The App of God

100 million people now have the same (interactive, data-wielding) Bible app in their pockets.
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A young man walks into a strip club. His phone vibrates, and he reaches into his pocket.

It's God, telling him to leave.

YouVersion recently announced its app hit a monumental milestone -- placing it among a rare strata of technology companies: The app, simply called "Bible," is now on more than 100 million devices and growing. Gruenewald says a new install occurs every 1.3 seconds.

On average, some 66,000 people have the app open during any given second, but that number climbs much higher at times. Every Sunday, Gruenewald says, preachers around the world tell devotees, "to take out your Bibles or YouVersion app. And, we see a huge spike."

The market for religious apps is fiercely competitive; searching for "bible" in the Apple App Store returns 5,185 results. But among all the choices, YouVersion's Bible, funded by LifeChurch.tv of Edmond, Oklahoma, seems to be the chosen one, ranking at the top of the list and boasting more than 641,000 reviews.

According to industry experts, the YouVersion Bible is likely worth a bundle. Jules Maltz, General Partner at Institutional Venture Partners, told me, "As a rule of thumb, a company this size could be worth $200 million and up."

"Of course, this assumes the company can monetize through standard advertising," Maltz added. Gruenewald, however, says he has no intention of ever turning a profit from the app.

Despite multiple buyout offers and monetization opportunities, the Bible app remains strictly a money-losing venture. The apps' backer, Lifechurch.tv, has invested more than $20 million but according to Gruenewald, "the goal is to reach and engage as many people as possible with scripture. That's all." So far, Gruenewald is meeting his goal.

How did YouVersion come to so dominate the digital word of God? It turns out there is much more behind the app's success than missionary zeal. The company is a case study in how technology can change behavior when it couples the principles of consumer psychology with the latest in analytics.

* * *

Gruenewald is a fast-talking man. During our conversation, he pulled up statistics in real-time, stopping himself mid-sentence whenever relevant data flashed on his screen. He spouted user-retention figures with the same gusto I'd imagine he might proclaim scripture.

"Unlike other companies when we started, we were not building a Bible reader for seminary students. YouVersion was designed to be used by everyone, every day." Gruenewald attributes much of the app's success to a relentless focus on creating habitual Bible readers.

"Bible study guides are nothing new," Gruenewald says. "People have been using them with pen and paper long before we came along." But the Bible app is much more than a mobile study guide.

In fact, the first version of YouVersion was not mobile at all. "We originally started as a desktop website, but that really didn't engage people in the Bible. It wasn't until we tried a mobile version that we noticed a difference in people, including ourselves, turning to the Bible more because it was on a device they always had with them."

Indeed, people started taking the Bible with them everywhere. Recently, the company revealed that 18 percent of users read scripture in the bathroom. While the 100 million install mark is an impressive milestone, perhaps the more startling fact is that users apparently can't put the app down.[1]

How did it achieve this level of user engagement? Gruenewald acknowledges the Bible app enjoyed the good fortune of being among the first of its kind at the genesis of the App Store in 2008. To take part, Gruenewald quickly converted his web site into a mobile app optimized for reading. His app caught the rising tide, but soon a wave of competition followed.

That's when Gruenewald says he implemented a plan -- actually, many plans. A signature of the Bible app is its selection of over 400 reading plans -- a devotional iTunes catalog of sorts, catering to an audience with diverse tastes, troubles, and tongues.

Given my personal interest and research into habit-forming technology, I decided to start a Bible reading plan of my own. I searched the available themes for an area of my life I needed help with. A plan titled, "Addictions," seemed appropriate.

These reading plans provide structure to the difficult task of reading the Bible for those who have yet to form a routine. "Certain sections of the Bible can be difficult for people to get through," Gruenewald admits. "By offering reading plans with different small sections of the Bible each day, it helps keep [readers] from giving up." The app focuses the reader on the small task at hand, avoiding the intimidating task of reading the entire book.

To get users to open the app every day, Gruenewald makes sure he sends effective cues -- such as the notification sent to the sinner in the strip club. But Gruenewald admits he stumbled upon the power of using good triggers. "At first we were very worried about sending people notifications. We didn't want to bother them too much."

Gruenewald decided to run an experiment. "For Christmas, we sent people a message from the app. Just a 'Merry Christmas' in various languages." The team was prepared to hear from disgruntled users annoyed by the message. "We were afraid people would uninstall the app," Gruenewald says. "But just the opposite happened. People took pictures of the notification on their phones and started sharing them on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. They felt God was reaching out to them." Today, Gruenewald says, triggers play an important role in every reading plan.

On my own plan, I receive a daily notification on my phone, which reads, "Don't forget to read your Addictions reading plan." Ironically, the addiction I'm trying to cure is my dependency to digital gadgetry, but what the hell, I'll fall off the wagon just this once.

In case I somehow avoid the first message, a red badge over a tiny Holy Bible icon cues me again. If I forgot to start the first day of the plan, I'd receive a message suggesting perhaps I should try a different, less challenging plan. I also have the option of receiving verse through email and if I slip-up and miss a few days, another email would serve as a reminder.

The Bible app also comes with a virtual congregation of sorts. Members of the site tend to send encouraging words to one another, delivering even more triggers. According to the company's publicist, "Community emails can serve as a nudge to open the app." Triggers are everywhere in the Bible app and Gruenewald says they are a key part of the app's ability to keep users engaged.

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Nir Eyal is the author of Hooked: How to Drive Engagement by Creating User Habits. He has written for TechCrunch, Forbes, and Psychology Today.

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