Flickr / Photo by particlem.

Be Funny in Online Marketing: Humor and Persuasion in a Digital Space

Warning: Some of the videos linked are NSFW

To paraphrase one of my favorite Simpson episodes:

“A funny viral video is like a mule with a spinning wheel. No one knows how they got it, and gosh darn if they know how to use it.”  

The use of humor has long been a powerful persuasive tactic for communication. Not only does humor make you seem intelligent and confident, but it can also be used as a marketing tactic. The adage in marketing “talk about something funny or sex to sell” has proven effects for selling a product or promoting a brand. But what makes something funny? A unifying theory of humor has not yet been fully established. But one of the most prominent theories is “Benign Violations.” This idea postulates that humor must both violate a preconceived notion that we hold, while at the same time not violating our manner that goes beyond what we would designate as humor. While this does not cover all different types of humor, especially ones that are considered controversial, but successful like Jerrod Carmichael’s bit on slavery it does give an opening level for understanding how to create humor for an online audience.

The first thing to know is to segment your audience for your humor. Different audiences find different types of humor engaging. This is an easy concept to understand, but perhaps harder to put into practice. We are prisoners of the internal gaze for humor. We start thinking of humor by what ourselves and our peer groups find funny. It is important to think about what is the goal of your humor for marketing purposes. Deciding the audience will shift what type of humor you should be using. The recent destruction of YouTube star PewPewDie through his attempt at humor shows that not thinking of audience and the principle of Benign Violations could mean that your joke could create the opposite effect, people hating and find you unfunny and offensive.

The second principle is to practice. This does not mean that you are constantly creating online videos or tweet jokes that come to you. There are far too many examples of this producing backlash. What I mean is that you need to practice your material. Humor is a skill, not an innate ability. You should be practicing different types of humor with different audiences. Study the different types of humor. There is clear evidence that for online marketing campaigns authenticity is a key feature that attracts customers. Therefore, you will need to embrace the humor that you are using. Think of humor as a mechanical skill, like learning a new language. If you practiced Spanish just once a week for 5 minutes would you become fluent?

Third, you need to make the concept universal and specific. While this may seem contradictory it in fact illustrates what makes a successful use of humor for marketing purpose. You need to choose a concept that can be universally relatable. But if it is too general, you run the risk of having humor that does not connect with a specific point in your customers’ lives or repeating a joke that has already happened. For example, the Peeps candy has unveiled as part of their Easter marketing campaign an online video that shows parents have tantrums when it is revealed that their children have eaten all the Peeps in the house. Instead of a joke about how parenting can be hard, it takes a universal concept that parents can relate to and a specific point about this. Looking at the pain points of your customer’s experience, either in their general lives or about the product area can be an example guiding path for how to develop topics to begin.

Finally, make it short and simple! While long skits with celebrities can tempting (and hilarious) it can require more budget than is available. The awkward family viewing video about watching HBO shows with parents is an excellent example of this. Even popular comedy shows like Key and Peele or SNL use a single joke as a basis for longer skits, but then connect multiple different permutations of it. Instead of trying to fit everything in, a series of ads with the same original joke/point of humor can be used to generate more content with a consistent message.

Not everything has to be a joke, but we should not think of humor for online marketing as lightening in a bottle. Only by studying, developing, and thinking of your specific audience can you effectively implement humor and can use it as a consi

Flickr / Photo by particlem.