The Rise of Marco Polo In COVID Pandemic & Its Fall To 1-Star Reviews

Pink and Ice T both use this lesser-known video-messaging app that has been creeping its way up during this time of social distancing, adding 1 million more users.

Amid the COVID-19 epidemic, Marco Polo -- coined by some users as the “Snapchat for old people” -- has seen a sudden spike in popularity, adding 1.1 million downloads to its 10 million all-time Google Play count.

This adds up to a 1,147% increase in new sign-ups and a 145% increase in activity over the past few weeks, according to Michal and Vlada Bortnik, the app’s founders.

Pink, who before releasing the news on social media that she and her son had tested positive for COVID-19, told her 7.7 million Instagram followers that she was using the Marco Polo app to help stay connected and getting ready to do a “virtual happy hour with her family.

On another social media channel, Ice T mentioned that “I’ve been using a Free App called Marco Polo.” He said, “It’s a ‘video walkie talkie’ to communicate to my close friends and family… I was on it way before Quarantine. But NOW it does the job… FYI: I’m NOT getting paid for this plug, though they should! Lol.”

(via Forbes): The real secret to Marco Polo’s success may lie in its simplicity. Unlike bandwidth-sucking real-time video chat platforms like Zoom or Apple’s FaceTime, video messages are exchanged more like text messages. Glitchy broadband won’t disrupt the conversation and recipients are free to respond in their own time. Voice-changing options such as “helium” and “macho man” and to the fun, and Instagram-style filters are also available. But it’s the emotional benefit of seeing a human face that makes the husband and wife team behind Marco Polo believe their app’s growth will continue beyond the current pandemic.

“Once people start using Marco Polo they feel happier,” Vlada Bortnik says, citing a January 2020 study Joya Communications conducted with Brigham Young University-Idaho. After two weeks “74% of users said their mood was better.”

Unlike other social sites, “there are no social comparisons, no counts of likes,” she says. “You can just talk, you don’t have to worry about ‘how many likes is Polo going to get?’” Bortnik also notes that Marco Polo is ad-free and private, with no feeds full of strangers to scroll through. “It’s really for your closest friends,” she says. “It’s not for the whole world to see.”

“You’re talking to your mom, you’re talking to your sisters, so there’s not that need to put on a show. You can just be yourself,” Bortnik says. The app is less of a “highlight reel of one’s life” or a place to showcase feigned happiness, and more like the “Finstas,” the ironically named “fake Instagram” accounts in which social media users show their “real” selves. Bortnik says she hopes communication on Marco Polo takes on a more casual and “real” tone.

As the numbers of subscribers went up, though, here’s how March Polo botched its app upgrade and ended up with 1-star reviews:

Marco Polo’s app update began rolling out to users, and once installed, it removed many of the most popular features that users loved -- well, that is unless they agreed to pay a $5 monthly subscription.

Vlada Bortnik mentioned that they were working on ways to increase revenue streams for the service.

“We’re experimenting already with different ways we’re going to monetize that is not going to include ads,” she says. A future premium version of the app will support HD video, among other features. “With increased usage, there’s also increasing costs, so we’re figuring out how we can make sure that we can be around for decades to come for people,” Bortnik says.

What has users so upset is that isn’t how the founders presented the changes on a company blog.

"Plus is a membership plan that unlocks premium features (like HD!), an elevated experience that includes more functionality, unlimited versions of free features and new, fun ways to use the app, all designed to help you stay connected more effortlessly and joyously."

"If you take away the features that I like to use instead of adding new ones and try to force me to pay, I'll just stop using the app," says Jarek Khan, a longtime Marco Polo user.

The app refuses to run ads or sell user personal information to third parties, and since it is relatively a free app, finding a “sustainable” way to generate revenue has been a challenge.

One reviewer on iTunes gave Marco Polo a two-star review for the change, noting that at a time when other companies are opening up normally paid features during the crisis, Marco Polo went the other way, which makes it look like the founders are capitalizing on the situation.

The headlines to other reviews were not exactly friendly. "Upgrade degrades." "Loved app until." "Once great, ruined." "Stay away." "Horrible update." "You can't be serious."

To be fair though, when most apps or services begin to charge a fee, increase fees, or simply make a change, there will be users who will get upset about the change.

Peter Pham, a co-founder of Science, Inc., which incubates startups and who has launched free versions of apps that went on to offer premium subscriptions, says there is a certain decorum of getting people to pay, and it starts by making an announcement ahead of time.

“Generally there’s a lead up to it, a blog post (or) a notification in the app that change is coming. It all comes down to communication,” Pham told USA Today.

“You’ll always get a significant number of people who are mad, especially when they have to pay for something," says Pham. "They eventually forget about it and move on."

Mrs. Bortnik spoke with USA Today in a series of video replies addressing that free users wouldn't see a dramatic change.

(via USA Today): She admits that her messaging wasn’t totally clear. “Many people got what we were trying to do, but not everybody.”

Bortnik says Marco Polo is responding to all the people who left 1-star reviews in the App Store, and on social media, “to let them know nothing has been taken away from them.”

What she means by that is that the old version is still available. If users upgrade and don’t like what they see, they can revert back to the original, from within the app, something most app makers don't allow. However, it's only "for a limited time."


And for the ones that are leaving negative reviews about the app profiting from a pandemic, Bortnik says that “it goes against everything this company stands for,” she said. “The coronavirus crisis and the rise in app usage shows more urgently than ever before that ... our business has to be sustainable so that Marco Polo will be there for millions of people."