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Humor in Marketing: Six Serious Tips

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Have you heard the one about humor in marketing communications?

It's funnier—or at least more effective—than you might think.

When most marketers think about humor, it's typically in the context of television and print ads. But humor can be an effective communication tool across a range of print and interactive media, whether you're talking to a B2B or B2C audience.

No kidding.

Business professionals are people, too (the majority of them, anyway). And nearly all people enjoy a good laugh. (Even those grumps who insist they're all business all the time. Whatever.)

So how, exactly, do you transform your business-as-usual communications into effective funny business without turning your message into a joke?

Consider these six serious tips:

1. Don't knock-knock it until you've tried it

At its best, humor brings people together. Just ask a comedy club owner counting his bar receipts.

Humor also inspires—and gets talked about later. How often do your company's marketing communications have employees and customers quoting from them for weeks, months, or even years after they first appear? You don't have to answer that.

2. Play to the room

The literature for your next product launch is probably not the place to try toilet humor—unless you're in the plumbing or bathroom fixture business. Fortunately, humor doesn't have to appeal to the lowest common denominator to be effective. It can also be smart.

More discriminating audiences simply require a more refined approach.

Wild and crazy. Subtle and clever. From the stand-up stage and Saturday Night Live to the pages of The New Yorker, Steve Martin, for one, has proven that funny comes in many varieties.

Whether it's slapstick or sophisticated, the best humor plumbs the audience's common experiences. Just like effective marketing communications.

"Play to the room" is simply another way of saying speak to your audience about what's important to them. Communicating only what you think is important is a guaranteed way to wind up the one with pie on your face. Or at least egg.

3. Choose your targs wisely

Every joke has a target. In business communications, aim carefully before you take your potshot.

"Target audience" is just an expression.

Customers, employees, and other stakeholders should feel you're on their side—or that they "get it"—and other people much less fortunate than themselves don't have the first clue. That's the power of comedy. It creates a sense of community by dividing the world into two camps: those who are in the know and those who are out of it.

Adding humor to communications can bring new communities together around the simplest idea: appreciation for your company.

4. Wear a watch, because timing is everything

Any stand-up comedian will tell you timing is everything when it comes to delivering humorous material. How does timing translate to print communications? To interactive applications?

It can be how punctuation paces a sentence, or how a photo, illustration, or animation makes the viewer do a double take. The littlest throwaway detail can lead to the biggest, most memorable laughs.

5. Remember, brevity is the soul of wit

There is such a thing as too much fun. Humor should serve your message—never overwhelm it. Less is more. Shakespeare said so.

6. Always leave them wanting more

In comedy as in business communications, the only thing more important than timing and brevity is knowing when to get off the stage. Leaving your audience wanting more is always a better strategy than overstaying your welcome.

* * *

Tell people only what they need to know to understand your key messages—in the most engaging manner possible. They'll ask questions (or heckle) if they want to know more. If you truly entertain them with your humor, they'll be your biggest fans for weeks, months, or even years to come.

Invaluable stakeholder loyalty like that should make a joke or two worth the risk.


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Brian Beatty is a senior writer at Larsen (, a communications design firm with offices in Minneapolis and the San Francisco Bay area.

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  • by Joseph Wed Aug 13, 2008 via web

    Yes, I whole-hearted agree! And thank you so much for saying a lot in a brief period of time. Great basic tips and I will use them!

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