How We Got 10 Million Teens to Read Fiction on Their Phones

The story of Hooked

Three years ago, I was living in a small surf town in Costa Rica and writing my first novel, when I had a panic attack.

The novel was a sci-fi fantasy trilogy for young adults, set in Silicon Valley a hundred years in the future. I’m a tech entrepreneur, so it’s not surprising I chose this theme.

But there was something unusual about this sci-fi story — my protagonist was a dark-skinned Indian girl, like me. And that was what caused me to panic.

Would anyone read a sci-fi story with a dark-skinned, female protagonist? How was I going to convince an agent to take a book like this seriously? Would a publisher be able to find an audience for my strange story? And, do teenagers even read?

My husband and I were working on this book together, and, as we were writing, these questions kept coming up.

The thing is, we’re not writers by training. We’re app developers. In the early days of the iPhone, we built music apps, like AutoRap, which have helped hundreds of millions of people around the world make music on their phones.

But in the fall of 2013, after several years of building musics apps, we were ready for our next adventure…

The Story Begins

So we decided to get rid of our possessions and travel the world, and pursue our dream of writing a sci-fi fantasy trilogy.

Farmers market in Costa Rican surf town. Photo by Micah Winkelspecht.

We bought a one-way ticket to Costa Rica, started learning how to surf, and began writing our novel.

But after six months in Costa Rica, I felt stuck. I was terrible at surfing, and I wasn’t making progress on my book.

Something felt wrong about how we were approaching the book. As app developers accustomed to a Lean Startup mindset, it felt strange to spend so long behind closed doors creating this huge project, without having any sense of whether it would resonate.

And this question about my unusual protagonist kept nagging at me. Was the world ready for a protagonist like me?

Once an app developer, always an app developer…

We decided to a/b test it.

A Crazy Idea

It was the desire to a/b test our book that first sparked the idea for what would eventually become Hooked.

We also started to see a massive opportunity in the business of storytelling.

The more we thought about how the existing players in the storytelling industry —primarily book publishers and Hollywood studios — identify a good story, and how they approach distribution and monetization, the more we felt there was immense scope for innovation.

The way we consume content is changing dramatically, especially in younger generations. For example, a majority of young adult novels are being read digitally now in the U.S., and that’s increasingly happening on mobile. But the way that books are created hasn’t changed in centuries.

People say that reading is dying.

But we refused to believe this. Storytelling is fundamental to humans; some believe it is the essence of humanity. The demand for great stories is ever present.

Fiction must evolve with the times.

We believed there was a billion-dollar opportunity in doing so, and that a mobile-first company that could figure out how to apply Lean Startup principles to story development might just be the next big thing — the next Netflix, the next Disney.

And so it was, a year after we left on our nomad adventure, that my husband and I returned to Silicon Valley and founded a new company, with the goal of redefining fiction for the Snapchat generation.

We managed to convince a few of our previous investors to take a chance on our crazy idea, and we got to work.

Early Evidence

When we started, we had no idea what form the product itself would take. We just wanted to prove that it was possible to a/b test a story.

We started by building a testing system for stories.

We took excerpts from fifty best-selling novels in the young adult space. We took the first 1,000 words of each of these novels, or about a five-minute read, and put them up on a basic mobile-optimized web reader we had built for testing. And we developed custom analytics to measure reader behavior.

The metric we were most interested in was completion rate. We wanted to see — are completion rates different among these different best-sellers, or, given that they’re best-sellers, are they approximately the same?

We focused on mobile reading only, and we limited our test to the first five minutes of each book, to align with typical mobile session lengths.

We sent 15,000 readers to our test, using Facebook ads, and we looked at the results.

What we saw amazed us: there were huge differences in completion rates, even among best sellers.

This was encouraging. Imagine if the authors, editors and publishers had access to this data before they published these books. They could have used it to make the books more engaging.

This was the first evidence we had that data-driven story development could work.

Gut Reaction

Now that we had some benchmarks, we were ready to play :)

We ran all sorts of a/b tests, and learned many interesting things about teen reading preferences.

For example, the recent YA trend of writing in the first-person present tense is irrelevant. Teen readers are just as likely to read the story in the third-person past.

And, we learned that readers are more engaged with a story if they understand the context. Starting in medias res, without setting any context, makes hooking the reader more challenging.

Of course, we also tested my big question: do teen readers prefer a white male protagonist over an Indian female one?

Any guesses?

The answer is no.

According to our tests, teen readers are equally interested in reading a story when it has a white protagonist as when it has a brown one. Moreover, teenage boys are equally interested in stories with female protagonists as with male protagonists. But, perhaps most interesting of all, teen girls prefer stories with female protagonists.

Graph showing percentage of story read by teen female audience

The Challenge

Eventually, an interesting pattern emerged from our tests.

The completion rates on a 5-minute read varied, depending on the story we were testing. In some cases, only 5% of people would read to the end of a 5-minute excerpt. In other case, 10% or 15% of people did.

But there seemed to be a ceiling in the completion rate. Of all the stories we tested, in the very best cases only about a third of readers would make it all the way to the end. That’s on a five-minute read.

In other words, the majority of teen readers were not even completing the first five minutes of best-selling YA novels (when reading them on a phone).

This was depressing. Maybe reading really was dying.

But we took it as a challenge. We asked ourselves: can we come up with a format innovation that makes reading fiction more engaging for teenagers?

How can we get a majority of teens to give us their undivided attention…for five minutes…on their phones…to read…fiction?

That’s when we had our epiphany.

The Aha Moment

We started initially by testing comic-book inspired ideas. We thought that if we told more of the story through images, teens might find reading more engaging.

We tested many iterations, but nothing moved the needle. No matter what we tried, reader engagement was still abysmal.

Then we had an off-the-wall idea to test a story written as a text message conversation between the characters. It was 1,000 words, or a five-minute read, the same length as everything else we had tested thus far.

The first chat story we tested had staggering results. Almost every teenager who started reading our chat story finished it in one session.

We thought it was an error. We had never run an a/b test before with this magnitude of a change. So we tested it again. And we got the same results.

That was the light bulb moment.

We launched Hooked four months later.

Getting To Traction

We launched an MVP (minimum viable product) of Hooked in late September, 2015.

Hooked 1.0 screenshots

We spent the next year iterating, talking to our early readers, building product, working with undiscovered authors, and developing our catalog of chat stories.

Over time, we added social features, including the ability for users to write their own stories.

Hooked 2.0 screenshots

We started to get some press coverage, in BusinessInsider, TechCrunch, Wired, and LATimes.

And slowly, slowly, things started to click.

In September, 2016, Hooked began rising up the charts.

We made it to #1 😱

On December 1, 2016, Hooked hit the #1 spot in the App Store.

Since then, Hooked has consistently been a Top 100 app in the U.S. App Store, and it’s hit the #1 spot again twice, including this past weekend. We’ve also hit the #1 spot in several other countries, including France, Canada, U.K., and Mexico.

Ten million young readers have installed Hooked in the past six months, collectively reading over 10 billion fictional text messages in the app during that time. Hooked users have also written over a million chat stories of their own, directly from their phones.

Our stories still have remarkably high completion rates, and our most popular ones, like The Watcher — a YA thriller told as a dark, modern day fairytale — have amassed avid fanbases.

The Watcher

Just A Dumb Fad?

Understandably, we have encountered a high degree of skepticism about what we’re doing.

Although we have been fortunate enough to attract some of the best investors in Silicon Valley and Hollywood, there are still many people who think chat fiction is silly. Others fear that we are destroying reading.

But to ask “is chat fiction a fad?” is to look at things too narrowly.

Art evolves with technology.

Think about movies, for example. The first movies ever made were essentially just theatre, captured on film. But as directors, writers, actors and cameramen became more adept with recording technology, the way in which we tell stories fundamentally changed. Technology made us more effective at storytelling.

The same will happen with mobile phones. As we spend more and more time consuming media on phones, the way in which we tell stories will change, to reflect our evolving behavior. To reflect our evolving lives.

Chat fiction is one step in that progression.

As the category has grown, several copycats of Hooked have emerged. Although these initial products are simply clones of Hooked, they are making one thing clear: chat fiction has come of age.

Hooked will not be the only one telling stories in this format, and that’s a good thing.

It means we are succeeding in our mission: getting teenagers to read more fiction.

Rather than destroy reading, Hooked makes reading engaging for a broad audience. We’ve heard from many teens who say they hate reading books, but they love reading in Hooked. It’s a gateway drug.

And we’re just getting started. What you see in Hooked today is but a glimpse of the future of storytelling.

The greatest stories ever told started with a 1,000 words. Ours is just beginning.