing up the things you do, the app’s not going to make it,” says Steven Galanis, co-founder and CEO of Cameo, a service that allows fans to pay stars to send them personalized video messages. Even for celebs who did churn out original content for their apps, it often didn’t seem worth the extra click when so much of the same stuff was available on their Snapchat and Insta accounts.
Many users of The Swift Life claimed that Taylor had stopped being actively involved. On Twitter and forums like Reddit, they complained that she barely engaged on her app. Others noticed it was prone to glitches. “It was cool to have a connection around the tour and album, but the news of its closing didn’t come as a surprise,” says Erin Browne, a Philadelphia-based writer and social media manager who used the app. “I know people had suggestions to improve the app that made sense. And as someone who does social media management, it was clear that it was not the company’s focus anymore.”
Still, there are still some celeb apps managing to pull in money.
The company behind Amber Rose and Paris Hilton’s apps (among others), escapex, reports impressive growth, especially among Internet stars and influencers. According to a company spokesperson, one of their clients, online performing artist and fitness guru Lauryn Alease Williams (also known as LA Love the Boss), rakes in $35,000 a month from her EscapeX app.
Sephi Shapira, CEO of escapex, points out that as social media platforms like Facebook have evolved and changed algorithms, sometimes making it harder for content to stand out, while dedicated apps offer a controlled way for influencers to stay connected with their fans. And—let’s face it—while the earnings generated from an app might seem like side-revenue small potatoes for an A-lister Kardashian, for an up-and-coming online star like Williams, five figures a month isn’t too shabby.
Perhaps proof there is still some app-eal left.