written by Brian Rosenwinkel
Think of Super Bowl commercials, viral brand tweets, and memorable online interactions—being funny is often touted as the key to marketing success! Humor is a great way to be memorable, likable, and infinitely more sharable online. But there's also a caveat: the way that large corporations, culturally relevant fast-food chains, and industry giants exist online is very different from how small businesses, start-ups, and local organizations can conduct themselves on social media platforms.
Maybe your company has little to no interaction with the general public. Maybe you don't have a team of people to keep up with the latest internet humor trends. Or, maybe you don't have millions of followers who enjoy watching your snarky interactions with competitors. Trying to mimic the online voices of Wendy's, Charmin, or Chipotle is not the key to your online success. But humor is just as crucial for your brand as it is for theirs; you have to approach it differently.
1. Consider Your Audience
Brand humor is not the same thing as comedy. Comedy is funny on its own, but humor is funny because of the context! A funny tweet from a company that sells bleach will be more surprising (and funny) than the same tweet would be if it came from a professional comedian. Your audience establishes the "context" of your content, determining how funny it is.
Do you interact with the public, or are the people viewing your content working within a specific industry?
The more industry-specific your digital reach is, the less "traditionally funny" you have to be. If you sell administrative software to dentist's offices, ask yourselves what jokes would make dentists, dental hygienists, and office managers laugh. Ex: "Insurance claims piling up? You should know that build-up is bad in the mouth and in the office."
If you're a brand that interacts with the public, ask yourself how your followers know you. Are they local? Have they purchased your products online? The more specific your audience is, the easier it is to know if you should joke about pop culture or make a crack about the weekend weather forecast.
2. Consider Your Platform
If you're here, you already know that a quick google search of "funny brand content" takes you lists of tweets. That makes sense because Twitter is a language-first platform with algorithms that often favor comedy and promote content sharing in the form of retweets. Instagram is an image-sharing platform with no "re-share" option. Facebook is a combination of the two, and both Facebook and Instagram favor personal content. LinkedIn is also mixed media, but it's home to more professional content.
Another important distinction is between free content and promoted content, which brands pay to have displayed. On sites like Instagram, Facebook, and even LinkedIn, these kinds of ads are more common and expected. On Twitter, not so much, so you'll want to keep the humor to your free content, or it might feel like you're trying too hard (which is the easiest way to kill a joke on Twitter). On other sites, funny promoted content is okay, but keep it brief and use visuals to get the joke across. Think edited photos, side-by-sides, or even memes (more on that in a minute).
Twitter is language-heavy, and it's a hub for comedic thoughts and ideas. Therefore, it's the most appropriate place to make jokes. That same volume of "funny" content won't necessarily work for you on more straight-forward sites like Facebook or (especially) LinkedIn.
Finally, embrace the individual identity of each platform. Think about the tropes you see and the kinds of posts that are common from other brands. Is it a product launch update, a (dramatic) status update, or an overly staged photo? Put your spin on it! Post pictures of dogs drinking protein powder (#gains), or write a blurb about how your brand took a leap of faith and will now be bravely participating in a Black Friday sales event.
3. Consider Your Voice and Stay on Brand
First and foremost, you are a brand! Some brands have found ways to be funny by choosing a unique online voice. That's great, but you need to be careful. Sticking to your voice and your perspective makes your content funnier and makes you trustworthy and consistent! Choosing an unsustainable voice (like tweeting things that are rude and abrasive for shock value, or posting things that make little to no sense) will probably not work for your brand.
Consider whether or not people will understand your point of view from interacting with a single post. With paid ads especially, this might be the first time your audience is getting to know you. If you're a coffee shop that overemphasizes your earthy business practices, make it clear that you're aware of your exaggerated voice. Whether or not it's a joke, people still need to walk away with a better understanding of your company!
Tip: An age-old (and not worn out) practice is choosing someone or something else to "run" your pages. An extremely successful example is Barbie's Instagram page—run by Barbie herself. If you have a brand mascot or logo, consider how they would run your brand page. What kind of things would they write? Are you a candy company whose Instagram can be run by a hungry seven-year-old? If you sell home leak protection services, what would water say about your product? Find ways to spin it!
4. How to Engage with Digital Trends
The more public-facing your content is, and the younger your audience (think Twitter and Instagram), the more tempted you will be to engage with internet trends. Memes, popular joke formats, and trending hashtags have proven to be a high-risk, high-reward game for brands. If done successfully, you will create hilarious, relevant content that will be easily discoverable. If done unsuccessfully, your reference will be dated, cringy, or confusing by the time it's posted.
The trick? Be aware! Know that trends usually hit Twitter first, Instagram second, and then filter to other sites. What's funny on Twitter today will not be funny on Twitter tomorrow, but could be funny on Facebook in a week. Think critically before you post a meme on all platforms at once. Know your limits. Are you as internet savvy as your audience? Are you confident that you can identify trending jokes before they get old?
If not, that's okay! Some of the best humor is that which has already stood the test of time. Think about classic pop culture moments, movie lines, or world events. They don't have to be relevant; they have to be understood by your core audience! Like fashion, music, and design, what was popular yesterday is out of date today. What was popular ten, twenty years ago is just coming back in style. If you don't feel comfortable making a joke about this year's Oscar winners, make a joke about Titanic (1997)!
5. When in Doubt, Cut It (or Get Professional Help)
The number one way to stay funny: exercise restraint. It's 2021, and people approach digital content with skepticism. More than that, they know that enjoying a brand's content doesn't always equate to buying their product. Your job is to sell. If your funny post or ad makes people intrigued, interested, and invested in your product, that's great! But if people only follow you to see the crazy things you post, you're going to have a hard time paying your bills.
Then there's the timeless question of what is (and is not) appropriate to post online. For some, this comes naturally. For others, it does not. For many, the promise of a good joke makes judgment leave the building. Again, you are a brand, not a standup comedian. If people will be offended by your joke, don't post it. If your joke isn't appropriate to tell in the workplace, don't post it. This should be obvious, but I'll say it anyway: if your joke is sexist, racist, homophobic, or otherwise bigoted, don't post it! Think about your audience. A disinterested customer can be pulled back in. An offended customer cannot be.
And then, when in doubt, hire someone to help. Copywriters make a living creating and editing content for web-blasts, advertisements, and social media posts. They know how to engage with online humor, and they have a finger on the pulse of different sites. They will help you find your voice and leverage your audience without any big comedy flops.
Online humor can do wonders for your web presence and your sales! Remember, it's all about connecting to your audience in a specific and authentic way. Humor is another way of selling who you are as a brand, revealing your identity, and showing how it informs the product you've created. And like all tools, humor is best used when it's used properly! So, on that note, go forth, be funny, and make a sale!
Brian Rosenwinkel is a Chicago-based copywriter and ghostwriter who believes that successful copy shows the world who you are as a brand. His background in playwriting gives him a keen understanding of human emotion and storytelling, allowing him to make even the shortest copy compelling and creative. Brian enjoys balancing hard-sell advertising with more nuanced direct-to-consumer public relations content. He specializes in writing for the web, including blog posts, social media, and video scripts. He graduated Summa Cum Laude from NYU’s Tisch School of The Arts with a degree in Dramatic Writing.