Humor, Marketing and the Internet

It’s that time of year again: We’re all waiting eagerly for the Effies, Cannes, CLIOS and One Show, which fall in quick succession over the coming months. It’s an exciting time. Paychecks will be splurged on shoes. Tweets will reach a frantic urgency. Rock stars will be made. People will wake up in strange places. When the dust settles, we’ll be left with case studies featuring groundbreaking new styles of marketing, new approaches and new technologies not possible a year ago.
At this time of year we’re reminded that everything about digital marketing is new. Not even the terms used to describe, debate and judge the work — terms like “participatory,” “social,” “interlinked” and “connective” — were in existence a few years ago.
But what if the most important attribute of truly great digital work wasn’t a new attribute, but an attribute that might have been lost or forgotten in the midst of all these changes? For example, if our whole industry is built on the fact that emotion — not rational thought — is the gatekeeper to consumer behavior (as greats such as Bill Bernbach have stated), then why is it that there’s relatively little debate about emotive uses of digital technologies?
Specifically, I’m interested in discussing how humor, arguably the most important emotion to marketers, is even more vital in the digital age.
The first benefit: humor helps extend your reach. It’s common sense. The connection between humor and viral spread was documented as far back as 2004 in a study reported in the Journal of Advertising Research. It identified a number of the motivations, attitudes and behaviors of people that pass along e-mails and found that most of the forwarded messages involved humor. There are now more ways to share content — social networking sites, etc. — but human nature persists and the principle still applies.
Secondly, humor reduces dependence on incentives. Humor is a great way to get a response without depending on giveaways or sacrificing margin. If you can keep them laughing, you’ll have enough of their attention to keep the experience flowing.
Humor can also be used to avert potential detractors. Humor’s ability to diffuse annoyance is vital at a time when consumers are able to broadcast their grievances to the planet. Brands are increasingly measuring their worth by what people are saying about them. Humor, when used sensitively, has a redeeming quality.
Finally, humor reduces dependence on production values. We’re entering an era where speed, personalization and relevance to the user will become increasingly important, and we’ll have to sacrifice production values to keep up. Humor is also about timing and context as opposed to polish.
Beyond that, the way that we joke is changing — giving creative people a rare shot at greatness. New communication technologies not only influence humor, they make new styles of humor possible. The relatively speedy publication and distribution cycles of newspapers made it possible to satirize current world events via cartoons, television gave us the sitcom and even the telephone provide the safe distance from which to make prank calls. The Internet makes new forms of humor possible, too, due to factors like anonymity, connectivity and wider access to creative tools.

Anonymity opens the door for new forms of identity play — which is why we see things like oversharing and Twitter accounts opened on behalf of long-dead celebrities. Connectivity allows new styles of humor made possible by the participation of large groups, like the Can This Pickle Get More Fans Than Nickelback? alliance on Facebook. Wider access to creative tools has sparked memes like Keyboard Cat and ironic motivational posters.
One brand that recognizes the importance of humor in the digital era is Google. Without humor, Google would be a completely different company. Its mission “to organize the world’s information” is arguably conducive to dry work. Google has sidestepped that problem by knitting fun and humor into its products.
There are dozens of weird and wonderful quirks built into Google products, features that only appear when you know which combination of keys to hold down, and versions in loopy languages (like Elmer Fudd’s wascally wabbit-speak).
There are three attributes that really set Google’s approach apart: its humor is unexpectedly pervasive (it seems to be coming from the engineers and designers); the humor is stripped down so that the delivery feels effortless and impulsive; and the tone toggles between neutral to playful as needed. These would be the attributes that define a brand with a sense of humor in the Internet age.
So how do we take Google’s lead and execute humor well? Here are a handful of action points to serve as a guide:
Make a bold plan during the strategic planning phase and stick to it. Progress is not possible without failure. Be realistic about the likelihood of any project succeeding and take calculated risks as opposed to limiting creative.
Understand the social context. Undertake social media monitoring and trust social media mavens. Understand the kinds of topics that gain traction.
Test the user experience early and often.
After launch, be mindful of the fact that statistics are only half the picture. Question the statistics you are given and their relevance to you.
So, times are changing, but humor is an enormously important and beneficial part of brand marketing that’s here to say. Humor, like the Internet, connects us all.