Marco Polo has been around for years, but it’s blowing up

Ice T loves the app Marco Polo. So does P!nk, who shouted out the app on Instagram, and Amy Poehler, who mentioned it during a Late Night appearance. All three celebrities have highlighted the four-year-old video messaging app in recent weeks, saying they’re using it to stay in touch with friends and family while social distancing. It’s seen a 12 times increase in new signups over the last month, with a 745 percent increase in signups during just the week of March 30th. Marco Polo wouldn’t provide concrete user numbers, but it said that “millions” of people are now using the app.

Still, for a four-year-old app with explosive growth and celebrity fanfare, no one seems to know exactly why people are flocking to Marco Polo.

“I think the pandemic gave people a permission slip or something, like, now it’s okay to share what I’m using to stay in touch with people,” Marco Polo CEO Vlada Bortnik tells me. “And so a lot of growth has been coming that way as well.” Bortnik says the team has never paid for marketing and instead solely relies on organic, word-of-mouth growth. Even P!nk mentioned that a friend recommended the app to her.

Marco Polo is a messaging app that works a bit like Snapchat. Users can send video and text messages to others that they can watch on their own time, rather than committing to a video call or posting content publicly to stories. It’s designed to be family-friendly, insomuch as people can send each other video messages that they open whenever they want, without dominating anyone’s schedule. The team expects parents, grandparents, siblings, and close friends to use the app to keep up with each other’s lives.

Marco Polo is free to use, though it offers a $9.99 monthly subscription that gives people long-term access to their old videos and chats. In its app store descriptions, Marco Polo’s creators say their product differs from other social media apps because “Marco Polo is real, trusted, and built to be good for you. Unlike many apps, Marco Polo does not sell user data for advertising.”

That’s the company’s big sell: it makes an app that’s safe for families to use because no data is monetized or advertised against. Whether it’s safe and can support that mission with its limited subscription plan has yet to be proven, though.

As we’ve learned from Zoom’s success, free, easy-to-use apps can have security and privacy problems that get overlooked until they’re suddenly forced into the spotlight. When a large group of people began stress-testing and inspecting Zoom more closely last month, an array of privacy and security issues were discovered. For an app like Marco Polo, which prides itself on privacy, standing up under that same scrutiny as it becomes more popular is a serious test.

Bortnik says users’ data is only encrypted in transit, meaning it isn’t encrypted when it’s stored on Marco Polo’s servers. The company also keeps users’ photos and videos on its servers indefinitely. Users can choose to delete that data on their own, in which case Bortnik says Marco Polo will delete it from its servers, too. But people are opted into saving everything they send and receive by default.

“We’re not encrypted end-to-end because we’re storing your memories, so if you lost your phone we’d want to make sure you’d have access to it,” Bortnik says.

As for the kind of data Marco Polo collects, it asks for access to people’s contacts, in addition to their cameras and microphone. It’s committed to not monetizing or selling any of that data.

Marco Polo has raised tens of millions of dollars, though, and it’ll have to make money eventually. Its premium subscription only launched last fall and doesn’t offer many additional features. Bortnik said the team is working on some new revenue streams for “later this year,” too.

“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.

Marco Polo has maintained a relatively low profile since its launch, but with the pandemic, people are looking for any way to stay more in touch with people. It’s an understandable instinct, but also one that requires people to trust unfamiliar apps. Bortnik says Marco Polo’s relationship with its users comes down to trust. The team is looking to facilitate studies, she says, to prove that Marco Polo is “good for you,” like one the company conducted at Brigham Young University in 2018 that looked at how students used the app. The team is also constantly replying to emails and engaging with their users.

“Everything about our business aligns with what we’re trying to do in the world, and I think that’s the kind of trust that people need in order to be vulnerable themselves,” she says. Bortnik says the idea of building an app for private conversations without monetized data has been top of mind for the company since its inception.

Bortnik and her team are seemingly interested in doing good for the world and connecting people to their families, but a noble mission doesn’t instantly inspire trust: it’s something apps have to earn, and Marco Polo’s still building that reputation.