The Do’s and Don’ts of Using Humor in Content Marketing

The Do’s and Don’ts of Using Humor in Content Marketing

“Make it funny.”

Marketers often get the idea (or the ask) to create humorous content. Any why not? Content is more fun to consume when it is informative and entertaining. It’s also more likely to be remembered and shared. After all, it’s not as if white papers and data sheets lend themselves to virality.

Humor it is, then! Now all you have to do is be hilarious.

While hilariousness (hilarity?) isn’t always a guarantee, there is some foolproof advice that will keep your humorous content from making you look like, well, a fool. And, like everything else on the blog, it all comes down to context.

Who is the Audience?
Not who you hope would read the content. Who will would actually want to consume the content?

Marketers get this wrong. A lot. We often state a target audience for the content, but make no real considerations to craft a story or jokes for that audience.

This is where humor is dangerous. Most marketers end up creating a story that they find funny. It’s great if you find your own content funny, but are you the only one? Do colleagues find it funny? Do customers find it funny? You’ll want candid feedback before you publish and promote “funny” content. There is a very, very fine line between getting a chuckle and a cringe.

Context of Humor: Butt of the Joke
When you deconstruct humor, you’ll notice there is always a loser. While the goal is often to laugh with your audience, it usually is at the expense of someone or something else.

In the context of business and marketing, it is better to focus your humor on products instead of people. For example, making a solid dig at Apple Maps would get an audience to laugh. Taking a shot at Steve Jobs would make you look like a jerk, even if it was very clever.

Whether you’re poking fun at people or products, there are usually 3 candidates that are the butt of the joke:

  1. You. Self-deprecating humor is really effective but hard to pull off, especially for marketers. We usually want to build our ourselves up, not entertain others at our own expense.

  2. A Third Party. Pick someone or something you and your audience both know, like a competitor. If you can get your audience to laugh at a competitor or their product, you’re in a good place.

  3. Customer. Don’t make fun of your customers. Just don’t. Please.

Making fun of your audience (customers) sounds like a bad idea, right? But marketers do it more than they even realize. Often times we get infatuated with a clever idea that we lose sight of context—the context of humor and the context of how our audience would receive the message.

Examples of this aren’t hard to come by. One of the companies I compete against is F5 Networks, so I try to keep an eye on their blogs from time to time. I also poke fun at their products in my content (see here and here). Anyway, a few weeks back they published a humorous blog post that misses the mark.

First, a brief bit of context. There is a senior executive role in most enterprise IT organizations called a Chief Information Security Officer (CISO). This role is a key influencer/decision maker for a company like F5. This role is so critical to my competitor that they even created a custom publication dedicated to this audience called CISO to CISO. That makes sense. What I don’t understand is why they thought it was a good idea to create “funny” content at the expense of the CISO audience.

F5 Networks published an article entitled “The CISO: A Field Guide”. The writing style is fun, readable, and many of the jokes are clever, but the piece describes the 6 different types of CISOs you can meet—5 of the CISO types are portrayed negatively, and only the 6th CISO type is portrayed positively (mostly because it doesn’t have the faults of the previous 5).

This post is the equivalent of me trying to sell baby-wearing products (yes, that’s me) to mothers by saying moms belong to one of 6 categories: stupid, lazy, irresponsible, insensitive, naive, and good. Probably not the best way for me to win favor with mothers.

Even if you feel the positive category represents you, as the reader, you are forced to hold up a mirror to compare yourself to each negative description. Posts like this shed an unfavorable light on the very audience you are trying to entertain. It’s incredibly difficult to make an audience laugh if the premise of your joke is that the majority of the audience is annoying or stupid. This is why it is better to target products, not people.

Now, I have no idea how effective or detrimental F5 Network’s post was. Considering I’m not a CISO, maybe I’m missing something. Perhaps CISOs love a good roast. But as an experienced content marketer who has had a fair number of successes (and failures) at being funny, this post made me cringe.

Humor Used Effectively
While I can’t speak to the results of F5’s efforts, I can speak to the results of a humor post I made my second week at Avi Networks called “F5 vs. Avi Networks: 9 Reasons Why Hardware Is Better Than Software”. I played around with lots of ideas and decided to have a post that was part self-deprecating and part poking fun at F5 Network’s products (mostly the latter). I also knew that my audience wasn’t religious about F5—it’s not like Mac vs. PC or iPhone vs. Android—people don’t take personal offense if I poke fun at a physical load balancer.

With minimal promotional effort, the post took off. It garnered 10x the monthly traffic of a typical blog post in under 24 hours. Our readers related to the content, engaged with the content, and shared the content. A win-win for us and the reader.

Here’s the moral of the story: Consider your audience before using humor in your content marketing. I can’t guarantee a laugh, but it’ll keep the audience on your side.

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