Bobby Gruenewald serves as Pastor, Innovation Leader at LifeChurch.tv and as the co-founder of the YouVersion Bible App. Bobby has been featured in the Washington Post, TechCrunch, CNN, CBS, NPR, and was listed by Fast Company as one of the 100 Most Creative People in Business in 2011. You can find him on Twitter at @bobbygwald. YouVersion and the Bible App were created by LifeChurch.tv. They have been installed on tens of millions of devices, and the YouVersion community has spent tens of billions of minutes engaging in Scripture, in more than 100 different languages.

Content isn’t king anymore. It has been dethroned by engagement.

Whether it’s a quarter-life crisis, a mid-life crisis, or an end-of-life crisis, the publishing world is struggling to find itself. For hundreds of years, it was enough to offer the best content: masterfully written text, helpful or beautiful illustrations, compelling titles, and eye-catching covers.

But then the world moved online. New channels for content emerged, and the global community began not only consuming it, but also contributing to it. It wasn’t enough to hear what others had to say or see what they produced. We wanted to interact with it, adding our unique voice.

Meanwhile, printed matter continued to follow the well-worn path of its predecessors. Once the sale was made, there was little thought given to influencing how much or how often people engaged with the content. It seemed to exist on a parallel plane with online content. Of course we bought books online and read about their launch there, but we couldn’t become part of the story.

The Bible has not been protected from this cultural shift. For many decades, well-meaning publishers spent significant time, energy, and money distributing Bibles in hopes of bringing God’s Word to people around the world. And yet, with all of the resources that were invested in delivering the text, there was little focus on whether it was being read or how to increase engagement.

The collision of the print and online worlds brought about the concept for YouVersion.com. In 2006, blogs were ubiquitous, YouTube was a household name, Facebook was made available to non-college students, and Twitter was in its infancy. We had entered an era in which everyone had access to a digital printing press. What could it mean for publishing, and furthermore, for the Bible?

Much as the technical innovation of the printing press revolutionized the availability of the Bible, we wondered if this new environment could transform the distribution and interaction of the world’s most popular and most published book.

The idea was to offer an online Bible where people could not only read Scripture, but could also associate and annotate any web media (photos, blog posts, video clips, journaled thoughts, etc.) to a verse or series of verses. Today, the concept of user annotations and user-contributed media doesn’t seem unusual, but the early days of YouVersion predated Google Books, the Kindle, and its analogues. There weren’t examples of people taking literary works and allowing users to annotate them with media and contribute content.

In the months that followed, we embarked on a journey of making YouVersion a reality. Our first challenge revealed just how little we knew about what we were getting into. It didn’t occur to us that modern Bible texts are all copyrighted works that publishers have invested millions of dollars in developing. This wasn’t freely available content; it required licensing.

The second obstacle we encountered was the reluctance of publishers to allow user-annotated contributions to their content. While they could see the changes happening in the online world, they didn’t see where the technology was going to lead. It was alarming to some, but others were curious. Throughout that first year, we worked on building those relationships, developing trust, and getting permission to use texts. At the same time, we had a team working on developing the site.

In September 2007, we launched YouVersion.com. The results were good, but not great. People were interested in using the tool, but it was clearly an early-adopter crowd who connected with it. The growth of YouVersion wasn’t viral and didn’t seem to carry a lot of momentum in terms of growth.

With only 20,000 people using it, it didn’t appear this concept was catching on. Were we too early? Did we not execute the idea well? Did it just need more time to catch on? While the answers were elusive, it was clear that it hadn’t changed how the Bible was being consumed and distributed.

There was one more thing we wanted to try before scrapping the concept. We launched a mobile version and quickly noticed that the nearness of the content increased the amount we engaged with it personally. We also noticed increased traffic on the site. It was as if we discovered something on accident—proximity directly affected engagement.

At the same time, the birth of smartphones gave us an opportunity to re-evaluate our strategy. We had stumbled into the mobile revolution.

After Apple offered developers the opportunity to create apps for the iTunes app store, we started to work on the Bible App. We wanted to see if what we sensed about mobile was accurate.  As we worked on the app, we hoped that we might see as many as 100,000 downloads in a year.

What happened far exceeded any of our expectations. Three days after launching, more than 80,000 people installed the Bible App.

These people weren’t just installing the Bible to have it sit on a hidden screen (or whatever might be the mobile equivalent of a dusty shelf). They were opening it frequently and spending a significant amount of time engaging. Having asked ourselves how technology might affect distribution of the Bible, this app became the turning point we were looking for.

Fueled by the new-found momentum, we worked on licensing additional languages and versions of the Bible. We also ramped up our development efforts, looking for further ways to help people to have daily and ongoing engagement with this Book.

What we saw over the next few years blew the doors off our too-small dreams and plans. The smartphone and app markets exploded. It was clear that changing the format to digital distribution with social engagement was a new paradigm for Bible publishing. Since then, the Bible App has been installed on tens of millions of devices and users have spent billions of minutes using it to interact with God’s Word.

This new paradigm doesn’t apply to just religious content. The shift that’s taking place in publishing is moving away from monetizing content to monetizing engagement. Though YouVersion is not something we are trying to monetize, we are intensely focused on engagement.

Seven Factors that Drive Engagement

In working to understand how users interact with our app, we’ve identified seven factors that drive engagement. These factors include: social interaction; personalization; multiple devices and formats; gamification; community contribution; multiple languages; and personal investment.

1) Social interaction

From the very beginning of YouVersion, we have integrated social tools into our offerings. Now, tens of thousands of people are sharing content every day, reaching millions of people via SMS, Twitter, and Facebook. This is part of the new paradigm. People aren’t just consuming content, they’re engaging in conversation about it with their community—something many book publishers hadn’t contemplated even five years ago.

2) Personalization

It’s not unusual for people to carry a beat-up Bible that’s bulging with bits of paper, filled with notes in the margins and covered in multi-color highlights throughout the text. We have extended that personalization to help users add their highlights, notes, and bookmarks to the app. This metadata is easily accessible on multiple devices, but it no longer clutters the reading experience. Users can also customize their experience by adjusting fonts, sizes, and backgrounds as well as the display of various layers of metadata like translation notes or cross references. The more that app users invest in personalization, the more likely they are to continue engaging with it.

3) Multi-device, multi-format offers

If we want to take part in content regularly, it needs to be present in our lives and literally meet us where we are. While, traditionally, most publishers have tried to target a specific format (hardcover, paperback, audiobook, etc.) to specific buyers, we’ve learned that a multi-device, multi-format, cloud-enabled consumption experience dramatically increases engagement. Instead of limiting themselves, users can access the content at any time in nearly any environment.

4) Gamification

While the Bible isn’t a game, the concept of rewarding achievement and offering encouragement is very helpful in building a higher level of consistency in how people engage. We focus on daily engagement by using structured reading plans that track progress, give badges, and leverage smart communication all in an effort to help people achieve goals. We found this approach has created a way for the printed text to take on a dynamic daily freshness. Publishers that provide and reward systematic engagement will drive much more loyalty.

5) Community contribution

Through public notes in the app, the Bible becomes user-annotated. The community at large makes interesting contributions that highlight meaning and bring insight. (The community generally polices itself and reports inappropriate content.) These contributions bring additional value as the community grows. With these features, an unchanging Book is better able to reflect the constant change present in our culture.

6) Multiple languages

The Bible App is available in hundreds of versions and more than 100 languages, allowing people to carry the equivalent of stacks of Bibles with them on their mobile device. Because we have integrated an API into the app, it can fluidly accommodate new versions and new languages. This format means a large collection of works can be accessed through one platform. Digital tools give publishers a ways to offer content in many more languages than were economically feasible in the past.

7) Personal investment

When the YouVersion community saw new languages being offered, they began to ask if we would offer the Bible App in their native language. Our answer? We can if you help us. Motivated teams of volunteers emerged to help us localize the Bible App as well as our user communication, support tickets, blog posts, and more. But these teams weren’t just helping translate. Because they are personally invested in the app, they are passionate advocates and help spread the word about the Bible App to their sphere of influence, in countries and languages where we didn’t have a substantial presence previously. When we bring a significant contribution to a community, we want to see it succeed.

Published content used to operate in exclusivity. Publishers and large organizations acted as the gatekeepers to determine whose work had the opportunity to make its way to a larger audience. Now every person with an Internet connection can not only publish, but also build a platform and earn a viable income completely outside of traditional means. It’s naïve to think that publishers can corner the market on content anymore—that’s no longer the opportunity for monetization. When we shift attention to people’s behavior and how they interact with the content, engagement becomes the real product.

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