Feb
18
2009

6 Tips for Using Humor in your Marketing

If you know me personally, or have read my articles before, you know I am a goofball. There is nothing subtle about me or my sense of humor. I’m sure a psychoanalyst could write reams of data about what is wrong with me. I’m blatant, crude, way over the top, off-color, and often offensive.

But that is me and my blog, NOT my work as either a consultant or as a marketing executive in my previous life. Because my blog is personal (as I think all good ones should be) it is the genuine me, burrs and all.

However, when I am working with a client, the suit goes on, the language is toned down, and humor, which defines me as a person, is actually rarely used as a marketing vehicle at all. It kills me, but there are SO many pitfalls if used inappropriately, it is often just not worth the risk for a client.

Sometimes I get lucky and a client and their audience have a very similar tone and market as me. In that rare case, our marketing results are just off the charts, but those cases are few and far between.

Being a guy who places tremendous value in humor, I offer these 6 tips for using humor in your own marketing materials. Use at your own risk.

 

1. Be Genuine

There are many types of humor: Subtle, sarcastic, slapstick, off-color, clever, etc.

What you need to figure out is which one you are. I am definitely the slapstick, off-color type. What can I say – I realize I am a large child, and fart jokes still crack me up. Compare that to Mikey, a good friend of mine (he hates when I call him that…It’s Mike, thank you.). He has a fantastic subtle sense of humor. He is the type that rarely pipes up, and you really have to pay attention; But, when he says something funny, it is obviously well thought out, and it always frigging kills me.

The point is that there is NO WAY I could pull off Mikey’s type of humor. Because I am so over the top 99% of the time, it would just get lost in the commotion. On the flip side, Mikey would look like a total idiot and loose all respect of people if he tried what I do. You can’t be quiet and mild mannered and then randomly start singing about your love of string cheese in the middle of the supermarket. It just don’t work.

If you are going to use humor, make sure it is your real humor, and not what you think your audience wants. Nothing is more cringeworthy than a joke that receives dead silence. In almost every case it comes from poor delivery, which is usually the result of not feeling 100% comfortable and confident in what you are doing. It works the same way in marketing. If your humor does not match that of your audience, take my advice – Don’t use it.

That was a super fancy segue into our next section if I do say so.

 

2. Know the audience…WELL

It is so super important to always know your audience when you are marketing. When using humor, it is doubly so. Not all people find the same things funny. Some type of humor (particularly mine) will even turn people away who would otherwise be customers. If your product or business paints it prospects with a broad brush, it is an absolute necessity that you niche out your segments if you want to try a shot a humor. Try your best not to let the segments cross paths.

Why? Because consensus humor is just not funny. If you try to make humor fit every audience, it will not fit ANY audience. If you have ever worked for a large corporation, you know that marketing creative is often brainstormed and approved by a group of marketing execs. I genuinely believe that that type of marketing usually sucks as it is so watered down to reach a consensus that it is also too watered down to earn a customer reaction. The same thing happens with humor.

 

3. Know how the audience views YOU

I have the luxury of hand picking my audience for my blogs and articles. I have built my sites from the ground up with the same tone and humor the entire time. If you like it, you stay, if not, you leave – and I’m totally cool with that.

When you are working with another business, or as a representative for a business that is not an exact replica of you, this is not the case.

What you really need to figure out is how the audience views you. And that will tell you if the type of humor you are using fits. If your audience perceives you as a “subtle”, then they are probably following you because they are “subtles” too. That tells you that the humor needs to be subtle as well.

Going back to points 1 and 2, if you are not a “subtle” as well, you have two options:

Option 1:. Don’t use humor. or
Option 2: Find a Mikey with a great subtle sense of humor and let him lead the creative.

 

4. Take risks if you can

The key point of this is “if you can.” This really depends on your type of humor, how risky the material is, and how big the potential upside is.

Everybody knows that the bigger the risk, the bigger the return. I’m finding that out in great detail with my own blog. Whenever I post a article that is a bit offensive and off color, the traffic for those posts usually goes through the roof. My article called “Retards and the Chinese” is a perfect example of this. To sum up, I received a few angry posts and emails about my casual use of the word “retard.” The article that addressed those comments was designed specifically to push peoples buttons and provoke a response. And it really did. But, truth be told, I was biting my nails for the entire week after I posted it. I got lucky, but it could have been a disaster.

The point is that it was a calculated risk. I knew that my audience base was predominately outspoken and thick skinned, so I figured they could take it. I was also very careful to turn the article sympathetic towards me after I ruffled everyone’s feathers. It worked well, but definitely took some time to get just right. I probably rewrote the closing paragraphs about 10 times.

 

5. Know when to say no

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point being a damn fool about it” – WC Fields

Sometimes humor is just not the right choice. Yes it is fun, yes it can produce fantastic results, but yes, it can also kill you if done wrong. If you find yourself on the negative side of any of the above tips, then just stop. It’s not worth it.

The key to humor is 100% confidence. If you are not true in your humor, if your audience is not into your humor, or if your audience image of you is not congruent with your humor, then your chances of success can not possibly outweigh the potential risks of using it.

Stick with the tried and true marketing vehicles that have worked for you in the past. They will not get the big results you are hoping for, but you won’t shoot yourself in the foot either.

Also, as a final caveat on know when to say no. Some things are just inherently not funny and should not be taken lightly. I wouldn’t recommend using humor under any circumstances to market when people have been injured physically or emotionally or are truly in need of help.

A great example that comes to mind is the recent Cash4Gold commercial that aired during the Super Bowl (I reviewed it and other ads in a recent article here). It starred Ed McMahon and MC Hammer pawning all their goods because they were broke. It was supposed to be funny. Not only did it not work, but it made me feel bad for the stars. If you think about the underlying context of WHY someone would be selling their stuff to a pawn shop and how desperate their situation must be, I think you would agree that there is nothing really funny about that.

 

6. Thicken your skin

Jokes flop. Even the best comedians will tell you that. If edgy, they will also offend some people. It’s gonna happen sooner or later. My final piece of advice is to grow a thick skin. Not everything will work the first time. As with stand up comedy, humor in marketing often takes a while to work out phrasing and timing.

At my site, I often push the edge on what is “professional.” After all, I am a serious and professional business person. I have a ton of real experience and have made a ton of real money. But that often does not jibe with the image I represent, especially on first impression.

Most people who stick around past the first article will usually become fans –loyal motivated fans – for a long time, but that does come at a price of losing a good percentage of visitors who just don’t get it or cannot get past the apparent professional/goofy disconnect.

That is a trade off I am willing to accept. I am 100% confident and 100% congruent to my personality on my site, so I can weather the comments and criticisms that I occasionally get. If I were not, I’m not sure I would be able to stomach someone truly thinking I am an idiot and what that might mean to my reputation.

I’ll end with a great quote that sums up a lot of what I do on my own site, and being the spaz I am, my general approach to humor. It’s simple, but says quite a bit.

“I’m not funny. What I am is brave. “ – Lucille Ball

Stay Cool.

JJ

 

Here are a few recommended reads: (What’s this?)

Do’s and Taboos of Humor Around the World: Stories and Tips from Business and Life

Humor in the Advertising Business: Theory, Practice, and Wit

Ben & Jerry’s: The Inside Scoop: How Two Real Guys Built a Business with a Social Conscience and a Sense of Humor

3 Comments + Add Comment

  • Found you through Twitter/Tweetgrid.
    Great post.
    Regarding Point 6:
    I coach people and believe myself that “your audience is always right” If they laugh, it was meant to be funny, and if they don’t, you can act like it wssn’t meant to be funny. If you go into a situation with knowledge, preparation and alternate options considered, then nothing that happens can throw you.
    Which actually is a “super fancy segue into…”
    Point 1: All of this is easier to do when we are our genuine selves. If we aren’t worried about getting the words right or incorporating ill-advised and unnatural jokes into our presentations then we can concentrate on the important things – like what the client wants or needs from us.
    I Stumbled it for you.
    Stop by UsingHumor.com sometime. We have some common ground.

  • Thanks for your comment and the stumble. I will most certainly swing by your site sometime.

  • #6 is definitely true when it comes to humour! Once you accept that not everyone in the whole world finds your brand of humour funny (and stop trying to make everyone laugh) it is a lot easier to focus on what you’re good at.

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