7. CASE STUDY: THE BIBLE APP
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In the previous chapter, I urged you to be a facilitator and to use the tools in this book to improve the lives of others. I encouraged you to align your work with a purpose that provides you with meaning and helps cultivate meaning for others. This is not only a moral imperative, it’s good business practice.
The most highly regarded entrepreneurs are driven by meaning, a vision for greater good that drives them forward. Startups are grueling and only the most fortunate persevere before finding success. If you only build for fame or fortune, you will likely find neither. But build for meaning and you can’t go wrong.
The Hook Model is a framework based on human psychology and a close examination of today’s most successful habit-forming products. Now that you have an understanding of the model and the psychology behind why we do the things we do, let’s study how it all comes together in one of the world’s most popular apps. Whether you agree with the mission of the app described below is not important. The lesson here is how a technology company created a user habit while staying true to the founder’s moral calling.
It’s not often an app has the power to keep someone out of a strip club. But according to Bobby Gruenewald, CEO of YouVersion, that’s exactly what his technology did. Gruenewald says a user of his Bible verse app walked into a business of ill repute when suddenly, seemingly out of the heavens, he received a notification on his phone. “God’s trying to tell me something!,” Gruenewald recalled the user saying. “I just walked into a strip club — and man — the Bible just texted me!”
In July 2013, YouVersion announced a monumental milestone for the app, placing it in a rare strata of technology companies. The app, simply called “Bible,” has been downloaded to more than 100 million devices and growing.[cxxv] Gruenewald says a new install occurs every 1.3 seconds.
On average, 66,000 people open the app every second — and sometimes the open rate is much higher. Every Sunday, Gruenewald says, preachers around the world tell congregants 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 seems to be the chosen one, ranking at the top of the list and boasting over 641,000 reviews.
How did YouVersion come to dominate the digital, “word of God?” It turns out there is much more behind the app’s success than missionary zeal. It’s a case study in how technology can change behavior by marrying the principles of consumer psychology with the latest in big data analytics.
According to industry insiders, the YouVersion Bible could be 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.”
Maltz should know. His firm announced an investment in another pre-revenue app, Snapchat, at an $800 million valuation in July 2013.[cxxvi] Maltz justifies the price by pointing to the per-user valuations of other tech companies such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, each of which commanded astronomical investment sums well before turning a profit. Maltz was quick to add, “Of course, this assumes the company can monetize through advertising.”
In the Beginning
Gruenewald is a quick-thinking, fast-talking man. During our conversation, he pulled up statistics in real-time, stopping himself mid-sentence whenever relevant data flashed on his screen. As Gruenewald preaches on about mobile app development best practices, I need to occasionally interrupt him to ask clarifying questions. My words stumble over his enthusiasm as he bears witness to what he’s learned building his app. He spouts 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 says, attributing much of the app’s success to a relentless focus on creating habitual Bible readers. The Bible app’s success is broken down into the language of habit formation more commonly seen in psychology textbooks. The “cues,” “behaviors” and “rewards” of communing with the Lord are bullet-pointed and ready for our discussion.
“Bible study guides are nothing new,” Gruenewald says. “People have been using them with pen and paper long before we came along.” But I soon find out, 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.”
This is not surprising. The Fogg Behavior Model (chapter three) notes that for an action to occur, users must receive a trigger and have sufficient motivation and ability to complete it. If any of these elements are missing or inadequate at the moment the trigger arises, the action will not occur.
The omnipresence of the Bible app makes it far more accessible than its website predecessor, giving users the ability to open the mobile app when triggered by the pastor’s instructions or when feeling inspired at other moments throughout their day. Its users take it everywhere, reading the scripture in even the most unsanctified places. The company revealed that 18 percent of readers report using the Bible app in the bathroom.[cxxvii]
How to Form a God Habit
Gruenewald acknowledges his 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 advantage of the newly established App Store, Gruenewald quickly converted his website into a mobile app optimized for reading. The app caught the rising tide, but soon a wave of competition followed. If his app was to reign supreme, Gruenewald needed to get users hooked quickly.
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 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. A plan titled
For those who have yet to form a routine around Biblical study, reading plans provide structure and guidance. “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 chunks out and sequences the text by separating it into bite-sized pieces. By parsing readings into digestible communion wafer-sized portions, the app focuses the reader’s brain on the small task at hand while avoiding the intimidation of reading the entire book.
Five years of testing and tinkering have helped Gruenewald’s team discover what works best. Today, the Bible app’s reading plans are tuned to immaculate perfection and Gruenewald has learned that frequency of use is paramount. “We’ve always focused on daily reading. Our entire structure for plans focuses on daily engagement.”
To get users to open the app every day, Gruenewald makes sure he sends effective cues — like the notification sent to the sinner in the strip club. But Gruenewald admits he stumbled upon the power of good triggers. “At first we were very worried about sending people notifications. We didn’t want to bother them too much.”
To test how much of a cross users were willing to bear, 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 — an owned external trigger — on my phone. It simply says, “Don’t forget to read your Addictions reading plan.” Ironically, the addiction I’m trying to cure is my dependency on 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 on my phone cues me again. If I forget to start the first day of a plan, I’ll receive a message suggesting that 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 reminds me to get back on track.
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.” These relationship-based external triggers are everywhere in the Bible app and are one of the keys to keeping users engaged.
Glory Be in the Data
Gruenewald’s team sifts 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 says. The data reveals important insights on what drives user retention. High on the list of learnings is the importance of “ease of use,” which came up throughout our conversation.
In line with the work of psychologists from early Gestalt psychologist Kurt Lewin to modern-day researchers, the app uses the principle that by making an intended action easier to do, people will 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, users who prefer listening over reading can simply tap a small icon to play an audio track read with the dramatic bravado of Charlton Heston himself.
Gruenewald says his data also revealed that changing the order of the Bible by 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.
Rewards from the Lord
Gruenewald says the connection people have with scripture taps into deep emotions that “we need to use responsibly.” Readers who form a habit of using the app turn to it not only when they see a notification on their phone, but also whenever they feel low and need a way to lift their spirits.
“We believe that the Bible is a way God speaks to us,” Gruenewald says. “When people see a verse, they see wisdom or truth they can apply to their lives or a situation they’re going through.” Skeptics might call this “subjective validation,” and psychologists call it the “Forer Effect,” but to the faithful, it amounts to personally communicating with God.
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.
Gruenewald says his Bible app also offers an element of mystery and variability. “One woman would stay up until just past midnight to know what verse she had received for her next day,” Gruenewald says. The unknown — in this case, 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 affirmation 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.
As habit-forming as the Bible app’s reading plans can be, they are not for everyone. In fact, Gruenewald reports most users downloaded the app but 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. Unregistered readers are still helping to 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 the verse, a large blue button reads, “Share Verse of the Day.” One click and the daily scripture is blasted to Facebook or Twitter.
The drivers behind recently read scripture have not been widely studied. However, one reason may be the reward portraying oneself in a positive light, also known as the “humblebrag.”[cxxviii] A Harvard meta-analysis entitled “Disclosing information about the self is intrinsically rewarding” found the act, “engages neural and cognitive mechanisms associated with reward.”[cxxix] 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 Bible app, but one of Gruenewald’s most effective distribution channels is not online but in-row — that is, in the pews where church-goers sit side by side 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 reign of Gruenewald’s Bible app quite like the way some preachers
Using the Bible app at church not only has the benefit of driving growth, it also builds commitment. Every time users highlight a verse, add a comment, create a bookmark or share from the app, they invest in it.
As described in an earlier chapter, Dan Ariely and Michael Norton have shown the effect small amounts of work have on the way people value various products. This “IKEA effect” illustrates the connection between labor and perceived worth.
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 dog-eared book, full of scribbled insights and wisdom, the app becomes a treasured asset that won’t easily be 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 users type into (or extract from) the app, further securing YouVersion’s dominion.
Gruenewald claims he is not in competition with anyone, but he does on occasion rattle off the App Store categories where his app holds a high ranking. His app’s place at the top of the charts appears secure now that the Bible has crossed its 100 millionth install. But Gruenewald plans to continue sifting through the terabytes of data in search of new ways to increase the reach of his app and make his version of the Bible even more habit-forming. To its tens of millions of regular users, Gruenewald’s app is a Godsend.
Remember and Share
- The Bible app was far less engaging as a desktop website. The mobile interface increased accessibility and usage by providing frequent triggers.
- The Bible app increases users' ability to take action by front-loading interesting content and providing an alternative audio version.
- By separating the verses into small chunks, users find the Bible easier to read on a daily basis. Not knowing what the next verse will be adds a variable reward.
- Every annotation, bookmark and highlight stores data (and value) in the app, further committing users.