For better or worse, many of us are spending a lot more time on our phones right now, looking for everything from reliable news to virtual workouts to mindless distractions. To that end, many brands and editorial publications alike are focusing more of their efforts than ever on social media platforms like Instagram. But instead of simply posting their own articles or look book shots as if things are normal, they're handing over those platforms to independent creatives, from artists to musicians, or using their platforms to support them in other ways, with increasing frequency.
Last Wednesday, Them, the Condé-backed digital publication geared towards the LQBTQ+ community, launched Themfest, an ongoing virtual music and arts festival for and by that very community. Themfest programming has so far included drag shows, standup sets and readings, all broadcast through Instagram Live.
"Prominent LGBTQ+ safe spaces were beginning to shut down," explains Them Editor-in-Chief Whembley Sewell of the impetus to launch Themfest amid the current pandemic. "Queer artists, performers, photographers and so many of the other people who fill our community with such joy were losing work and opportunities. I immediately began thinking of what we could do to support our community, while also filling their lives with joy, levity and moments of connection." Sewell isn't stopping there, and plans to continue exploring new ways to extend the Them universe into additional forms of online programming.
"The goal, though, is to grow Themfest as much as possible by creating programming for other entities like Twitch and Zoom and continuing to be as flexible and open-minded about opportunities and collaborations as we can be," she says. "My entire professional career has been dedicated to translating video and editorial initiatives to new and emerging platforms, so I'm actually quite inspired by all of the opportunities to innovatively serve our community."
Them is not the only Condé Nast publication making this type of pivot in the era of coronavirus. Allure has begun using its social channels to support some of the independent beauty industry professionals and experts it works with, from hairstylists to manicurists. Last week, it launched two new Instagram Live franchises: House Calls, where professionals provide lessons on at-home beauty maintenance, and My Beauty Ritual, where editors, experts and pros reveal the ways in which they use beauty— especially skincare — as a method of self care.
"As a team, our approach to content has become increasingly nimble in order to meet the needs of a community in distress — the focus being trusted at-home service, escapism and informed takes on the conversations around us," explains Lindsay Sansone, Allure's head of digital strategy. "We felt an obligation to provide safe, at-home service explainers while also lending support to the amazing industry talent that Allure considers family. What started as an effort to support experts has grown into something much larger than we ever would've ever expected. The response from our audience and beauty community has been incredibly positive in a rather dark time."
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The folks at Teen Vogue also just went live on Instagram with two new series: "Ask the Experts" in which editor Brittney McNamara hosts conversations with medical professionals on the big issues young people may be facing (like social isolation, living at home with abusive parents/partners) and "Stay Home with..." featuring celebrity Q+A's.
But this isn't just a strategy being deployed by media companies. Fashion brands — high and low — are acting similarly. Last week, Bottega Veneta's Daniel Lee launched Bottega Residency, through which it's lending its social media platforms, and a new microsite, to a different talent each week — that might be a live performance from a musician, a cooking session with a chef or a "movie night" with a filmmaker.
"Creativity and strength lie at the heart of Bottega Veneta," said Lee in a statement. "In this highly distressing time, we feel a responsibility to celebrate those values and ignite a sense of joy and hope in our community and beyond."
Meanwhile, Alexander McQueen on Wednesday launched McQueen Creators, a program that invites the brand's followers to create something based on a prompt the brand will provide each week, starting with the finale rose dress from its Fall 2019 collection. It could be a sketch or an embroidery, and select submissions will be chosen by the brand and posted to its social media channels.
On the more mass end of the spectrum, Madewell has been supporting creatives on its Instagram channel with the hashtag #everydaytogether, handing over its account to a wellness expert, a dancing artist and more.
"We're continuing to support creatives in our network by highlighting them on social, which we'll continue to do as a way to offer some form of an escape to our customers if they want," says Madewell Creative Director Alice Bucaille. "We want them to know we're with them through this difficult time."
Levi's, a brand known for its ties to music and IRL events that include some of the best concerts I've ever been to, has launched 5:01® Live: Every day, at 5:01 p.m. PST, the brand is going live on Instagram with a different artist or musician. The lineup includes Vic Mensa, Jaden Smith, ?uestlove, Charlotte Lawrence and many more. And on behalf of each artist, Levi's is donating to a charity of their choice or contributing to their own efforts.
"With deep ties to the music community and a long history of supporting artists with original voices, we saw that we could use music to move quickly to bring some uplift to people sheltering at home," Levi's CMO Jennifer Say wrote. "We also felt it was important to support the community of musicians who bring us all so much joy."
Beloved Danish brand Ganni approached this a bit differently, in the form of a competition: Rather than lend its Instagram to creatives, the brand created a microsite called "Home Is Where the Heart Is" and made a call for submissions from them, with the winner receiving a financial prize as well as the opportunity to be featured in the brand's Kiosk exhibition and shop in Copenhagen. The brand simultaneously launched a podcast called Ganni Talks, which its founders are using to call up friends around the world and ask how they're doing.
"It feels so important to stay connected now more than ever," says Ganni Creative Director and Co-founder Ditte Reffstrup. "We want to hold on to our sense of community and be here for our #GanniGirls by bringing them fun livestreams and stories, and most importantly a lighthearted break during all the news. Digital is our new common ground, a place to share and come together."
Interestingly, almost all of the people we spoke with for this story mentioned that their teams had become even more collaborative and creative despite not physically being together, and that these digital projects came together more quickly than they would have otherwise.
"In some ways, I think we have actually become closer and more creative despite not being physically together," says Them's Sewell. "I think there is an even bigger emphasis now on communicating and collaborating in a way that makes our content as accessible and resourceful to our audience as possible."
According to WGSN Insight editor Cassandra Napoli, using social media to personally engage and entertain followers is exactly what brands and publications should focus on right now.
"Normally, when tragedy erupts across the globe, people come together IRL in solidarity. But given the current situation and the social distancing orders in place, social hashtags replace physical hugs, helping audiences to connect, create and feel less alone," she explains. "Brands should look to connect with consumers emotionally, offering them entertainment, information and support through digital solutions. Doing this will leave consumers feeling seen and valued by the brand, which will encourage them to convert either now or in the long-term in a post-Corona society."
They would also be wise to stay in their lane and leave the news to news organizations.
"If they are going to talk about the virus, they have a responsibility to align with experts or governing bodies like the WHO in order to share fact not fiction," adds Napoli. "But brands shouldn't be afraid to offer audiences a bit of a welcome escape from the global flow of anxiety and fear infiltrating our feeds. Sponsored live-streamed performances, virtual happy hours or interactive lunch meetings on Zoom could help brands emotionally relate to customers in new ways and in new spaces. These interactive digital events can ultimately shift the way we connect with each other, conduct business and sell to consumers in a more personalized way in a post-Corona world."
Tapping their creative communities — people that they may have otherwise collaborated with in other ways, like with events — is a natural way for brands to create that entertaining content while also helping someone who might benefit from having their platform however briefly. And whether we're dealing with a global pandemic or not, "doing good" is increasingly something consumers like to see from their favorite brands.
"Going forward, kindness will become the ultimate metric that consumers judge companies on," says Napoli. "How they empowered their community of customers, helped other businesses and created positive change for the greater good of the world during this incredibly challenging time will have lasting, long-term implications."