Four reasons to avoid comedy in B2B marketing (and how to use it anyway)

“I know we asked you to take out all pop culture references, rewrite sentences that start with ‘and’, use more ‘corporate’ language and use our SEO keywords in each paragraph but… it’s a bit dry.

“Can we add some humour?”

Ladies and gentleman, this is my in-depth, grab-a-coffee-because-we-might-be-here-a-while answer to that question.

Do comedy and marketing mix?

I was recently invited onto Radix’s brilliant podcast to chat about comedy and marketing, so I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

Comedy and marketing have an interesting relationship.

On the one hand there’s a lot of overlap (there’s a reason Tina Fey was the guest speaker at Content Marketing World).

But they’re also very different. Some would say antithetical. Especially if you’re a Bill Hicks fan (warning: not safe for work. Or advertisers).

So can marketing be funny? Should marketing be funny?

Yes. To both.

Next question.

Why some people are wary about funny marketing

There are four big reasons not to include comedy. They are:

1. Comedy is hard

I mean, it’s not exactly brain surgery, but it takes professionals decades to get it right. And even they mess it up.

I love that sketch – it’s a simple idea done well. An actual brain surgeon brags to everyone, until he meets an actual rocket scientist. Beautiful.

But originally it had another bit at the end where a different guy comes over and says “Rocket science? It’s not exactly jazz trumpetry”.

Died on its arse.

See, even the professionals get it wrong. So what chance do marketers have?

2. You’re not B2C

The deodorant and soda sellers of the world have it easy. Ish.

But we’re B2B. That means bureaucracy. Stakeholders. A plethora of people we need to charm before they give us their money.

You’re less likely to get an impulse purchase, no matter how much you make them chuckle.

3. It gives people a reason to ignore you

Comedy is generally regarded as less serious than non-comedy. That’s why funny films rarely win big at the Oscars.

Handle humour wrong and it gives people a reason to think you aren’t serious.

Being serious and funny at the same time – that’s hard.

4. It gives people a reason to hate you

You won’t be for everyone. And, usually, that’s not a bad thing. It helps you to find your people.

But sometimes you can get it wrong.

Like the time we wrote a piece with a sweary headline that some people were less than enamoured with when it landed in their inbox.

And they were even less enamoured when they tried to unsubscribe and the ‘are you sure?’ message called them a “heartless bastard”.

Like I said, even the professionals get it wrong.

So why bother being funny?

There are lots of reasons not to add comedy to your marketing. But these arguments all miss one fundamental truth.

The reason the ‘Velocity voice’ (such as it is) uses comedy is because people use comedy.

If you don’t, you sound less human (and more corporate).

Conversational writing matters. And it works.

That makes discussing whether to include humour in a piece a bit… weird. You wouldn’t say “should we include seriousness in this piece?” or “are we sure about using verbs?”.

Including humour in your writing isn’t a choice. Excluding it is the choice.

And sometimes excluding it is the right choice.

But somewhere, at some point, businesses made the choice to default to not being funny. To only speak seriously, because they thought it made them sound like ‘grown ups’.

The reality?

It made them sound stuffy. Corporate. Boring.

Getting comedy right

So you should use humour. But how should you use it?

That’s a… big topic. Phew.

But OK. Here are some general things to consider.

B2B Marketing and comedy are structurally different

When it comes to good comedy and good marketing, some of the rules are the same:

  • Cut unnecessary words
  • Use simple language
  • The rule of three

But a lot of stuff is different too. For instance, in marketing the most important bit comes first – in comedy it comes last.

Let’s say you want to use an interesting fact:

Marketing – important info, supporting statement:

Chainsaws are safe. You’re twice as likely to be injured by your trousers than by a chainsaw.

Comedy – supporting statement (set up), important information (punchline)

“In the UK, trousers cause twice as many accidents as chainsaws. Which is true, I’ve had a lot of accidents in my trousers” – Jimmy Carr

But it’s worth remembering why we’re making the thing. We’re marketing. That means when the two are different, the marketing always wins.

Sure, it might kill your joke. But the comedy is there to help the marketing.

If the humour is getting in the way, it goes.

“Make your thinking as funny as possible”

David Ogilvy knew a thing or two about marketing. He once said:

“The best ideas come as jokes. Make your thinking as funny as possible.”

Behind the scenes, being funny (and having fun) is super important.

One of the reasons people laugh is because their brain has made a new connection. That’s why we often chuckle when we finally solve a riddle or puzzle.

If you don’t bring that playfulness behind the scenes at work, you’re missing out. In fact, if you’re not laughing when thinking stuff up, you’re probably rehashing stuff you’ve seen before.

No new connection, no chuckle.

So whether or not what you think up ends up being funny, the act of thinking it up should be.

(And added bonus – it makes work more fun too).

Make the comedy about something

Comedy in a piece needs to matter. It needs to say something.

A pun in the title isn’t enough. An un-related joke at the end of the video won’t make it ‘funny’.

The humour needs to be baked into the very essence of what you’re saying.

Without that, it’s like baking a loaf of bread, putting some frosting on the top and wondering why no one likes your ‘cupcake’.

Instead, the fundamental aspect of the piece needs to be funny.

What does that look like? Maybe:

  • Play on a marketing trope – people are used to most marketing sounding the same. When you dare to be different, it can be funny – “Subject line: Yes, another damn newsletter. I’m sorry.”
  • Point out an industry absurdity – sometimes industries do stupid things, or have archaic systems in place. Hold a mirror up to it and it can be funny – “how can you trust a tool that still uses the floppy disk as the save icon?”
  • Point out an unexpected consequence – Take something to its logical (but absurd) conclusion. A good example is the Peter Principle. We know that people get promoted when they’re good at their job. If they’re still good, they get promoted again. When do they stop getting promoted? When they’re no longer good at their job. So people get promoted to their level of incompetence.
  • Connect two seemingly-unconnected ideas – Link two things that shouldn’t be linked – “What project managers can learn from sumo wrestling (and what they shouldn’t)”.

When the very heart of your piece is about something funny, something interesting, then you can make a piece that really works.

Crossing the comedy chasm

Once upon a time I did a comedy course (for charity, I should point out) with a guy called Logan Murray.

One of Logan’s key ideas was that all jokes are connecting two unconnected ideas (sound familiar?). That’s what gives the joke its surprise.

  • Man walks into a bar. Ouch. – Oh, didn’t expect it to mean a metal bar.
  • “My dog’s got no nose.” “How does it smell?” “Terrible.” – The inclusion of “nose” made me expect “smell” to be related, but it wasn’t. Interesting.
  • Why’d the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side. – Ah, based on the construction I expected that to be a joke and not an obvious statement. Conventions don’t matter. Language is meaningless. Send help.

The secret to a good joke is that the wider you can make that gap, the funnier the joke will be. The only problem is that fewer people will make the leap.

This brings us to a fundamental problem ­– do you want to put people off working with you because you want to be funny?

What if someone is new to the industry so they don’t get your cunning pastiche? Or what if you throw in a cultural reference that goes over people’s heads?

Fewer people will get it.

But, and it’s a big but, it’s worth it if those that do get it are more likely to convert.

It all comes back to that rule – the marketing comes before the comedy.

Realise that committees kill comedy

Marketing is almost inherently built by committee. There’ll be writers, designers, developers, managers, stakeholders and just generally a bucketload of people having their say.

The problem? Committees kill comedy.

Lots of opinions all dilute a once-great idea down.

Plus making something takes time too. A joke that’s funny at v1 might feel old by v5, and therefore feel like it should be cut.

Balancing everything is a struggle. But it’s one worth having.

Do you still want the comedy in there?

Comedy is tough, risky and, even done right, risks alienating some customers.

But it’s human.

It makes you sound less like a large multinational organisation and more like a person offering a useful tool.

That’s huge.

Then again, whatever the benefits of comedy, we can’t forget the reason we’re making a piece. We aren’t artists. We’re marketers.

The marketing is always the priority.

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