Zapier Software Trends Report: What We Learned from 1,000 SaaS Apps

Matthew Guay
Matthew Guay / January 10, 2018

Sometimes you can't see the progress until you look back. In the 7 years since Zapier started automating apps, software changed perhaps more than we realize. Apps sync across devices and voice assistants play whatever song we want and ads tell us who clicked on them. That's magically new in the grand scheme of tech—yet it's just how things work today. Then right along with the new is the old, the email and RSS and spreadsheets that carry along silently, getting work done regardless of every new startup that tries to disrupt them.

It's been quite the half-decade. Here's what our team has learned as we've helped our users automate their tasks and worked with the teams behind the 1,000 apps that connect to Zapier today. They're the trends that shape how we work today—and how we'll work better tomorrow.

Zapier Software Trends Report

Email Is Still King

Team chat has grown fast—but email and even email newsletters have grown faster

For all the talk of team chat disrupting email and every new startup that sets out to replace your inbox, we're using email apps more than ever.

Email apps on Zapier are used by twice as many people as team chat apps—it's consistently been our most popular app category over the past two years. Even email newsletter apps have crept up, and today are used by more people than team chat apps. As Zapier CEO Wade Foster says, "People ask me what’s trendy, and my answer is always 'email.' Despite a crowded space, new email apps enter every year and thrive."

Perhaps it shouldn't be so surprising. Email's our online passport, the way we sign up for every other new app. It's the universal connector. Send an email via Gmail on your iPhone's Mail app, and colleagues using Office 365 in Outlook on a PC and Fastmail in a browser will all get the same message and can reply to chime in. And thanks to smart inboxes and spam filtering, email is the place you're most likely to actually see a friend's message or a company announcement you don't want to miss.

Email can even help you connect your other apps. "Email is the 'lowest common denominator' for integrating things without an API," says Zapier API engineer Ben Peter. You might struggle, say, to connect your Amazon orders to your accounting app. But Amazon always emails you a receipt—and you can forward that email to Zapier integrations that save the receipt to your accounting app. Better yet, email parsers can read your email, figure out what you bought and how much you spent, and log every detail automatically.

It's been with us so long, there's an email solution for everything. Email's infinitely flexible. It's one app everyone uses.

And our second most popular app category? Spreadsheets. Turns out, the simple, versatile early apps have more than proved themselves to be the most useful even decades after they were invented.

You Need All The Social Networks to Reach Your Audience

40% of Zapier users rely on 2 or more social networks

They didn't kill email, but they did find a place on our homescreens and in our offices alike. Social networks weren't new when Zapier launched. But over the past half decade, they've grown to play a larger role in our work than we could have guessed back when hashtags were a brand new idea and before Messenger had its own app.

One thing's proven true, though: No single social network won the whole market. Across all app categories on Zapier, just over 5% of people use more than one app from any given category. Social networks are the exception—they're the apps where we need them all. Both Twitter and Facebook Pages have gained users in lockstep on Zapier over the years. That's because most companies use them both—you're most likely to share your content to your Facebook Page and Twitter. Of the over fifty categories of apps in Zapier's app directory, social networking apps stand out as the category where people are most likely to use two or more apps from the category. Over 40% of the people who use a social network on Zapier use two or more networks. We're sharing to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and any other network we can. The more the merrier.

Only if you use a social network management tool like Buffer or Hootsuite are you more likely to use only one social media app, as 96% of our users of those apps do. That makes sense. You add all of your networks to one app, then publish to them all together.

Odds are you'll use more social networking apps going forward. At the beginning of the decade, social networks were still young enough that their ads weren't that much different from banner ads on other sites. That's changed. Facebook Lead Ads and LinkedIn Lead Gen Forms—the fastest growing app and the second top new app on Zapier in 2017, respectively—both give you a smarter way to advertise with an extra social app to add to your workflow. With detailed targeting, these social networks let you drill down to the precise audience most interested in your products, and then potential customers can easily share their information with you when they click your ad. It's the smartest way to advertise yet—and their growth is proof that social networks will continue to be increasingly crucial to business, whether simply to build a network and share ideas or as the best way to reach your customers or audience.

You Talk in Just One App

99% of Zapier users only use one team chat, video call, or webinar tool

In sharp contrast to social networks, we're not likely to use more than one app for our team communications. 99% of the people who used a team chat app, video call tool, or webinar software on Zapier only use one app from the category. Once your team switches to a new team chat app, you're most likely to stick with that one app, keeping all of your conversations and ideas in one place.

"Unlike other categories where users will jump between multiple providers, chat, video, and webinar tools seem to command user loyalty," says Zapier head of partnerships Cody Jones. That's something we've noticed in our team, as we've tried countless video chat apps over the years. It took time to settle—but once we started using Zoom for our core team meetings, it was only a matter of time before most of our team used it for ad hoc calls and meetings with partners.

Switching apps depending on who you're talking with only wastes time. So once we pick a chat app, we're bound to only use that one app—at least, that's what Zapier users tend to do.

You Need More Than One of Some Apps

Zapier user are more likely to use both a project and to-do list app than 2 project management apps

You might need both a project management app and a to-do list, one for your team and another for your own personal tasks. Fewer than 8% of people use more than one project management app with Zapier. Similar to team chat apps, we're likely to pick one app and stick with it to keep everything in one place. But you're more than twice as likely to use a to-do list along with your project management app, as 17% of our users do. You can manage teamwork in projects, then keep personal tasks in a simpler to-do list for an app—something a number of people on our own team do as well.

Something similar holds true for email. Fewer than 4% of people use two email newsletter or drip email apps. Combine all of our email categories together, though, and you're nearly four times as likely to use more than one email app. We've got an app for newsletters, one for drip emails, and another to send transactional emails and receipts. The best app for the specific task wins out, even if it means using a whole set of email apps.

The Fastest Growing App Categories—Specialized Apps Win

Some app categories stay the same for years, with the same standby apps keeping us productive without much change. Webinars, spreadsheets, and bookmarks were all the categories that gained the fewest new apps over the past six years on Zapier. We were still relying on Excel and Google Sheets then—and there are only a handful of other apps that joined the fray since then.

Other categories are far more dynamic, with new entrants seemingly coming out every day. Marketing Automation—tools like HubSpot and ConvertKit that help you automatically follow up with leads, email onboarding tutorials to customers, and stay in touch with people who might buy your products again—has grown the fastest. There were only ten marketing automation apps on Zapier in early 2014. Today, over 75 apps are helping Zapier users automate their marketing, with more new tools coming out all the time.

Specialized apps that help you do one part of your business better are increasingly popular. Not everyone needs a real estate app—but if you do, odds are you need a tool that fits exactly the way your real estate team works. That's fueled the rise of real estate apps on Zapier, from 8 in mid-2016 to over 20 today. The same applies to all types of business management apps, from tools to manage subscription services and on-demand services to specialized apps for lawyers and repair technicians alike. There were only 15 app like these on Zapier in early 2016, where today there are over 39 different business management tools to make specific types of enterprises successful. And social networking lead generation is an entirely new category of tools over the past couple years, focused just on one specific type of ad.

It's a trend we see more and more, as it gets cheaper and easier to build new apps. Teams can take a focused idea for a specific industry, build a tool designed specifically for a niche audience, then rely on integrations and APIs to do everything they couldn't afford otherwise to build into their app. That's one of the main things that will power the next thousand—and million—business apps.

What Makes an App Successful?

You know them when you see them, the apps that changed the way we think about a software category and are now hard to imagine life without. But what makes them so successful? Why did they win, when they're just another to-do list or chat app, a new take on an age-old problem?

From the trends and changes, the apps that have become the new category winners over the past decade share some traits. Here's what we've found from the thousand apps that integrate with Zapier:

1. They Do One Thing Well

Some apps try to do everything. Like a buffet with steak, pizza, sushi, and Chinese food all together, their feature list includes everything you could possibly imagine and them some. They're jacks of all trades—and as the saying goes, masters of none.

The winners, on the other hand, stay focused. If there's one thing that stood out among the apps that won in their category and became the fastest growing on Zapier, it's that they did one thing well. "Most people need small components of functionality," says Zapier CEO Wade Foster. Nail that one core feature people need from your app, and customers will follow.

It doesn't even take something radically new. Group video call app Zoom, the 2nd fastest growing app on Zapier in 2017, is far from a new idea, but its focus on making videos calls work great helped it win in a crowded market. Trello focused on Kanban, popularized that as a way to organize your tasks, and stayed simple to use even as it added features. Developer tools like Stripe, Twilio, and Amazon's S3 are perhaps the best example. They're tools for one thing—payments, SMS messages, and storage respectively. If you're building an app and want it to send SMS messages or accept payments, you don't have to go build that feature—you just use those tools inside your app, and stay focused on what your tool does best.

That changed the way software is developed today. Now that it's easier to build new software, it's no surprise we're seeing more focused, niche apps that do a one task for a specific industry better—apps for lawyers and real estate agents and on-demand delivery services that would never be as useful if they tried to do everything.

As Wade said, "The success of these simple single purpose apps at nailing one functionality continues to impress me."

2. They're Flexible

Email and spreadsheets can be anything you need them to be and also work anywhere, no matter what apps your colleagues use. They're flexible and don't make your data feel locked in. They're powerful and simple at the same time. That's why they won—a lesson today's best new apps are taking to heart, says Zapier head of success Jesse Parker: "I think the next big trend is going to be databases that allow you to change the visual display of data at the click of a button—think Airtable, Zenkit, and Coda."

Instead of having only one way to view your tasks or data, many of today's fastest growing apps make it easy to turn your data into anything you want. You don't need a dedicated Kanban app for workflows, a calendar to schedule, and a mind map to outline. Flexible apps let your data work the way you want it to.

3. They Integrate with Other Apps

It's not just developer-focused API tools like AWS that win by being a component in others' apps—that's how every app wins today. Focused apps don't have to do everything in large part because they can rely on other single purpose apps to do the rest thanks to integrations and tools like Zapier.

Facebook Lead Ads and LinkedIn Lead Gen Forms, for example, were both able to focus on their core ad and form features thanks to integrations. A list of contact data isn't very useful on its own, perhaps tempting developers to add a way to send emails to customers or tools to sort through contacts to their apps. But there are already apps that are great at that. Integrations let those two new popular tools focus on what they do best and free their customers to use other best-in-class tools for everything else they need.

Those two trends also mean it's easier than ever to launch a new app with a small team. Paperform, for instance, is built by just two people, something made easier by their app's focus on its core features, relying on integrations for the rest. "It’s the cheapest and easiest it has ever been to create a web app from scratch," says Zapier platform support engineer Brody Berson.

4. They Expand the Market as a Platform

There are only a certain number of people who used team chat apps in 2013, often remote businesses or companies with international offices who needed some way to keep in touch. You could've built a successful business catering to them, but your customer base would always be small.

Or, you could expand the market—the fuel behind Slack's meteoric rise. It wasn't just a place to chat. It was a hub for all of your apps. Thanks to integrations, it kept all of your conversations, documents, and everything else you wanted to send to it in one place. New apps came out just for Slack—both Slack apps and bots. And suddenly, everyone was using a team chat app for work, for ad-hoc groups, as mini new private social networks, and even to play games. Things we would have never thought of doing in chat before, Slack suddenly seemed the perfect place to do them. A whole new market wasn't born—team chat was still an age-old idea from IRC in the earliest days of the internet—but it was vastly expanded. It's the new table stakes with nearly every major app developer having a team chat app today.

You see the same thing in other category winners. Successful developer tools including AWS, Stripe, and Twilio have turned into their own ecosystems. "I think developer apps have a lot of room for growth," says Zapier frontend engineer lead Justin Deal. Part of that is because it's not just developers using those services today. Instead, entire ecosystems have built up around each, making them a crucial part of more consumer and small business-focused apps. Building a subscription business? Odds are you'll use a subscription app that also requires a Stripe account to process the payments. Want a cheaper way to send email newsletters? You'll use a tool like Sendy that requires an Amazon SES account to actually send the emails. And Twilio made phone APIs simple enough, anyone can use it to build their own automated phone system without coding—or to use their API inside another app, like the software version of your phone's SIM card.

It's a virtuous cycle even for competitors. "Even with Slack dominating this space, there are still apps coming out with different spins on the category," remarks Berson. Sometimes it takes a new idea to grow the market, setting the stage for another level of innovation and the next set of new apps and ideas.

Software isn't this monolithic thing anymore on a stack of DVDs that take hours to install. It's smaller, focused, nimbler tools that do one thing well and let you work the way you want, connected to your other apps to build an ecosystem where your contacts and email and projects all work together even if they're not all in the same app. It's no wonder we're using more apps than ever–that we're building our own ad hoc suites with features that fit our businesses. That's how the best software works today. It's fluid, it fits your business, and frees your data to work together.

MySpace was the most popular social network until suddenly Facebook was. VisiCalc brought spreadsheets to computers—then Excel became synonymous with spreadsheets. AIM, Aol's instant messenger, taught us how to chat before its death by a thousand cuts from today's myriad chat apps. And that's not to mention all the false starts, the Google Waves and Windows Live Meshes that promised the future only a bit too soon.

Software ebbs and flows, changes and disrupts, innovates and eclipses. We wait with bated breath for the next big thing, seldom stopping to mourn that which was lost until we look around and everything's changed without us exactly noticing.

It's those new ideas remixed on age-old ideas that make software exciting. They're the next thousand apps that will integrate with Zapier, the tools we'll use in the coming decade to work better.

We might still be using email and spreadsheets, but we'll be using them better than ever.

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