The App of God

By Nir Eyal
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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.

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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.

Gruenewald's team has sifted through behavioral data collected from millions of readers to better understand what users want from the app. "We just have so much data flowing through our system," Gruenewald said. "We were generating so much of it that apparently we showed up on Google's radar and they contacted us to take a closer look." Gruenewald reports his company recently completed work with Google engineers to help, "with storing and analyzing data so they could solve [these problems] for others as well."

The data revealed some important insights on what drives user retention. High on Gruenewald's list of learnings was the importance of "ease of use," which came-up throughout our conversation.

In line with work dating back to Gestalt psychologist Kurt Lewin and extending to modern-day researchers like BJ Fogg, the app uses the principle that by making an intended behavior easier to do, people do it more often.

The Bible app is designed to make absorbing the Word as frictionless as possible. For example, to make the Bible app habit easier to adopt, a user who prefers to not read at all can simply tap a small icon, which plays a professionally produced audio track, read with all the dramatic bravado of Charlton Heston himself.

Gruenewald says his data also revealed that changing the order of the Bible, placing the more interesting sections up front and saving the boring bits for later, increased completion rates. Furthermore, daily reading plans are kept to a simple inspirational thought and a few short verses for newcomers. The idea is to get neophytes into the ritual for a few minutes each day until the routine becomes a facet of their everyday lives.

Upon opening the Bible app, I find a specially selected verse waiting for me on the topic of "Addictions". With just two taps I'm reading 1 Thessalonians 5:11 -- encouragement for the "children of the day," imploring them with the words, "let us be sober." It's easy to see how these comforting words could serve as a sort of prize wrapped inside the app, helping readers feel better and lifting their mood.

Gruenewald says there is also an element of mystery and variability associated with using the Bible app. "One woman would stay-up until just past midnight to know what verse she had received for her next day," Gruenewald says. The unknown, which verse will be chosen for the reader and how it relates to their personal struggle, becomes an important driver of the reading habit.

As for my own reward, after finishing my verse, I received confirmation from a satisfying "Day Complete!" screen. A check mark appeared near the scripture I had read and another one was placed on my reading plan calendar. Skipping a day would mean breaking the chain of checked days, employing what psychologists call the "endowed progress effect" -- a tactic also used by video game designers to encourage progression.

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As habit-forming as the Bible app's reading plans can be, they are not for everyone. In fact, Gruenewald reports most users never register for an account with YouVersion. Millions choose to not follow any plan, opting instead to use the app as a substitute for their paper Bibles.

But to Gruenewald, using the app in this way suits him fine. Just because a reader never registers, does not mean Gruenewald has not found a way to help them grow the app. In fact, social media is abuzz with the 200,000 pieces of content shared from the app every 24 hours.

To help the app spread, a new verse greets the reader on the first page. Below it, a large blue button reads, "Share Verse of the Day," whereby clicking the button blasts scripture to Facebook or Twitter.

Just why people share scripture they've just read is not widely studied. However, one reason may be the reward of portraying oneself in a positive light. A recent Harvard meta-analysis titled, "Disclosing information about the self is intrinsically rewarding" found the act, "engages neural and cognitive mechanisms associated with reward." In fact, sharing feels so good that one study found, "individuals were willing to forgo money to disclose about the self."

There are many opportunities to share verse from within the app, but one of Gruenewald's most effective distributions channels occurs not online but in-row -- that is, in the pews church-goers sit-in every week.

"People tell each other about the app because they use it surrounded by people who ask about it." Gruenewald says the app always sees a spike in new downloads on Sundays when people are most likely to share it through word of mouth.

However, nothing signals the dominance of Gruenewald's Bible app quite like the way preachers in some congregations have come to depend upon it. YouVersion lets religious leaders input their sermons into the app to allow their assemblies to follow along in real-time -- book, verse, and passage -- all without flipping a page. Once the head of the church is hooked, the flock is sure to follow.

But using the Bible app at church not only has the benefit of driving growth, it builds commitment. Every time users highlight a verse, add a comment, bookmark, or share from the app, they invest in it.

Behavioral economists Dan Ariely and Michael Norton have shown the effect small amounts of work have on the way people value various products. Known as the "IKEA effect," studies have shown that things we put labor into, become worth more to us.

It is reasonable to think that the more readers put into the Bible app in the form of small investments, the more it becomes a repository of their history of worship. Like a worn dog-eared book, full of scribbled insights and wisdom, the app becomes a treasured asset not easily discarded.

The more readers use the Bible app, the more valuable it becomes to them. Switching to a different digital Bible -- God forbid -- becomes less likely with each new revelation a user types into the app, further securing YouVersion's dominion.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/07/the-app-of-god/278006/