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.
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.