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| Dec 5, 2022

Pay What Feels Good: Building a Yoga Empire by Giving It Away

The runaway success of the YouTube channel, “Yoga with Adriene,” has proven the value of free content and smart marketing over paid advertising.

Adriene Mishler hates the word “strategy.” With 11.5 million subscribers to her yoga YouTube channel, the former actor had to overcome an aversion to marketing to cultivate her image as “the yoga girl next door.” It is Mishler’s lack of pretension that has made her so popular. 

After debuting in 2012, many years before the pandemic catapulted her into stardom, Mishler at first balked at using some other pretty common marketing strategies for fear of trivializing centuries-old yogic traditions for a Western audience

“I didn’t want to call anything ‘yoga for weight loss’ in the beginning,” she admits. As the channel’s subscribers grew, her business partner, Chris Sharpe, convinced Mishler to use a more rigorous approach. She relented. “It did so disgustingly well,” she said of that YouTube title, which now has 6.3 million views. 

A decade later, Mishler’s most popular video, “Yoga for Beginners,” has had 48 million views and she is estimated to earn over $2 million a year from YouTube advertising alone. But with diversified sources of income, that is just the tip of a larger profit profile for the “Yoga with Adriene” channel and website, and her “Find What Feels Good” membership platform.

The First Tipping Point 

Mishler met Sharpe, an independent film-maker, on the set of a horror movie when he was looking for a new project. She was already a trained yoga teacher and at the time she was broke. “I had this inkling, if we all had an at-home yoga practice, it … could become like a normal hygiene practice,” Mishler told The Guardian. “That was a huge stretch in 2012.”

While Mishler’s mission evolved to reaching as many people as possible with free, high-quality yoga, at the start she was up against yoga YouTube channels that used SEO optimization — and a lot of flesh-exposing thumbnails — to bring in an audience. With no budget for advertising, “Yoga for Weight Loss” was a turning point.

“Sometimes the heavily searched keywords didn’t feel congruent with what we wanted to do on the channel, but we figured out ways to position them to integrate them naturally,” Sharpe writes in his blog.

Integrating titles such as “Six-Pack Abs” meant Mishler gently making fun of “that particular obsession” at the beginning of her video while going on to focus on building core strength as part of a more traditional yogic approach. Though clearly titled videos such as these were driving the most traffic, another strategy to accelerate growth came by happenstance.

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Breakthrough: 30 Days of Yoga

Sharpe was listening to a couple of hungover workers making him a sandwich at an Austin food trailer park when their laments inspired an idea. It was early in the new year and both complained that they had failed “sober January,” and one had missed a few days of the 30-days-of-yoga program at her local studio.  

Sharpe and Mishler had already successfully piloted a yoga series called “REBOOT” in late 2013 and passed 150,000 subscribers over that summer. But here was an advance on that idea: A new video every day for 30 days beginning on January 1. 

The first “30 Days of Yoga” included two call-to-action videos — the first to sign up for daily encouragement emails and a downloadable calendar, and the second for merchandise. Their new community spread the word through #30DaysofYoga on social media. 

A downloadable version of the series was made available on the ecommerce platform Gumroad for as little as $1 under a “Pay What Feels Good” model. The average price paid was $7. Sharpe writes in a case study on the project that by the end of the month the channel had added over 100,000 new subscribers, more than 50,000 new email contacts, and made over six figures in digital sales. All this using only YouTube, WordPress, and MailChimp.  

Offering 30 days of yoga has since become an annual themed program. “With each series we see a huge spike at the beginning of the year before things settle down to a higher average baseline than we had before.” 

Pandemic Lifeline

The yoga industry is worth over $88 billion worldwide and expected to reach $215 billion by 2025. Mishler is judicious about how she taps into this massive market. The New York Times reported that she turns down up to $500,000 a year in ads

Though she has supplementary courses for sale, Mishler also offers over 650 videos for free on YouTube. The complimentary membership on the Find What Feels Good site is a further testament to her credo of inclusivity. There’s room for all levels and body types without the intimidation of a packed yoga studio. 

Having built a reputation and a catalog of high-quality content over eight years, Mishler was then perfectly placed to offer yoga as a form of refuge when the pandemic struck. Her viewer numbers tripled to 1.5 million views a day in the first three months of 2020 and she later became a variation of the overnight-success trope when the Guardian declared she had “won lockdown,” and the Atlantic called her the “pandemic lifeline.”

“I will intend to say this with so much grace,” she told Vox that year, “in a lot of ways, we were ready for this.” 

The Yoga of Good Business

Sharpe says that staying true to the mission of yoga for all is the driving force behind every business decision he and Mishler make, including signing to a partnership with Adidas because it aligns with their values. “We don’t do anything that doesn’t contribute to that goal,” he writes. 

Such alignment has produced an enviable level of reciprocal goodwill. To download videos from Mishler’s site, people only pay what feels good — and it’s a very effective model because she usually leaves them feeling very good. “Her patience, her obvious love for every stranger watching her videos …. These things helped me find light and hope and strength in myself,” commented one of her fans who used Adriene’s yoga videos to help recover from heroin and alcohol addiction. “She is one of my dearest heroes.” 

Justin Ballis
Justin Ballis
Contributor

Opinion Contributor, Strixus

Justin has 20 years' experience working in the Australian media as a production editor, and is currently interested in the intersection of mental health, psychology, and the future of work. view profile

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