How to use humour in your B2B content (and how not to)

Funny B2B content can be highly effective, but there are pitfalls to avoid. David McGuire shares three principles to help you get it right.

Ever since the pandemic broke the professional façade and revealed that our colleagues wear bunny slippers at home, B2B content has been rediscovering its emotional, human side.

It’s a good thing, too. In his book Humanizing B2B, Paul Cash points out that the digitalisation of the B2B buying journey has left a growing void when it comes to building rapport with the customer. Once, people made buying decisions based on how much they liked the salesperson. How do you replicate that likeability in a website, blog post, or nurture campaign?

One of the things you can do is to make them laugh – or at least smile in recognition. Psychologists say humour makes people likeable, so why not B2B brands?

There are plenty of other benefits. If you can create content that’s genuinely funny, you gain instant differentiation (dynamite in a content-saturated market) and you’re likely to provoke engagement. People will share it, too – when I was writing about forklift trucks, I lost count of the times friends sent me a link to the surreal splatter-gore training video (yes, really) Forklift Driver Klaus.

Some videos go on to become industry standards – if you’ve never seen Adobe Marketing Cloud’s Mean Streets or Click, Baby, Click spots, you’re probably the only person in B2B who hasn’t.

So why don’t we see more humorous content in B2B? In short, it’s risky. Jokes can easily fall flat – worse, they can offend. It’s not appropriate for every brand. And have you ever tried explaining why something is funny (especially to stakeholders or managers in a meeting)?

Thankfully, there are some basic principles that can steer you in the right direction. If you’re considering creating some humorous content (or, frankly, if you just want a big list of links to funny B2B videos), read on…

Remember, you’re on your customer’s side

Fundamentally, work is weird. And if you have a clearly defined B2B audience, the quirks and frustrations of their job are a rich seam you can mine for observational humour.

It’s no coincidence that a lot of the funniest B2B content plays with the strange realities of the audience’s job. Take a look at the Users Happen series from Lenovo, or Zendesk’s Sh*t Support Agents Say.

Sophos also uses this mode of humour really well in its SysAdmin Day videos – whether it’s poking fun at the (literal) muppets IT teams have to deal with in Just another day in IT… or the famous IT Hero video, which proved so popular it spawned a real-life action figure.

There are good reasons to take this approach. First, there’s no shortage of opportunities to tickle an audience with 'It’s funny because it’s true' moments. And, as Apple pointed out in The whole working-from-home thing, things have become no less surreal since Covid.

More importantly, you get to show your audience how well you understand their job, and how they feel about it. If you judge it right, you’re laughing together at the strange realities they face daily – that goes beyond knowing their sector; you’re actively taking their side.

However, you need to make sure you’re always laughing with them, and never at them. Your customer needs to remain the hero (sometimes literally). They’re a beacon of sense in an absurd world. And the observations and responses you make need to be right on the money. They have to ring true. So you need to know your audience really, really well.

There’s a time and a place. So think about context.

It’s not enough to know the job your audience does, and how they feel about it, in a vague, overall sense. You also need to know the exact context your content is speaking into at that moment.

If you want to be seen internationally, will the humour translate (we once had a senior European marketer ask us to make a script 'Really funny, not British funny')?

Also, think about what the content is for, and why your audience is reading or watching it. There’s a reason why most of these examples are video scripts: as well as having the opportunity to control the timing and delivery of the joke, videos tend to get watched super early in the marketing funnel. They’re there to build awareness and understanding.

Contrast that with a white paper that your reader might be using to help them do their job. They’re likely time-poor, and at that moment they’re focused on a task. If you’re too whimsical, they’ll feel you’re wasting their time. Worse, they might be building a business case, and planning to share your content with their boss. Will your jokes make them look good?

(Mailchimp’s Voice and Tone guide does a really good job of explaining why it’s important to match your tone to your reader’s emotional state. Before you joke around, ask if they’re in the mood.)

Be aware of their career experience, too. As a marketer, you’re often just dabbling in a sector where your reader might have spent decades. It’s likely they’ve heard all the easy jokes before – and that goes double for puns. No refrigeration professional is going to be impressed with your play on the word 'cool' or 'chill', just as nobody in the automotive sector is going to chuckle at 'drive', 'wheel', 'fuel', or 'steer'.

Don’t force it – do what’s natural for your brand

There are some brands – indeed some sectors – where your customers don’t want you to be a laugh a minute. You could easily undermine their confidence if you’re too comical.

It might feel natural for your brand voice to include an element of humour, particularly if it’s a younger, challenger brand. But the kind of wit you use – zany, dry, sarcastic, corny – needs to feel authentic and natural in that voice. Otherwise, you can look like you’re trying too hard.

Ideally, you want your humour to attract likeminded customers; people who’ll enjoy the experience of doing business with you – take the quiet, off-kilter silliness of I built a cookie machine to motivate people at Monday.com. It didn’t work. If you find the video alienating, you’re probably not in their target market anyway.

Likewise, a brand like Zendesk can afford to gain attention with cheeky high-concept conceits, and even a sweary music mockumentary. The underlying message is clear: we’re not for everyone – but if you love us, you’ll really love us.

But comedy is just one way to achieve this outcome; you don’t always need to make jokes. Sometimes, especially if you’re in a fairly staid market, you can stand out and raise a smile just by being a little irreverent and informal. Take this Workplace as a Service video from Sprint Business: it doesn’t actually come with any jokes – it just says surprisingly down-to-earth things in surprisingly down-to-earth ways. And it’s immensely likeable as a result.

Unleash the funny (but think about your customer first)

If you have a good idea, if you know your customer well, and if it’s appropriate for their context and your brand, then funny content can absolutely cut through, and build rapport. It’s worth experimenting.

But like any kind of B2B content creation, it needs you to think about the audience. It’s not about you looking good – it’s about working out how best to put a smile on their face. That might be making them laugh, or simply giving them what they need to do their job, in a way they never expected.

Either way, work has definitely changed. If you can make your content more human, now’s the time.

Want to learn more about how to improve your brand and content strategy?

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