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Wordle of mouth: acting quickly to spread an environmental message

22 February 2022

Working for an organisation known for its rigorous research and efforts to influence international policy, which can often take many years, can mean that opportunities for creative, impactful stunts take a back seat.

But there is always room for some creative thinking. That’s why when the opportunity arose the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) latched on to the Wordle internet craze in a bid to introduce a wider audience to climate and environment issues.

Within five working days, and at a cost of less than £400, we launched an eco-friendly version of the Wordle word game, A Greener Worldle. It received international media coverage and was soon being played and shared by more than 5,000 people per day, including eminent climate scientists and some of our key donors.

Making a difference

The idea to produce a Wordle clone with answers focusing on climate and the environment came from Twitter after seeing a digital marketing lecturer construct a marketing words version as a learning device for students.

At the time, only a few other Wordle imitations had launched, such as Queerdle, one for choral music and the NSFW Lewdle and Sweardle. The idea felt fresh and unusual, especially in the international development sector, not usually known for the speed with which it embraces new trends.

It felt like an opportunity to do something different and harness the attention that Wordle was generating. A chance for IIED to produce something to help keep climate change at the forefront of people’s minds and get a wider audience thinking about such critical issues in a different way.

Getting the green light

Our biggest initial problem was what to call it. We struggled to find a one-word sound-alike to Wordle that conveyed our environmental theme, so started to riff around the similarity between Wordle and ‘world’.

We thought it should be something like ‘A Fairer Worldle’ until a colleague pointed out how the tiles turning green when you got a letter correct and in the right place chimed neatly with our eco-friendly message. ’A Greener Worldle’ was born and also a slogan we went on to use in the marketing: “You want to turn the tiles green, just like the planet…”

This collaboration all took place in a Microsoft Teams channel, with answers relevant to the climate and environment sourced from across our communications department, enabling everyone at IIED to contribute. Suggestions were added to a central document and within a few hours, we had around 90, enough to launch and keep it going for at least three months.

In truth, perhaps the least successful element has been the title – even some of the media coverage has referred to ‘A Greener Wordle’ (without the extra ‘l’), completely missing what we had thought was a clever pun.

One final hurdle was ensuring that the director of our climate change group was on board with our plans. Not only did she greet the idea enthusiastically, she highlighted how, when you’re working alongside partners on the climate frontline, dealing with the loss of lives and livelihoods, it was important to be able to step away and de-stress with fun things like this.

Spreading the Wordle

With the project turned around so quickly, it was rewarding to see the results were just as immediate. Within the space of a week the site had received over 21,000 page views, from more than 100 countries, and this has since grown to over 5,000 people playing the game per day. At peak times there is someone playing A Greener Worldle every nine seconds.

Within 24 hours of launch, famed climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe had tweeted about it to her 200,000-plus followers and it was included in the Washington Post’s Climate 202 newsletter and on its main website.

More media coverage has followed, with the chief executive of the Gates Foundation – a major donor – sharing his results on Twitter and praise from campaigners for digital sustainability for producing a version that was more environmentally friendly than the original. Our hosting provider for the site was 100% eco-friendly, of course.

We received thanks from people who were delighted to see climate issues being reflected in all areas of life to those just pleased to have an extra Wordle to do each day. We’ve noticed many people acting as our advocates, telling others in their network about the game and encouraging them to join in.

We’ve also noticed comments that the answers – such as ‘money’ and ‘debts’ – have prompted people to think harder about the connections between them and the climate/environment.

Not everything went completely smoothly, and on day three we started to receive complaints that the site wasn’t recognising the correct answer. After investigating we discovered a bug because there was a rogue space after the answer in the system; this prevented success from being registered, the sharing options from being launched and the result recorded in the stats.

But we reacted quickly, explained the situation and, probably because it was just a bit of fun, everyone was more than understanding.

The last word

The most important element of the project’s success was undoubtedly the speed of the turnaround. Only a few weeks later and there are over 300 wild and wonderful Wordle clones competing for attention – by reacting quickly, we seized the zeitgeist and provided something that captured people’s interest.

The positive response, particularly from audiences who already knew us, showed that there is an opportunity for us to be a bit more playful than our traditional image might suggest. And although we didn’t spend much time planning our marketing, a focus on locating members of the climate community who were interested in Wordle, and then sending them targeted messages, paid dividends in enabling awareness of A Greener Worldle to spread.

Time pressure and a busy workload in the not-for-profit sector can mean that it’s often easy to stick to what you know. The idea for A Greener Worldle came from keeping an open mind, and then being ready to run with a new idea that could be implemented at little cost and with limited risk.

Rather than feeling daunted by taking on a new challenge, it’s been inspiring and a lot of fun tracking who’s playing the game and where in the world they are. It’s made us want to do more of the same.

For more on this topic join CharityComms at our next conference – ‘Communicating to create change: tackling the environmental crisis’.

Banner Image: Olha Ruskykh on Pexels

Matthew Wright

Web planning and content manager, International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)

Matt Wright is the web planning and content manager at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). He is responsible for all of the institute’s online platforms and digital channels, and also helps to guide the digital direction of the organisation.