When I began my career as a content writer, I will openly admit I had no idea how to write a proper blog post. I was hired on the premise of my former career as an English teacher with a strong backlog of freelance writing experience, not for my background in marketing or communications.
My first blog post should have been published as the perfect example of what not to do: 12 sentence paragraphs, no headings or subheadings, no linked sources, etc. When my boss reviewed my laughably misdirected article with me, I’ll never forget that his first comment was not about my obvious rookie mistakes.
Rather, he said, “Wow, did you really start with an article with a joke? Bold.”
Luck would have it that my joke survived several rounds of edits to feature in the final draft, but I was stunned to learn firsthand how cautiously one small joke was perceived in the world of content writing.
Why is humor in content writing controversial?
1. It’s Risky
Humor is infamously subjective and varies greatly from person to person. As such, poorly executed humor can turn customers off of your brand entirely, regardless of your quality of products or services.
As a byproduct of the information era, the public is more informed, sensitive, and responsive to any kind of content they consume. Even the most well-intended jokes can run the risk of potentially disenfranchising or even offending members of your audience, which can quickly snowball into a public relations nightmare.
2. It’s difficult
Not only does content need to be engaging, informative, comprehensive, applicable, and well-researched, but throw in funny too? Effective humor is especially difficult to achieve through text alone.
Think of how many times you have sent a text with what you thought was a hilarious joke but didn’t get the expected response because your friends didn’t find it as funny.
This speaks to how most forms of humor only succeed based off physical, in-person cues: social dynamics, vocal delivery, or situational context. Many leading sub-categories of humor, like sarcasm or hyperbole, famously do not translate well in text form.
Additionally, humor tends to be nuanced and intended for specific audiences to be received well, which undermines how content writing should cater to a broader scope. With their target audience in mind, content writers have to design jokes that reach a somewhat universal standard of comedy, but niche specific enough to complement the topic of the article.
3. It’s counter-intuitive
The very crux of content writing in the first place is to create well-crafted informative pieces that your audience can interact with, and most importantly, gain from. Humor, by definition, can be the exact opposite of the serious credibility content writers seek to bring to their brands.
In order for any company or brand to be successful, they need to establish themselves as reputable authorities of their fields with products or services that live up to the same notoriety.
Improperly using humor can inherently derail a company’s professionalism, and consequently, how consumers will perceive the expertise behind the content produced. Incorporating humor requires a delicate balance to ensure that content quality is not undermined for the sake of a punchline.
The combination of these extremely warranted concerns often leads writers to avoid humor altogether. However, its downsides are matched, and can even be surpassed, by its potential advantages.
Incorporating elements of humor in content writing, when appropriate, can bring a wealth of benefits, which can ultimately reflect just as well on a brand.
First things first: 3 golden rules to content comedy
1) Keep it simple
Classic comedy rule, if you need to explain your joke, it wasn’t a good one in the first place. This rings especially true with the two-dimensional limitations of the written form. Humor used should be straightforward and require little background knowledge to understand. This isn’t necessarily a barrier; often times the funniest jokes are born in simplicity.
Simple also speaks to how it should be implemented. Humor should be used sparingly to enhance your content, not take center stage. Overuse of humor tends to have the opposite effect: the jokes get tired, losing the impact they are intended to have.
2) Play it safe
While, of course, some brands and industries may have higher thresholds for lewd humor, exercising heightened sensitivity is a must. Especially if the joke speaks to infamously touchy topics like stereotypes, socio-politics, or controversial current events.
Risking a potential PR scandal for a punchline is obviously not worth the risk.
3) Stay on brand
Though somewhat common sense, utilizing humor that stays true to your company’s brand is as important as crafting any content. Sticking to your company’s ideologies, niche, and the audience is essential for any degree of effective branding. Deviating from this can easily come off as trying too hard or rub your target demographic the wrong way.
What can humor help you achieve?
It can help humanize your brand
Businesses of all sizes have needed to adapt their corporate strategies to meet the constantly rising expectations of customer service and engagement today. Consumer preference now opts for brands that they feel an intuitive personal connection with as opposed to just the products or services provided alone. Humor can be a great way to forget that degree of connection with your audience that comes as a byproduct of “humanizing” your company.
Take for example the market research platform, CB Insights, which specializes in providing key tech industry trends and developments. Since their newsletter is only distributed to an audience engaged enough with their services and brand to individually subscribe, they use this opportunity to infuse it with more of their company character and culture. Subtle jokes feature from subject line to closing remarks.
The personable and humorous opening sets the tone for the rhetoric used throughout the newsletter, providing for an effective balance of informative content that easily digestible to the reader.
By doing so, they establish a sense of rapport with their most engaged clients, therefore breaking down the barrier between a corporate entity and the individual consumer.
It can improve the relationship with your audience
Since humor tends to be used sparingly throughout content writing, if it is used well, it will not go unnoticed. Humor has the undeniable upside of making your brand engage with your audience on an emotional level that services or products cannot accomplish alone. This enhanced opportunity for branding through client recognition can distinguish your brand even in competitive industries.
Postmates has climbed to the top of the American food delivery applications for numerous reasons, including the common use of humor in their marketing campaigns. As a food delivery app, Postmates capitalizes off playing directly to its most common demographic of Millenial or Gen Z users on its social media accounts.
The success of Postmates comedic branding is evident in the company’s overwhelming popularity and consistent growth. Like Uber and Google, Postmates has achieved the prestigious level of PR success that few companies do: “verbifying” their brand. Like how “ubering home” and “google it” have become everyday expressions, “postmating a meal” has earned comparable recognition.
Bonus: Postmates humor in outreach marketing
Although outreach marketing exceeds the typical confines of content marketing, Postmates has had great success using similar humor-based content for its outreach campaigns to especially resonate with their audience.
Outbound marketing naturally fights an uphill battle to be received well since it targets unexpecting or uninterested consumers. However, humor has the uncanny power to disarm your target. Once their defenses are lowered, there is a more probable chance they will be receptive to your offer as opposed to annoyed by it.
Postmates melds audience personalization with trending meme-inspired jokes to create extremely effective, and memorable, outreach campaigns tailored to their audience.
For example, when I received this notification from Postmates on a particularly grim Sunday morning, I couldn’t help but laugh at how well I had been profiled.
Postmates also created outbound campaigns that hyper-focus on specific geographic areas. For example, catering to Los Angeles culture where asking what someone’s astrological sign and crystal preference is as common as asking their name, Postmates brilliantly crafted this offer:
The broad phrasing allows the audience to decide if Postmates is validating the imminent threat of “cosmic energy” or gently teasing one of the most popular Los Angeles stereotypes.
Since these campaigns only reached users who physically had the application downloaded on their mobiles in the Los Angeles area, they cautiously elevated their humor to riskier territory by playing off stereotypes and personal beliefs. However, the message is still intentionally light-hearted to ensure that it is not interpreted offensively.
Collectively, Postmates mastery of appealing content demonstrates how far a little humor can go in engendering your audience and solidifying positive perceptions of your brand.
It promotes self-generated free marketing
In the age of consumer hyperconnectivity and social media, producing content worthy of shares, likes, comments, and upvotes is always the goal. Since humorous content tends to be the most commonly shared content, it can dramatically increase the odds of more viewership, or even going viral.
In addition to being funny, content that is simple and can be consumed quickly is the most likely to be shared, therefore extending your company’s reach and audience pool. Even though the most active social media sharers tend to be millennials or younger generations, people of all ages are susceptible to a well-executed GIF.
As meme culture continues to cement its place as a common mode of communication and centerpiece of social media, use it to your advantage. Social platforms, especially Twitter, provides the easiest forum where companies can leverage relatable meme and gif content for maximum exposure and engagement.
For example, the American chain, Wendy’s, has reinvented its image from a second-tier fast-food chain to a “must-follow” Twitter account. Wendy’s Twitter bio sets the tone for the content throughout their page:
In addition to filling its feed with popular memes and playful humor, Wendy’s became infamous in the social media world for playfully taunting other notorious fast-food restaurants:
In fact, the “Fast Feud’ Wendy’s initiated with a rival, Burger King, over their competing value meals trended across social channels and Pop News pages for weeks. This extremely public social media exchange not only brought thousands of new followers to Wendy’s twitter account but also accomplished the goal of publicizing their new meal deal.
Purposely playing into social media controversy accomplishes more than earning shares and public attention: it establishes Wendy’s likable reputation and inevitably makes the restaurant stand out among the numerous fast food options in the US.
You can use humor to implement comedic relief in your content
Especially if your content is centered around more serious, complicated, or even monotonous subjects, subtle comedic breaks are a great way to enforce your points. Ultimately, content is only as impactful as how much your audience understands it, and oftentimes, connects with it.
The same basic idea can easily be tailored to content marketing to have a comparable impact. Humor can add a much-needed element to content marketing regarding topics that are difficult to digest.
For example, Appsumo, a business solutions website has sprinkled their content with running jokes featured throughout their website highlighting one of the most unanimously loved nouns in existence: tacos.
Not only are tacos mentioned on almost all sections of their websites, but they have turned their customer review system from star ratings to taco ratings
To follow suit, their content pieces centered around describing their tools and services also lighten their business-focused content by adhering to similar taco-inspired jokes:
The same strategy can also bring a degree of reprieve to the reader in content about serious or sensitive topics.
For example, SPIDR TECH, a law enforcement tech company that helps police departments provide better customer service, has taken this approach to lighten the serious topics their content tends to focus on. One blog post provides a step-by-step guide detailing how police should correspond with individuals who have filed police reports.
Dispersed throughout the serious and informative content are subtle light-hearted images to illustrate the author’s key points:
An image of a receipt from 1898 is intentionally used to exaggerate how outdated many police forces’ protocols are for corresponding with victims.
This is followed by several detailed examples of what police-victim correspondence should include. However, the names of the department and officers are adopted from a famed comedy television show, Parks and Recreation, to allude to well-known subplots of the show.
These subtle, yet easily recognizable, light-hearted references make the overall blog more appealing and comprehensible to the reader.
Despite its inherent shortcomings, content writers should not shy away from unleashing their funny sides. Its subtle use can bring so much more in terms of customer engagement, public reception, and viewer consumption of your material.
Humor, if used effectively, can be your content marketing X factor.
Laura is a Marketing Specialist for Perfect Gym Software. She is a native-born Los Angeleno recently relocated to Warsaw, Poland and spends most of her time at the gym, on an airplane, or online shopping.