Last year, Silicon Valley finally found religion. A massive $175 million was invested in faith-based apps in 2021 – a notable increase from just $6 million in 2016.
It's a bit surprising, given that religious affiliation, particularly in the west, has been steadily declining for years. But it turns out that living through an unprecedented global health crisis has made people reconsider a higher power; three in 10 Americans have reported stronger faith as a result of the pandemic. At the same time, religious leaders have been able to reach larger groups of people through live-streaming worship services and aspirational content on social media.
‘We're tired. We're divided. We're dealing with loss and grief, stress and anxiety, loneliness and suffering, and we're searching for something bigger, something to bring us light and hope,’ says Alex Jones, co-founder of Hallow, a prayer app for Catholics.
‘Being able to share with these folks a tool that's well-designed and intuitive, that pulls together content from inspirational faith leaders around the world, and that helps folks to build a real habit of prayer seems to have really resonated,’ he adds.
These aren't your grandfather's Bible apps, though. Hallow, which recently raised $40 million, offers guided meditations, the ability to track minutes prayed and the choice of music alongside prayers. Glorify, another well-funded Christianity-focused app, offers music playlists and short worship snippets. The idea is to use new tech tools to help people build religious habits into a modern lifestyle (which may not include driving to church every Sunday).
Fundamental tech infrastructure, such as data privacy, is important to this growing market. Pillars, a Muslim prayer app, was founded after a similar app was found to be selling sensitive data to third-party data brokers, who then sold it on to clients with connections to the US military.
‘Given the context and the understandably increased skepticism in our Muslim community, we put a lot of emphasis on transparency in our marketing,’ says co-founder Abdul-Rahman Abbas. ‘We try to share everything with our community and get their opinions on upcoming designs and features, even if they're small changes.’
A broad church
This has also brought up a small business opportunity, as people seek out products that reflect the changing nature of religious identification and that help them practice at home. Blessed Communion, which makes pre-filled disposable communion cups, saw its order numbers double in 2020 when churches shut their doors. Judaica Standard Time launched in 2020 and creates design-forward Jewish religious items, such as a walnut mezuzah case and a speckled ceramic menorah, that can be displayed all year round.
Star x Crescent, a line of Ramadan advent calendars, quickly sold out its first run at Harrods department store in London. ‘Three-quarters of the population of Muslims are under 30,’ says Nazia Kosar, founder of Star x Crescent. ‘It's a huge consumer demographic that's only going to grow. For brands, if you get in early, then you can build in loyalty.’
Nazia says there's some nuance in building and marketing to a religious audience. First of all, products can't just be copy-and-paste versions of other lifestyle or religious items – people are seeking authenticity above all else – so she was sure to weave Islamic history and geometry into her design.
It's also important to keep in mind the different religious experiences across geography. While her Muslim customers in western countries were familiar with advent calendars, when Nazia took her product to a trade show in Malaysia, she had to explain the concept to people who hadn't grown up around Christian traditions.
‘With Ramadan and Muslims being everywhere, it's very, very different for each country,’ she says. ‘You have to learn those little nuances.’