No Laughing Matter: Tips for Using Humor in Content Marketing

The next commercial might be funny.

This is our unanimous Super Bowl hope. We teeter off the front of the couch, we stop chewing our Buffalo wing, we hush our significant others, because nothing tops laughing as one unified America. The actual football game, the national anthem and the halftime show? These are just obstacles in the way of funny commercials.

But what if brands could tap into that demand year-round!? In an effort to encourage humorous content programs, here’s how to stay on message while marketing with a punch line.

Funny Content is Serious Business

The best part about using humor in your content program is that it’s a natural element of conversation. If we’re to believe content marketing is about having an engaging interaction with the audience, what better way to break the ice than with a joke? Once a dialogue starts to progress, avenues for levity will snowball.

Is that where leads come from? If the two sides love each other very much, yes.

Humor is as much a social lubricant in our daily lives as it is a tactic for building relationships with consumers. Exploring ways to incorporate well-placed humor into a content marketing strategy can benefit all of us, especially those working in video and social platforms.

The Web of Science database lists 6,840 published papers in a search for the emotion of fear; laughter lists 135. The reason: Positive outputs like humor and creativity are overlooked drivers of production as it relates to trust and relationships.

“[Humor] is seen as light entertainment; it’s seen as not very essential to human life,” says John Morreall, chair and professor of religious studies at William & Mary. “What I try to argue is that humor is utterly essential to human life.”

Morreall is one of the founding members of the International Society for Humor Studies (ISHS), a scholarly and professional organization dedicated to the advancement of humor research. No, really. Here’s what that research says about humor’s impact on an audience:

Humor leads to learning.

Simply put, the more memorable your content is, the more effective your campaign will be. Classroom studies are great resources to help us understand how best to present information that sticks. According to the American Psychological Association, humor produces psychological and physiological benefits that help students learn. In another study by the textbook rental service Chegg, nearly 80% of college-age kids remembered ads that made them laugh.

One of the more memorable campaigns of last year was Hewlett-Packard’s #bendtherules videos. HP had one unique selling proposition for this particular lesson plan: The HP Pavilion x360 convertible laptop transforms into a tablet. To showcase that feature, HP hired popular social influencers to star in a series of silly Vine videos.

The campaign of 30 videos resulted in 950,000 engagements and 50 million organic views. Even more surprising? Robby Ayala, the Vine star with 2.9 million followers, saw nearly four times the re-Vines and comments than for his non-branded work.

Humor is attractive.

Content marketing is a byproduct of the dearth of marketing noise; an increasing pool of brand voices drives the need for partitioned quality time. The modern consumer wants to know if your brand is a good fit, weighing characteristics like confidence, worldliness and reliability in purchasing decisions. Content marketing isn’t an arranged marriage; it’s a first date.

Our job, then, is to elicit an engaged response and accept a second date (or at least a guarded Facebook follow). Demonstrating a sense of humor in these brief interactions not only breaks the ice but also often reveals quite a bit about your brand.

“If you memorize a thousand jokes, that doesn’t make you a person with a sense of humor. Sense of humor is [subtler],” says Dr. Gil Greengross, Ph.D, in Psychology Today. “Humor is largely an interpersonal activity that requires a high level of emotional, social and also mating intelligence.”

The key word there is interpersonal. Humor is never universal. Some folks just won’t get the joke. Others may not like it. And others—hopefully many—will be attracted to a courage or awareness or intelligence the campaign uncovers about your brand. When done correctly, humor is an endearing strategy.

So let’s talk shop.

Funny Advice

The biggest piece of advice I can give about being funny, and the one we have to start with, is that you have to be willing to try. You must be willing to fail. Stand-up comedians will tell you that an aversion to bombing is an aversion to perfecting your craft. Every great comic has been heckled and had jokes crash land in excruciating silence. Fortune (and followers) favors the bold.

Appeal to the right crowd.

One time, I told a joke to a crowd of noble gases. They didn’t react!

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Even the best jokes won’t land if they’re presented to the wrong audience. To get this right, you need to first consider your target audience’s appetite for humor, the Mendoza line of tastefulness and presentation. At first that probably means a lot of trial and error, in concert with smart market research.

One particular study on reactions to “The Office” found young adults and middle-aged participants were more likely to laugh at clips from the TV series that showed self-deprecating humor. An aggressive style of humor—laughing at the expense of others—was also favored in those age groups. The older participants, meanwhile, preferred affiliative humor—situational jokes that aim to bring people together.

UnitedHealthcare gets high marks for appealing to that older demographic with an appropriate brand of humor. The insurer’s “Way In” campaign pokes fun at today’s complicated health-care system and the comical injuries that require us to seek medical attention. These are relatable experiences—getting hit with a piñata stick, or a dancing mishap during dinner prep. 

End with the punch line.

See also: Use comedic timing. I know, this is as Intro to Comedy as “Step one: Place the banana peel on the ground.” But it’s so easy to mess up and so often the culprit of a failed attempt at humor. Rule of thumb: Make sure the comedy apex occurs at the last possible moment. Additions following the punch line feel like one person at the party saying “surprise!” a second too late.

Below is an example of a perfectly good non-sequiter posted on the Skittles Twitter account, followed by a buzz-kill addendum.

The image of the corgi bouncers is way funnier than the faceless narrator. A simple fix is to flip the sentences so the joke gets a chance to stretch its legs. When in doubt, show, don’t tell.

Get on a roll.

If you’re thinking, “There’s just no way our brand can engage with humor,” perhaps the Charmin social team will inspire you. While toilet paper is largely ubiquitous and awkward, the Charmin brand playfully stands out, with its cartoon bears dancing around and littering the forest. Charmin naturally doubled-down on that personality to create one of Twitter’s most engaged communities. Its cheeky tags like #TweetFromTheSeat encourage followers to bond over the most ordinary of activities. By design, the tone is consistently unique, sweet and hilarious.

“It’s not just about toilet paper,” one member of the Charmin marketing team told Social Media Today. “It’s about the human experience of all things bathroom related.” Brand loyalty is built on relatable, share-worthy content. Determine an experience your audience can associate with your brand and use a little well-placed humor as a sealing agent.

Hire humor.

Lastly, if you’re fully committed to funny business, it makes sense to seek that skill and experience in your internal hiring and agency vetting. Look for creatives with comedy backgrounds: standup comics, improv actors, screenplay writers. These folks aren’t just valuable assets for developing copy; quick wit can spice up a brainstorm and help whip up follower responses for social media managers.

Hiring comedians has been a successful and well-documented strategy for Groupon. The Chicago-based coupon company actively seeks out people with comedic backgrounds to write copy and to provide customer service. Like Groupon’s head of hiring, Dan Jessup, many staffers have roots in the Second City improv scene. That influence inspires the brand to communicate off-script.

Take, for instance, the fun Groupon had with its Facebook post about the Banana Bunker. The social team knew fans would rush to offer suggestive comments and they were prepared to respond innocently to every single one.

Fans ate up the calculated engagement bait, and the playful interaction led to the post being Groupon’s most popular one ever. As for the product? It sold out almost instantly.

Like any successful improv scene, the humor here wasn’t the result of a great setup, but more the commitment of its players. Groupon found the game, committed to a voice and stayed on message. It’s just as important for your team to have the ability to follow through with a humorous campaign as it is to have the bandwidth. A joke, riff or hashtag campaign can take on a life of its own, which is great. Just make sure your voice stays in the scene.

Commitment to your voice comes back to my first bit of advice on humor in marketing: Be willing to try. At least be willing to make the pitch. There’s a school of thought that says trying to be funny and failing is always worse than not trying at all. But that cannot be true if the attempt is on brand and on voice from the start. Every joke won’t be met with a standing ovation, nor will every new product release, case study or how-to video. Get out there and learn from the laughter and the crickets.

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