The Dos and Don'ts of Using Humor In Your Digital Content

November 8th, 2016
7 minute read

Maybe the hardest part of writing an article about using humor in your digital marketing is the open. If it isn’t funny, why would anyone read it? If you tell a joke, and it bombs, your credibility is ruined. If you start with some sort of Meta dialogue on how the hardest part of writing an article about using humor in your digital marketing is the open, you may lose people.

So let’s start with dying.

There’s an old phrase, with uncertain attribution, that “dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” It’s very popular with actors. And it’s true! Literally everyone can do the former (boy, this comedy article is going great!), but it is very tricky to be funny, and even harder to be funny while promoting your brand, a phrase that seems to inherently suck the humor out of any situation.

It’s risky as well. Nothing backfires more or inspires more #fail articles than terrible marketing attempts at humor. It’s a surefire way to kill your reputation, proving again that dying is very easy.

That said, it’s very tempting, as well it should be. When it works, it works great, with great ROI. A 2013 Nielsen study conducted over 58 countries from every region showed that 47% consumers enjoyed and were influence by ads that were humorous.

This put it in first place, narrowly edging “Real Life Situations” (at 46%), mollywalloping “Kids Centered” (20%), and destroying “Celebrity Endorsements” (12%, though other studies put it at 5-7%). And think of how much it costs to get a celebrity endorsement! Even a bad one, whose presence evokes nothing but pity and a disquieting sense of the passage of time, can eat up a whole budget. Here’s a story of a company paying an unnamed golfer $800,000 to endorse their food. And this was in 2014, after Tiger Woods became…less than marketable and only a handful of aficionados could name another golfer.

So yes, humor works, and it can come cheap. All you need is someone in your digital marketing or content department who is funny. In our next section, we’ll probably talk about the benefits of using humor (correctly) in your digital marketing.

The Benefits of Using Humor (Correctly) In Your Digital Marketing

Yup.

So, you’ve managed to hire a funny person, possibly by leaving a trail of quarters outside one of the millions of improv spaces that are dotting our nation like horde of quipping locusts. So what benefits are you getting from this?

1. It makes you seem more authentic. Followers know there is a human behind the social media account, and more so, that the company is actually run by humans. It conveys authenticity. It’s warm and builds a certain sense of kinship. Making someone laugh is more powerful than all the nuclear bombs in the world (Source: lies. But still, it’s powerful).

2. It’s an unexpected gift to your followers. No one really expects their software provider to be funny. If you are, it makes a difference to them, and to you, because it encourages them to check your channels more, and to share.

3. If it is successful, it can become viral. Nothing goes around the internet faster than something that is actually funny, except for forwards about why the other candidate is actually the primary cause of earthquakes.

4. It can promote your content and generate new followers. People are far more likely to share content that is enjoyable, and if you actually make them laugh, they may pass it around. Partly because it is great, partly because it is a surprise (“You won’t believe how funny the people who make my pants are!”). It’s a great way to spread the content the humor is promoting and to get new people following.

5. Those new followers can become new leads. They already are following, and may sign up for more content. Not because it is funny, but because your being funny led them to check out more of your material, and they found it useful. That’s what inbound marketing is all about. More leads means more customers.

6. It can change or solidify the image of your brand. If you are known for being stuffy, being funny can change everything. Look at Old Spice. That was the “old person” brand in the era of Axe. But then they embraced that with tongue firmly in cheek, bringing in the great Bruce Campbell to be goofily manful. They then moved to full-absurd, and now have that market firmly in their pocket.

7. But. But you don’t want to be think that humor in and of itself is the ultimate panacea. After all, you can be out of date, stilted, or even irritating. The “humor”, or even the actual humor, can drown out your message and not appeal to anyone. So if you are going try, follow these hints.

Don’t Do What Donny Don’t Does

The first tip, as the subheading implies, is always to steal from The Simpsons. People who get the reference will love you (we fans of the longest-running show of all time somehow think we’re in a small cult), and if not, readers might think you’re funny on your own.

So there aren’t any tips for what’s actually funny, because except for the universal laughs when total mopes walk into glass doors, comedy is subjective. Still.

DO start with your client’s pain points. Remember that the ultimate point is to get people to use your service. So don’t just start by thinking what is funny, think about what your ideal customer would want, and then wring humor from that (“what they want” can be as vague as “a good time”, hence, beer commercials). It’s possible to just use humor to brand yourself in the abstract, but that only works for some products and services.

So think of what matters to people. If you sell office electronic equipment, use humor that is at least vaguely related, or can tie back into it. For instance, when the Mars Rover was taking Twitter by storm, you could have tweeted back “Houston, we copy.” That’s funny (right?) and relevant. It’s not that you always have to be on-message, but you need to consider your audience as well. If you just are “random” that isn’t going to encourage followers.

DON’T just rely on if Kevin thinks it is funny. Kevin’s a guy in sales. He thinks the Instagram picture you are going to send out is really funny. And that’s great! Maybe you’re appealing to sales people. But also maybe ask around. Maybe, like yourself, Kevin doesn’t realize that your joke could be very easily construed as racist. Maybe Kevin doesn’t know that it will actually irritate your biggest consumer. Maybe Kevin just isn’t that funny. So talk to some other people.

DON’T workshop it though. Just check to see if it is funny. Groupthink humor is almost never funny. Nothing kills humor more than Lindsay saying that we need to Rasta-fy it by 10%.

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DO be relevant to your market. Live-tweeting during the Super Bowl is great. But your audience might not be interested in hearing you talk about Cam Newton’s dropback percentage. The perfect example came during the 2014 Super Bowl, a wretched blowout, when DiGiorno’s tweeted, perfectly, “YO, THIS GAME IS LIKE A DIGIORNO PIZZA BECAUSE IT WAS DONE AFTER TWENTY MINUTES.” That was relevant and funny. It got tens of thousands of retweets and likes.

DO be creative, but DON’T be pandering. Don’t use yesterday’s memes. Don’t glom onto a trend just because everyone is doing it. But being original, or at least having an original take on things, is how to do it.

DON’T be too topical unless that is your brand. And if you are topical, be neutral. If you’re a staffing agency, you could have said after one of the debates “Now doesn’t going into the office tomorrow seem better by comparison?” That appeals to just about everybody. If you are the kind of company that takes strong stances, like an eco-friendly outdoors gear company, it can be ok to be more political, but know your audience.

DON’T punch down. Regardless of your stances, if you are going to punch, punch up. Make fun of a candidate, not their voters. Make fun of huge companies, not the People of Wal-Mart. There is nothing less attractive—or less effective in marketing---than picking on the defenseless. I would even advise not to use memes or viral videos that call out a single person, since 1) it’s usually cruel, and 2) the internet turns faster than a caged panther. Unless that’s not fast. It sounds fast, but honestly, I’ve never seen one.

DO use references where applicable. You can even use non-Simpson’s ones. It’s cool to use pop culture. Mention your favorite Doctor. It ok to be obscure too, as long as it isn’t alienating. Being obscure works great when someone gets it. People on the Internet love that. “Was that an MST3K reference, Office Electronics? I see what you did there.”

DON’T rely on it so much your message gets drowned out. Remember that you’re still trying to get people to follow your other channels and to engage with your content. More followers means more potential leads, yes, but be sure that potential leads still take you seriously. Be your own brand.

Really, the most important advice is to decide if humor is right for you. Using humor sometimes is almost always good, but don’t decide you want to be the “funny” SaaS company just because the CEO has a book of “1001 Best Golf Jokes” on his desk. Don’t always think that you have to be one way because the internet seems to reward it.

The internet is a vast and strange place and the loudest parts aren’t the majority. You may have a lot of followers who don’t need humor, and will share your stuff without it. Know your audience, know yourself, and decide what works best for you. And if you do decide to go with it, stay away from talking about the deathbed quips of English stage actors. That never works.

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