So an Entrepreneur Walks Into a Bar… Is There a Place for Humor in Marketing (Part 1)?

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Humor in Marketing

We can all think of funny marketing campaigns that get our attention and make us laugh. From the classic “Where’s the beef?” commercials for Wendy’s to the more contemporary talking baby for eTrade, there’s no shortage of creative concepts.

Of course, you won’t encounter humor only in TV spots: we’ve all heard funny radio spots and have read snappy headlines and product descriptions. Clever, humorous campaigns tend to stick with us and make us smile and feel good. As Kevin Duam notes in his article “The Case for Humor,” which appeared in Inc. last year, humor establishes rapport, triggers memorability, and creates alignment, all worthwhile rewards to a funny marketing campaign done well.

Still, while the potential rewards appear quite rich, it’s important to note that humor in marketing is not without its risks. Here are some important points to keep in mind before you decide to go this route for your next campaign.

1. Humor won’t work for all industries or across all marketing channels. Clever, funny, and irreverent campaigns, if done right, can work for a wide variety of brands, but not all. If you own a funeral home, for example, this approach doesn’t make sense. Ditto if you work for a non-profit that deals with serious issues, such as hunger, poverty, or domestic violence. You might love the idea of creating a funny campaign, but it needs to make sense for your brand first and foremost.

The same is true for your different marketing channels. As PRWeb points out, “A joke that plays out well on your Facebook page is not necessarily going to work in a news release, where it may lower your credibility with journalists and customers who are looking for news about your business.”

2. Humor is subjective. You might think screaming goats are the funniest thing since Johnny Carson, but not everyone will agree with you. Likewise, the humor you insert into your marketing will fall flat to some—that’s a given. The question you need to ask is this: is that OK? It’s important to remember that this is true for any marketing message: it will resonate with some, and not with others. A flat marketing message, however, doesn’t typically generate complaints or protests (people forget and move on), whereas a humorous marketing gag that’s controversial might generate negative comments and severe backlash (just ask Mountain Dew).

3. Not every marketing copywriter can write “funny.” If you decide to go the humorous route, be aware that the writer you’ve been using for all your other marketing copy might not be able to write funny. Humor writing is a definite skill, and creating and pulling off a funny marketing campaign is a specialty. When interviewing your creative team, ask to see examples of their more off-the-wall campaigns. Do you find the campaigns funny? How did the campaigns perform? Can you talk to the client to get a sense of what he or she thought of the campaign? (Need some ideas for funny campaigns? Check out Mashable’s 7 Ways to Use Humor in Your Online Marketing Campaigns.)

4. Humor should be tested. Before going “all in” on a humorous campaign, test the concepts on focus groups to gauge their reactions. If the humor falls flat (or worse—people find it offensive), then you can cut your losses before investing even more money into a campaign that will end up working against your company…and possibly even hurting it.

5. You can’t predict a humorous campaign’s viral probability. Let’s say your team has come up with a truly clever and funny marketing concept. You’ve tested it with focus groups, and they’ve responded positively. You launch it and sit back, waiting for it to go viral and…splat! It fizzles and falls flat. What went wrong? Nothing, actually. As much as we wish it weren’t so, it’s impossible to predict what will and won’t go viral. Who knew screaming goat memes and Gangnam Style would garner millions of views (and billions, in the case of Gangnam Style) on YouTube? No one. And that’s the nature of “virality.” If you’re creating a humorous campaign simply so it can go viral, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons, and you’ll likely fail to boot. Not a good combo.

By the way, just because your campaign doesn’t go viral doesn’t mean it wasn’t successful. Success can only be measured in conversions, which, for most small businesses, means sales. So make sure that’s the metric you pay attention to.

What do you think? Is there a place for humor in marketing? Do you use humor in your marketing campaigns? Share your thoughts in the comments. In our next post, we’ll talk about some humorous marketing wins and failures.

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