What Earth Hour had to do to cope with COVID-19 lockdown

Head of marketing shares the rapid test-and-learn journey the team is on in the face of the COVID-19 crisis as its switches to a digital-only livestream event for this year's lights out

“Prototyping in public” is how Earth Hour’s head of marketing, Marion Joyce, describes her team’s efforts to create and launch the first-ever digital livestream event just a week before the big lights-out on 28 March.

In response to the COVID-19 outbreak and crisis, WWF-Australia is taking a completely new tack on Earth Hour this year, debuting a one-hour livestream event allowing people to take part from the safety of their homes. The virtual broadcast will be viewable via YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, and will include performances from musicians, comedians and other special guests, along with live crosses to iconic venues such as the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge as they switch their lights out for the annual initiative.

WWF-Australia head of marketing, Marion Joyce, told CMO Earth Hour’s community movement roots has historically seen activities run through community-organised events and partnerships with the likes of venues, restaurants and schools. More than 200 events run each year in this vein, stretching from No lights No Lycra dancing in the dark, to sporting activities and school initiatives held the day before lights go out.

“While WWF-Australia organises and leads, event assets are made available so communities can engage in any way that works for them,” she said.  

Yet with the COVID-19 crisis quickly escalating globally, and more and more people required to social isolate, it was clear things were not going to go ahead as planned.

“It’s been just one week since we got the first hints of where Australia would go. Day by day, we’ve learnt more, and it’ll continue to change,” Joyce said. “Early last week, we had the first signs through social distancing, and we knew it was a matter of days before gatherings would be restricted. For us, we knew all our community events would be cancelled and it would affect schools.

“The parallel thing we were thinking was by the time we get to Earth Hour, people will have been in self isolation and lockdown for at least a week. Depending on their social networks or conversations, they could be feeling on their own, not connected and ironically, not plugged in. This was an opportunity to unplug and be plugging in at the same time. We could still be as relevant and positive as it use, just doing it in a different way.”

So instead of supporting third parties staging their own events, the team behind Earth Hour became the event organiser.

“Given no one else could now do it, we decided we’d stage it online, so anyone can join us and feel part of activities happening in the community,” Joyce said.  

Staging a digital livestream event - in a week

Having made that decision just a week ago, Joyce and her team have been running at full speed make it happen, reaching out to artists and communities to get behind the digital-only event.  

“I’ve lost count of the times we’ve said if we’d decided to do this four weeks ago,” she commented.  

“We’ve reached out to artists and communities to get onboard and had a great response. All those people’s livelihoods have been taken away overnight, and we’re in the position suddenly to give them the opportunity to do what they do for an audience… it's giving them access to a new audience potentially, and a platform to give back.”

The #EarthHourLive line-up so far includes musical acts such as Jack River, Polish Club and Bobby Alu, plus stand-up comedians, wildlife experts and special guests. Giveaways are also planned.

While WWF-Australia had internal content creation capabilities, Joyce quickly needed to bring on a freelancer. The not-for-profit has also now partnered with Only Human, an agency set up by SBS producer and video producer, Patrick Abboud, who boasts of experience working on events such as the Mardi Gras live streaming.

“There are a lot of Web conferencing companies, but not many who can facilitate broadcasting live entertainment. I can see huge innovation coming in this space,” Joyce commented. “You need specialist gear, experience and skill on these platforms. Given the artists and audience we’re dealing with, we needed to ensure we deliver. It’s entertainment, on a Saturday night and in people’s lounge rooms.

“It’s that forced innovation process, and we’re prototyping in public. But we’re just going to make it happen and make it amazing.”

Around the digital event, WWF-Australia continues to work with longstanding media agency, Starcom, on a mix of paid and pro-bono placements. Joyce said this is being supplemented with a strong organic social program. She noted Earth Hour’s engagement with social audiences sits at about 750,000 across platforms.

“We’ll have video posts, Instagram stories as well as sharing via participating artists, across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter,” she continued. Earth Hour’s strong email database is another important communications element.

Existing PR partner, The Bravery, is also part of the marketing strategy, working with publications like Time Out to ensure the #EarthHourLive digital event is featured in round-ups on what people to do with their time in.

Team and culture impact

It’s no mean feat to achieve in a week, especially considering none of the team can meet physically. Joyce said what has helped get the digital event off the ground is a very flexible workspace.

“Our audience is nationally dispersed and our conservationists often are working remotely, and we have had the systems in place to connect and communicate,” she said. “We also use Slack, Trello and Zoom for face-to-face and team conversations. It wasn’t a big jump for us to do things this way.”

Joyce agreed, the longer-term implications of working remotely given the COVID-19 crisis remain to be seen. For now, however, the team is fully behind a test-and-learn approach and working well.

“We have learned a lot and we’ll make mistakes, but we don’t care. We have to give it everything we have got,” she said.  

Brand purpose halo

There’s also the wider question of how rising interest in brands giving back to community, along with the humanitarian crisis that is COVID-19, is impacting perceptions of Earth Hour. As Joyce pointed out, the mission of WWF-Australia is aligning people living in harmony with nature.

“We’re recognised far more for wildlife, but people are equally part of that story. More and more, you can’t achieve long-lasting environmental impact without bringing people with you,” she said. “The challenge is ongoing; it’s not just a law that can be changed by governments.

“Earth Hour is a 14-year old people’s movement. It was community created and there’s a low barrier for entry. You can participate in any way that works for you.”

The community support around COVID-19 and messaging around being responsible and kind to each other is also something Joyce saw fitting naturally with Earth Hour’s messaging.

“From a brand perspective, we aren’t a humanitarian agency but have a human component to our brand. It’s important for us to bring that to the fore, as we are all part of the broadest definition of nature,” she added.  

Read more on brand purpose:

10 brands making a positive difference to a world in crisis

Boycott or buycott - how brand purpose can make the difference

Brand purpose must be all year round

How National Geographic is innovating its brand with purpose

Report: Trust, societal impact top the priority and pressure list for business leaders

Follow CMO on Twitter: @CMOAustralia, take part in the CMO conversation on LinkedIn: CMO ANZ, follow our regular updates via CMO Australia's Linkedin company page, or join us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CMOAustralia. 


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