Humor is a potentially powerful weapon in a brand’s arsenal, but they must be savvy when they wield it in video form. That means in part creating relatable content that isn't too long and tells a brand’s story.
Laughter is often said to be the best medicine, and when it comes to digital marketing, it certainly presents unique opportunities for consumer engagement.
Like the social outcast who discovers he can make the star quarterback laugh and finds himself suddenly catapulted into the upper echelons of high-school society, a funny branded video can quickly engage an audience and raise a brand's social currency.
But, like that kid in high school, the telling of the joke comes with immense risk: Fall flat and you'll be ridiculed forever...or at least until the next bad joke comes along.
According to Caleb Hanson, vice president of product for interactive video firm Rapt Media, humor is innately shareable. If a brand is "baked into the joke, or at least prominently featured in the video," it can clearly benefit from huge viewership.
A funny video can also inspire consumers to spread content who might not otherwise advocate for a specific brand.
At the same time, humor is dangerous because it can so easily go wrong.
"I subscribe to [University of Colorado associate professor of marketing and psychology] Peter McGraw's 'Benign Violation' theory about humor, which is that for something to be funny, it has to be a violation, but one that is seen as harmless," Hanson says.
In other words, branded humor has the potential to go wrong in two directions.
"A joke can be too benign, and come off as lame, or be too much of a violation and come off as offensive. Either way, the brand suffers, and with video being so shareable, a misstep can have immense reach," Hanson adds.
Examples of such missteps include Mountain Dew, which tried to make light of violence against women in a spot that was reportedly called the "most racist commercial ever" and Hyundai, which attempted a tongue-in-cheek look at suicide, he says.
"These went wrong because the violation was based in topics that, to many people, could never be considered benign," Hanson says.
So what's the secret? How can brands create funny video content that will serve their business goals without looking like buffoons or heartless jerks?
Hanson says treading the line between benign and offensive means first understanding what a violation is as McGraw defines it.
"It doesn't have to be offensive; it merely has to violate your understanding of the world in an unexpected way," he says, adding that the E-Trade baby is a good example of a violation because consumers don't expect a baby to talk, and certainly don't anticipate getting cogent financial advice from him.
According to Leslie Hall, president of digital agency Iced Media, streaming service HBO Go has one of the most recent success stories with its Awkward Family Viewing series that acknowledges how uncomfortable it can be to watch HBO shows with your parents.
"I think what's best about the videos is that HBO identified a unique touch point across all of their top shows - boundary-breaking content without FCC decency standards - which seamlessly communicates the nature of their content while distinguishing it from broadcast network competitors," Hall says. "They use humor to reinforce their genre of content while creating affinity for the material in the most subtle way."
The seven videos, which HBO recommends watching "far, far away from your parents," have more than 1 million views on YouTube.
HBO declined comment.
Tip One: Make it relatable.
Another reason the HBO videos struck a chord is because the content is relatable, Hall says. And that is her first tip for creating successful funny videos.
"Videos are funniest when the audience can relate to the content in a personal way and people are more likely to laugh if they can see themselves in the scenarios," Hall says.
Another brand to produce relatable video content is Fiat, which partnered with comedy website Funny or Die on its Neighbors series that includes five videos with about 890,000 combined views as of July 30.
"The Fiat brand's playful personality and Italian heritage give us license to find new ways to tell our brand story," said Olivier Francois, chief marketing officer (CMO) at parent company Chrysler, in a prepared statement.
Francois also noted the brand has seen an uptick in Web traffic since the launch of this series "and this deeper engagement with our brand ultimately leads to Fiat Studio visits."
A Fiat rep was not available for further comment by deadline.
"While some of the material may resonate more with Italian viewers, the scenarios lend themselves well to everyone while reinforcing the culture of the brand and its playful personality," Hall adds.
Hall has four additional tips for brands seeking to engage consumers with humorous video content.
Two: Don't rely entirely on big names.
In other words, shelling out for a celebrity spokesperson or a Hollywood production company doesn't always translate to big laughs.
This, she says, is the case with #GetChosen, a recent series from Jewish dating website JDate that was produced by SoulPancake, the production company founded in part by actor Rainn Wilson.
"While the video concepts have comedy potential, the punchlines just don't deliver," Hall says.
JDate describes its #GetChosen messaging as a "rebrand" and Greg Liberman, chief executive (CEO) of JDate parent Spark Networks, says the intent is to "further our mission to strengthen the Jewish community and ensure that Jewish traditions continue for generations to come."
The campaign also reminds existing and future site users "what makes the JDate community unique - the cultural ties that bind the Jewish community," he says.
To that end, two of the taglines in the videos were crowdsourced via a social media contest.
"These particular ads were designed to reach Millennials in the Jewish community who truly understand the 'inside joke' behind these slogans," Liberman adds.
They include, "Matzo ball recipes don't survive on their own," and, "Find Mr. Right to Left."
And because these taglines were created by active members of the Jewish community, Liberman says it's "a great way to ensure the content would truly be authentic and true to our Millennial target."
And that dovetails nicely with Hall's initial tip about relatability.
"We knew that some of the ads might not make sense to people outside the Jewish community, although we have been told the Skype ad resonates across the board, but our goal was to deliver an authentic message that resonates with the Jewish community, even if that meant others might miss some of the nuance," Liberman says.
The videos have a combined 40,000 views on YouTube and Liberman says the site saw a "noticeable increase" in new member registrations after their debut.
According to Hall, the case of a big name not paying off is also true with Purity Vodka and its recent partnership with actor Joel McHale.
"McHale is a fantastic ambassador for the prestige vodka, and his social following provides a tremendously qualified distribution network for the content," Hall says. "However, the lengthy five-minute video and forced brand integration make the message confusing and the laughs sparse."
At first blush, it almost seems Purity is taking a page from rival Smirnoff's book after the latter put out a humorous video series of its own starring McHale's Community co-star Alison Brie earlier this year.
However, Purity attempts to distinguish itself with more of a documentary style that "shines a light on the world of obsessive craftsmanship," in a parallel to what the brand calls its own "dedication to quality in creating its award-winning taste."
The first video in the series was released July 9 and has 222,000 views as of July 30.
At five minutes long, however, the first McHale video requires a bit of a commitment from viewers.
That length is something Purity Vodka president Andy Glaser says the brand didn't anticipate, but he explains that so much content resulted from McHale's ad-libbing that the brand decided "we needed a slightly longer runway" to "tell the story the right way."
Interestingly, however, Glaser says the next two videos that follow later this year will be scripted and shorter - "in that three-minute window, maybe slightly less."
That still may be too long, at least according to Hall.
Three: Don't be long-winded.
Per Hall, a funny video should never ever be more than one minute and 45 seconds.
That's advice both Fiat - with videos that range from 45 to 105 seconds -and JDate - with even shorter 30-second spots - follow.
Barry Poltermann, CEO of video documentary storytelling firm About Face Media, is a little more accommodating. He says in order for a video to be five minutes or longer, it "has to be really good and you have to really hook [consumers] with great quality content, so they're willing to stick with it."
The problem with long videos is the natural tendency for eyes to gravitate toward the bar at the bottom of the screen. If it is longer than a few minutes, viewers have to make a mental calculation about whether they're going to invest the time, he says.
"If they're a [McHale] fan or a fan of Community, those fans will watch every second. It doesn't matter how long it is," Poltermann adds. "Whereas further away from that, it's harder to keep them hooked."
Four: Don't focus on a single product.
That's because the opportunity to tell a brand story through laughs is much easier than trying to sell a particular product, Hall says. Focusing on the product overtly, such as in the Purity series, can take away from the brand story and distract the user from enjoying the material, she adds.
But this is precisely what Glaser says Purity is doing in the series.
"It's difficult to get emotional engagement in TV communications or a print ad and for a small brand like us...we knew we had to create content that wasn't just an ad," he says. "One of the phrases I use for creating digital content is that 'We want to be CBS, not PBS.'"
According to Glaser, that means Purity has created entertaining and engaging content and specifically chose humor as the vehicle with which to deliver it to viewers, but particularly discerning, upscale 30- to 45-year-old men.
Five: Create a distribution strategy.
But before a brand's target can actually watch these videos, Hall says one of the first things the content sponsor must do is consider viewers' natural online discovery habits and determine rollout and distribution plans.
Paid media on YouTube, partnerships with content creators like Funny or Die, and even influencer ambassadors with huge followings such as McHale can "certainly do some heavy lifting to increase viewership," Hall says.
And while 125,000 views is certainly nothing to sneeze at, it's not clear McHale's muscle is giving much Purity lift. In fact, a July 10 tweet joking about, "SUBTLE PRODUCT PLACEMENT," generated just 26 retweets among McHale's 3.4 million followers. A comparable Facebook post had about 150 likes and 14 shares among 300,000 fans.
However, she says if the material itself proves funny, the shareworthiness will speak for itself.
Bonus: Reinforce the brand benefit.
Hanson says brands must also consider whether a funny video with lots of views and shares is actually moving the needle on any key performance indicators or driving conversions.
That means the humor needs to reinforce a key brand benefit or speak to a value proposition such as the Geico caveman communicating how easy it is to use Geico, he says.
"Online conversion from video means turning passive viewers into engaged users and then converting engaged users into paying customers. While good websites can nail the second conversion, I think a lot of agencies and brands are struggling to turn viewers into engaged users," Hanson says. "They're finding, however, that something interactive that pulls the user in and engages them has better results than something that's a passive experience. In a sense, the interactions can work as minor conversions. Once the viewer has invested in the video experience, they're already a user, and you've broken down the barrier between the video and the website. Going a little further to convert the user into a lead or a customer is easier once they've already gone over the first hurdle."
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In addition to ClickZ and Search Engine Watch, Lisa's work has appeared in The Huffington Post, The Luxury Spot, LearnVest, MarthaStewart.com, GoodHousekeeping.com, amNewYork, and The Wall Street Journal. She's a graduate of Columbia's School of Journalism.
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