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4 Ways to Use Humor as a Marketing Tool

Follow these tips and you'll be laughing all the way to the bank.
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This fall, Massachusetts congressional candidate Carl Sciortino posted a heartfelt, funny video to YouTube titled "Father's Son." Blurring the line between traditional political advertising and content marketing, it told a sweet, funny story in a little over a minute. Aaron Blake at The Washington Post called it "one of the more interesting campaign ads we've seen in a while." MSNBC's Chris Hayes tweeted to his 250,000-plus followers: "This ad's basically a masterpiece."

Why all the attention? Sciortino is openly gay, and his video plays with the idea of "coming out" to one's father. But in this case, he's coming out not as a gay man, but as a "Massachusetts liberal" to his conservative Tea Party parent. Gay? No biggie. But liberal? Uh-oh. "He's been like this for 35 years," Pops grouses in a kind of kids say the darndest things despair.

From a marketing angle, the clip transcends the political agenda, using humor to attract attention and to connect with viewers of all stripes--just as all ads are an attempt at reaching people, be they voters or customers.

Humor is effective in marketing because it humanizes and surprises. You can play it straight and write a blog post that clearly and emphatically states how your computer router can handle up to 6.4 terabits of data. Or you can get the point across and create something relatable, charming and (of course!) shareable. Cisco did this by positioning its decidedly impersonal router as the perfect "forever" gift for Valentine's Day: "Nothing says I love you like the Cisco ASR 9000." The former is boring. The latter infuses the message and brand with a human element that's anything but expected.

For small, scrappy brands, "humor can help you stand out in a crowded world," says the brains behind the router ad, Tim Washer, Cisco's senior marketing manager of social media and a comedy writer whose credits include Late Show With David Letterman and Saturday Night Live.

How can you incorporate humor into your own marketing?

1. Start with creative people. All great content starts with great writing. (That's true whether your content is humorous or not.) You might be funny and creative, but you also may be too close to the situation. There's value in getting the perspective of an outsider who can see humor in a scenario that you might miss.

There's probably an improvisational comedy theater near you: Reach out to find an actor or writer to conceive a fun video for a modest fee.

2. Get out of the way. "Nothing kills funny faster than a committee," Washer says.

3. Think story (and maybe some pain). Much of what's funny emanates from pain. If you think about it, that's probably true of your business, too: You started producing a product or launched a service because you perceived a void or frustration in the market. Humor allows you to explore that pain and harness it, by using hyperbole to amplify the frustration to an absurd level.

Most marketing focuses on the product or service being sold. But customers are more interested in how what you sell can help them. How does it shoulder their burdens or ease a pain?

At MarketingProfs, we created "the world's first slide-show infomercial" to launch registration for our annual B2B marketing event. The slide show, which we posted on SlideShare, Facebook, Pinterest and other sites around the web, poked fun at infomercials and the "pain" of attending conferences where speakers are boring, inaccessible or, worst of all, have paid for a spot on the podium. We could've written blog post after blog post about our programming and attention to detail and yada yada yada, but that wouldn't have generated nearly as much attention as our weird little slide show did.

4. Commit more brains than budget. Small businesses might be challenged with limited budgets and resources, but they nonetheless have an advantage when it comes to creating humorous marketing. Big companies generally have more bureaucracy and longer approval processes, making it difficult for them to be nimble or edgy in their marketing.

Consider "The Camp Gyno," a hilarious two-minute video created by Hello Flo, a tampon subscription service. A viral hit at 6.2 million views (and counting), the clip tells the story of an unpopular girl who becomes an insufferable know-it-all when she's the first at summer camp to get her period. Eventually, though, the preteen bully loses her power, thanks to Hello Flo: "The whole camp started getting friggin' care packages in the mail, with tampons and panty liners and candy! All perfectly timed to their cycle! It's like Santa for your vagina!" The video brought tremendous visibility to the tiny startup.

Would a big corporation have made an edgy video like Hello Flo's? Probably not. But startups need to take risks, and that's where the comedy comes in. With humorous marketing, Washer says, "it's far easier for Davids to take on Goliaths."