As part of his keynote presentation at the MarketingProfs B2B Forum back in 2008, David Meerman Scott showed an IBM video called "Mainframe: The Art of the Sale." With its deadpan sendup of outmoded and, frankly, nonsensical B2B sales techniques (cold-calling people from the white pages to gauge interest in a million dollar mainframe computer, for example), the video was very funny and had been selected as a "Staff Pick" by Comedy Central, an honor to which few if any other B2B marketing pieces can lay claim.
In this week's episode of Marketing Smarts I talk with the man behind that video, Tim Washer, who is social media manager at Cisco (Tim will also be speaking at our upcoming B2B Forum in Boston, October 3-5. Use code SMARTB2B when you register and save $200!). I was curious to hear the story behind the video, which he gladly shared; but, more than that, I wanted to get his thoughts on the use of humor in B2B marketing more generally.
On that topic, Tim suggested that if you want to make comedy an effective part of your marketing, you need to understand the key to good comedy... which is, in his view, "making a point about something."
Showing the Truth
Tim, as it turns out, is not just a professional marketer, he's also a professional comedian (in the classic sense of "getting paid to be funny"). To explain his views on the truly comedic, he cited one of his instructors in the craft, Eddie Brill.
"You have to say something with your comedy," Tim says Brill taught him, "You can't just be funny, but you have to say something. You have to have a strong point of view and make a case for something."
"An important part of being a comedian in any kind of comedy," he added, "is making a point about something. It's showing the truth."
Humanizing the Brand
This "truth-telling" aspect of comedy, especially when wed to good storytelling, is what allows it to humanize brands, especially in B2B.
"How do you humanize a B2B brand?" Tim asked. "How can you take a brand like an IBM that people don't have a relationship with on Facebook and share [its] stories?"
"Much of it," he said, "is just telling the truth, but doing it in a humorous way."
For example, part of what made "The Art of the Sale" funny was that it captured some of the truth of what really happens in the B2B sales world. No, people don't generally go through the white pages and cold-call homeowners about their data processing needs. But sometimes the list and lead management practices in the enterprise are not a whole heck of a lot more sophisticated than that!
By poking fun at itself with that video, IBM essentially invited viewers to relate to it as a real company made of real people, not just a venerable and imposing blue-on-white logo.
'We're not perfect'
Comedy is not just about truth, however. As Tim was wont to point out, "It's also about pain."
He wasn't just referring to slapstick and prat falls. Rather, a lot of comedy comes from sharing one's own painful experiences and using that to cast a humorous light on the human condition—and, in so doing, make it more bearable.
Businesses can tap into this revelatory, healing aspect of comedy by sharing their own pain.
"I think," Tim said, "if we share that, 'Look, we do make mistakes. We do fail at times. We always recover, but we do have those times. We're not perfect.' And we show those vulnerable moments, it would go so far helping us connect with our audience."
For example, Tim's boss at IBM pointed out that "The Art of the Sale" video could have been made by one of its competitors making fun of IBM's sales culture. That IBM made and released the video not only warded off such an attack but also succeeded in altering the image that one might have had of IBM as a stodgy, buttoned-down company incapable of self-deprecation.
Focus on the Problem, Not the Product
Ultimately, such attempts at humanization and humor will succeed only if the point you are making is not about the product you are selling but about the problem that your customers would hope to solve with it.
"I think if you just make one simple point," Tim said, "that's not necessarily about the product but about the problem that your product can solve, that's really where we need to focus in storytelling."
Indeed, in Tim's estimation, not overtly connecting your humor to your product can be a good thing.
"If [after seeing a video] you're asking, 'What did it have to do with the product?' Sometimes," he said, "I think that's a success."
You can listen to my entire conversation with Tim above or download the mp3 and listen at your leisure. You can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode!
Tim Washer, who produces comedies and documentaries, and maybe someday will produce an infomercial. Currently social media manager at Cisco Systems, he previously headed social media video production at IBM. Tim's work has appeared in Advertising Age and The New York Times, and his comedy credits include the Late Show with David Letterman and SNL.