Meditation apps help people to mentally prepare for the day ahead, unwind after a long day or simply practice mindfulness in the moments most convenient to them. We had a chat with Headspace’s Deborah Hyun to learn about how Headspace meaningfully managed to reach an unprecedented number of new users by offering their product to the more than 40 million Americans facing unemployment as a result of COVID-19 — for free.


The psychological toll exacted by the coronavirus pandemic has been alarming. Nearly one-third of people in the U.S. alone currently exhibit signs of anxiety and depression, almost 2x the number reported four years ago, according to survey data from the United States Census Bureau.

To add to the feelings of uncertainty and uneasiness, unemployment numbers in the U.S. hit levels not seen since the Great Depression. In the first half of 2020, more than 40 million Americans filed for unemployment, driven by business shutdowns and shelter at home requirements. It’s a level of hardship that has not gone unnoticed. Celebrities are doing their part to ease our collective anguish. American actor and comedian, Josh Gad, is reading bedtime stories for families. Musician and performer, Donald Glover, has released an album for free listening. A number of musicians, including John Legend, have hosted mini-concerts. And American singer, rapper and songwriter, Lizzo went one better, leading her fans in a 30-minute meditation session. "It's a scary time for a lot of people," Lizzo wrote later on Instagram. “Even I was experiencing some fear and helplessness, which is a feeling that we can oftentimes feel a lot on this planet and a lot lately . . . I wanted to empower everybody.”

She’s not alone.

Headspace understands fundamentally the important role that meditation and mindfulness can play in helping individuals cope with their day-to-day lives. The company understands that millions of Americans are struggling — and it decided to do something about it. In March, Headspace made the decision to offer a one-year premium subscription to Headspace Plus for all Americans and people living in the UK who are unemployed or furloughed, completely free of charge for those who signed up by July 31. They also unlocked a variety of free content to wider consumers. And the results were impressive: the number of users completing a stress meditation increased tenfold, and 12x more users have completed the “reframing anxiety at home” course.

We started to center our approach on how to best reach the people who need help the most, right now.

To cater to the needs of over 40 million Americans who filed for unemployment as of May 2020, Headspace rolled out what it calls the “Headspace Promise.” Where did the idea come from?

The “Headspace Promise” initiative is an extension of our ongoing commitment to caring for the mental health of America by helping communities who need it the most. As part of that commitment we announced that until July 31 we were giving a free, year-long subscription to all those who are unemployed in the U.S and the UK — not just those who’ve recently been made unemployed, but anyone who is currently out of a job or furloughed.

In addition to opening up free subscriptions, we also crafted and curated new content specifically for this cohort of people because we know the type of anxiety and stress people who go through unemployment face and must deal with.

What is the most effective way to reach this audience?

We found that, even prior to this COVID-era, people don’t quite understand the use case for meditation and mindfulness unless they’re already hyper-aware of it. We found that in order to effectively be able to communicate the value proposition, people need to actually experience our product.

From a digital targeting perspective, we are a little bit more nuanced. We’re not just targeting potential users who are searching for keywords like “meditation” or “mindfulness.” We also focus and do some lightweight targeting on users who are searching keywords related to financial information, or even looking for help on various mental health topics because they have a high response rate to the campaigns. And we found that there is this really great opportunity for people to share this offer with their friends.

Experimentation is also at the core of our marketing principles. We’ve done a lot of optimizations as well as experimentations to find the appropriate events that we should be optimizing. We’ve found that it’s not just a purchase or a subscription, but it’s also the behaviors that we see prior to the onboarding journey, such as increased engagement with our partnership pages. When we launched our New York State of Mind page, in partnership with the NY Govenor's office, we saw a spike in user engagement. People who engage with certain types of content are much more likely to stick with the platform, so we might see different patterns with those who engage with sleep content versus those who engage with meditation content.

Marketing has changed drastically, driven by global events. How have you adapted?

As a business and brand, we’ve spent a lot of time educating consumers on the role that mindfulness and meditation can play in helping people cope with any stressors they might be dealing with. Throughout the COVID era, it’s been about paying attention to what people are feeling in this current moment. Keeping the evidence-based research about the increase of clinical levels of anxiety and depression in mind, we started to center our approach on how to best reach the people who need help the most, right now.

Messaging that moves us

Be kind to your mind:

As a company committed to improving the health and happiness of the world, we take our responsibility to support people’s mental health very seriously. This is messaging we’ve used even before COVID-19, and we included it as part of our recent campaign to promote The "Headspace Promise" and our free offer of Headspace for unemployed Americans. We know that people from all walks of life and in different circumstances are going through a lot, and we want to remind people to create space to take care of their minds and take care of themselves.

How do you construct your ideal messaging?

We spend a lot of time with our consumers and current members to better understand their needs, barriers and motivations. This allows us to craft messaging strategies that we believe are going to ultimately give them the clarity that they need to engage with us. We also, oftentimes, test our messaging before broader roll-out to ensure clarity and alignment with our brand values and tone of voice.

Do’s and don’ts of meaningful messaging:

We’ve been really mindful about how we position ourselves, ensuring that our members feel comforted and hopeful. We want to be sensitive to the fact that everyone has different needs at the moment and is coping through this in different ways. It’s important for us to present ourselves in a way that is compassionate and aware of how the world is feeling right now — being conscious of the emotional and mental impact of COVID-19 on everyone.

Authenticity really matters too. We never want to capitalize on people’s fears or anxieties. Instead, we want to be there as a support for those who might find our resources helpful. Humility is part of that. We know Headspace can’t solve all our problems, but we want to step in where we can be helpful. The initiatives we’ve rolled out are our small way of helping people find the space to take care of themselves and their loved ones.

How have you managed to grow during this period?

We have actually seen massive growth in the number of new customers coming into our funnel organically. Downloads have doubled since the middle of March, when sheltering at home had first become widespread, and this is where we saw the huge increase in the number of users completing meditation courses. These are mindful, home-based sessions which focus on content centered around helping people manage stress. The sleep and anxiety categories have also been particularly popular.

How do you identify the critical moments in the app that are the main attraction for users and, ultimately, generate revenue for your business?

I always say there’s a little bit of art and science and you have to play that balance right. The science is driven by the behaviors you see with your existing marketing practices. And the art comes from, as a marketer, looking at macro consumer behavior as well as the shifts that we want to make as a business and brand to help inform and guide potential customers into our product experience. Sometimes you take risks that are overly data-driven, with too much optimization resulting in you becoming an incredibly niche product. On the flip side, if you lean too much towards the art, you can let your efficiency go by the wayside.

Today, analytics is about surprising and delighting our members in a way that is deeply meaningful to them, and to us.

Analytics used to be a reality check for business. Today, it’s much more about business intelligence. How do you see the evolution of analytics and the role of this data in your business?

It’s not just about allowing algorithms to segment customers and decide which message needs to go to which customer or member. Today, analytics is about surprising and delighting our members in a way that is deeply meaningful to them, and to us.

Meditation is what members do with your app. But you also support other channels and platforms to acquire and engage your audience. Please describe your multi-channel approach and how it has evolved.

We haven’t changed the mechanics of what we’re doing. But we have changed how we distribute spend. We always follow the consumer, and we notice when their behavior is shifting. Recently, we’ve observed an increase in TV viewership, where previously we’d seen a downward trend. We’re also seeing an increase in desktop usage versus mobile. When we look at the feedback loops in terms of where people are spending their time, as well as our effectiveness on the given channels, we see the distribution of our spend changing over time to reflect those usage changes. However, the way we deliver the message doesn’t change.

You’re moving towards multi-touch attribution. How do you determine which touchpoints are best?

We’ve been educating internal teams by emphasizing that channels are a mechanism that allow us to connect with consumers and our current members. So it’s not just simply a Facebook campaign or a TVC campaign; it’s a meaningful campaign aimed to reach, for example, the unemployed. There are a number of channels we can use and a number of ways we can reach those people. Having a multi-touch attribution model is what we’re working towards to help us triangulate how it can drive impact. It’s also what we need to make sure we show the right creatives to the right audiences.

Overall, we want to understand which set of channels is going to be the most effective and help us build a connection with prospective and existing members. It’s also a way to understand what the associated costs are, and what makes sense for our business. Once you get an understanding of these pieces, you can start making decisions based on opportunity as well as trade-off. Without these insights, you can find yourself almost flying blind. Our goal with multi-touch is to extract the most value for every moment and opportunity we have to connect with consumers.