When to Use Humor in Content Marketing

What happens if a brand makes you laugh but you miss the point of the content after the joke lands?

It’s easy enough to recall legitimately funny marketing campaigns. NBA on ESPN nailed its RV series. “Shaq playing Scrabble” is still one of my favorite commercials ever. And I do find myself amused by OKCupid’s winking “DTF” ads on the subway. But breaking content down into its small parts and analyzing what laughter does for a brand’s voice is a much more complex affair.

Enter Dr. James Barry, a humorist, professor at Nova Southeastern University, and co-author of the research paper “A typological examination of effective humor for content marketing.” While teaching a course on social media humor, he realized he had inadvertently gathered a sizable sample of online branded content while looking for content to show his students. From there, he narrowed the focus to study brands as they attempt to be funny.

Barry told me that infusing content with humor has a lot of potential for B2C and B2B companies alike, provided that they avoid re-inventing the wheel. “Seriously, humor works very well in B2B spaces,” he said. “As long as the creator knows exactly what type of humor strategy they’re using. Why wouldn’t CEOs want to be entertained? They’re just like anyone else.”

Though content marketers tend to categorize brands by their target audience, the data Barry collected led to a new set of classifications. “The difference between an individual making a joke and a brand making a joke is that the individual’s only aim is to entertain,” he said. “A brand has to entertain and connect the joke to their brand image. They’re using laughter to leverage brand familiarity.”

According to Barry, brands fall into three categories when it comes to humor in content marketing: red, yellow, and white industries. He recently spoke to me about why B2B brands should be funny, how to start using humor if you’ve never done it before, and when companies can go too far.

So what makes a brand red, yellow, or white? How can I tell which brands belong where, and which have the easiest time using humor?

Red industry stories are highly emotional, and using humor can come off as offensive. These are the brands asking their audience to make high-stakes decisions on luxury items like a Lexus or a diamond necklace. Maybe their audience is researching a high-cost vacation over time or they’re imagining these products being present in intimate family moments. Content in this space usually reaches for an inspirational feel. These are the tear-jerker commercials, and people don’t appreciate feeling surprised by humor.

Yellow industry content is often boring without humor. The stakes involved with a purchase are much lower. If your brand offers snack foods or beer or candy, it’s almost mandatory that you use humor in some way. Everyone is doing it, and many are doing it well.

White industries is where B2B comes in. These brands have to try to tell technical, complicated stories about their products, and they’re usually selling us a version of something we need anyway. Insurance companies, non-luxury appliances, anything that’s just a tool in your daily life. The process of purchasing these products is still really involved and there are a lot of little steps, just like a red industry product, but no one wants to hear you go on and on about a white industry product at length. That’s where humor can really help.

So humor in B2B content marketing is actually a good idea?

Yes. If simplification and audience engagement is the goal of your content, you could do worse than trying to entertain. The key is using humor right off the bat, and white industry audiences especially love self-deprecating, insider humor. Something like, “Boy, isn’t it crazy what Facebook makes us do now?” or “Most of us don’t actually know how QR codes work, right?” is going to kill. People don’t just love funny content—they love the sensation of thinking, “Hey, I have that problem too!”

If you make a joke like that early on, maybe in the first piece of content your audience sees, you’ve made yourself into an authority. You know the industry so well that you can joke about it.

Does that mean humor works best as a top-funnel technique?

Our brains respond to anything novel. In order to make that psychological experience happen, yes, it’s best to use humor to grab an audience early on in your relationship with them. All your competitors are using the same language and data to market themselves, so you have the element of surprise.

What you don’t want to do is say, “Hold on, folks, mid-way through this clip you’re going to get a surprise!” People don’t want that suspense in comic content. It works best if it’s part of your initial move, and then if it’s integrated fully into your brand messaging from there on.

What if you can’t joke about what you’re selling?

There are still a few ways to use humor, especially if your audience isn’t expecting it, but the risk of offending or alienating your audience is higher here. I’ll use insurance as an example. Before Geico introduced the “So easy a caveman could do it” slogan, insurance companies tended to avoid humor completely. People couldn’t even imagine how to make something like that funny, so all the content was Allstate’s “Are you in good hands?” or State Farm’s “Like a good neighbor” shtick.

It went deeper too. No one thought insurance companies specializing in, say, care for cancer patients could use humor, but then out of nowhere came Aflac with the duck. It trickled down from there, and Progressive came on board by introducing Flo.

But those are ad campaigns, which is a different beast than content marketing, no?

Content marketing actually has unique advantages when it comes to branded humor. Back when a TV commercial was the only viable form of content, a brand could make a joke and it only had to land once or a handful of discrete times. In content marketing, serial is the standard.

In content marketing, serial is the standard.

The fact that we’re all constantly fielding messages online means that a brand can complicate a joke once they’ve got your attention, and they can reference it as part of their story. It’s not just about getting a single laugh anymore—you want your audience to feel like an insider because they already understand the bit you’re doing. They’ve been with you for a while.

Let’s say I run a brand that has never used humor in content marketing before. How do I start?

First, there are pros and cons to trying this out. Let’s start with the pros. Our world is filled with so much noise, and your brand has billions of potential followers on social media. We considered all the content that reaches viral metrics, and about two-thirds of that work gets there because it’s funny. The other third of content that goes viral is reaching for awe-inspiring, breath-taking, astonishing. The numbers show that using humor—or even just a light-hearted tone occasionally—is the only surefire way to stand out in a crowd.

The con, obviously, is a joke falling flat, but that’s not even the worst-case scenario. Everyone’s heard a bad joke. We just tend to forget them and move on. What you really don’t want to do is offend someone with a stab at humor. That’s the kind of thing that sticks around.

Is it worth the risk? How do you make sure your brand’s humor isn’t offensive?

By not trying to reinvent the wheel. At no point in creating funny content should you be trying to do something no brand has ever done before. There are 10 types of humor as I’ve defined them in my research, and the two most dangerous types for brands are:

1. Pointing out differences and stereotyping

2. Outrageous interruptions

The first type, whether it’s parodying social norms or roasting someone, is going to play worse in homogenous populations. Americans, to some degree, are used to having differences pointed out. But in cultures abroad that value uniformity of thought, that’s going to read as offensive.

The second type does very well online, but no one necessarily wants to see it coming from a brand they trust. Incongruity humor, extreme irony, an unexpected surprise, gross exaggerations that capture your attention … these are all very effective attention-grabbers, but they’re risky for brands. Crazy images like people suddenly screaming, throwing fits, maybe authority figures bursting out into dance, that stuff is only going to play well in the yellow industry, and even then, it’s not a guarantee.

So you’ll know right away if you make a mistake?

Yes, and it’s difficult to recover from offending someone. You can see companies recasting their video strategies for content that will live on YouTube, as opposed to TV ads. The comment section is extremely important, and the last thing you want is a video that has more downvotes than upvotes.

The user comment phenomenon is a positive, though, because people tend to discuss your content amongst themselves. To a degree, that’s brand reinforcement. If an audience member doesn’t necessarily get the joke you’re making, they can always just scroll down and learn the context from commenters, which can actually help you in the long-run. We’ve never had such immediate feedback from our audiences, so it will shape what we make next.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

Image by Pineapple Supply / Unsplash

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