Take Caution When Using Humor in Copywriting

Updated March 24, 2015

Kristi Waterworth

clowning aroundKnock knock.  Who’s there?  Your doom.

There are a number of methods to attract attention when it comes to marketing, from the profound to the sublime, but few can crush your soul as completely as humor.  If you doubt me, take a long look at all the failed marketing campaigns that attempted to integrate humor and instead ended up with PR disasters on their hands.  I’ll just leave this link about Mountain Dew’s 2013 “Felicia the Goat” campaign here for you to read later.

Battle-hardened humorists can tell you — comedy is all about bouncing back from failure.  It’s an experiment in motion, with the expert poking their audience, then sitting back and hoping for a positive response.  That’s why humor’s so tricky in marketing and why it’s so dangerous, especially for start-ups: hope isn’t enough to hang your brand image on.  On the other hand, if your company has an established brand image, people generally trust you and no one thinks you’re a company filled with raging assholes, giving humor a try won’t hurt, provided you take some precautions.

The Keys to Creating Humorous Content

Humor is more than waving a magic wand and wishing some ha-has into being — it is, arguably, the most difficult art form to master.  You must be subtle, you must be sly, but most of all, you must be natural.  And that’s the part where many people fail miserably.

Being a natural at comedy means that you’re practiced, that you know the rules and have set them to heart.  But it means something else, too — you’ve managed to learn to look at the world a little differently than the next guy.  It’s a skill, like everything else, and you can learn to write humorous marketing materials with no experience, but you’ll be subject to failure and that can reflect poorly on your business.

So, before you become your own marketing version of Carrot Top, let me give you a few helpful pointers.  Follow these tips and even if you don’t hit your humor mark, you’ll at least avoid a serious bout of bad publicity:

Know your audience

I vaguely remember doing a blog on this topic recently, but the point remains true.  Humor is very demographically sensitive — what makes a 35 year old mother of two laugh is not the same thing that will make a 70 year old widowed war veteran laugh.  These two live in very different realities, so focus your efforts as tightly as you can to capture the audience you really want.

Choose scenarios your demographic understands

When choosing a scenario to infect with your humor, make sure it’s one that your demographic understands.  Again, people face very different realities, even in the same country, state or city — what’s funny is heavily dependent on your viewpoint.

Avoid racist, sexist and other hateful comments

No matter who your audience is, through, making disparaging remarks about another group of people is not going to cut it for humor.  That might have worked on Evening at the Improv in the 1980s, but we live in much more sensitive times.  Avoid racist, sexist and nationalist language that could end you up in hot water.  Remember, there’s no room for hate in humor.

Direct your humor inward

So, if you can’t make fun of other people and how they’re different from you, what can you make fun of?  The best answer is yourself or your industry.  Self-deprecating humor rings true with a lot of people, provided you don’t get too industry specific or technical.  Just make sure that while you’re mocking yourself, you don’t accidentally cut down the thing you’re trying to sell with humor and leave a bad impression with the customer.

… or at an inanimate object

The other option you’ve got, after self-deprecating humor, is directing humor at an object.  This is going to depend on what sort of industry you’re in, of course — but if you can find the funny in a keg of beer or a pickup truck, you might have the next big hit on your hands.  Again, keep it friendly — nobody wants to buy anything from a racist pickup truck, either.

Humor is a big risk in content creation that can yield amazing rewards.  If you’re thinking about trying your hand at it, consider hiring a professional humorist to take your ideas and turn them into a campaign that really hits home.


Exploding Kittens Blow the Lid Off of Kickstarter

Updated March 4, 2015

Kristi Waterworth

We’ve seen some ridiculous things happen on Kickstarter in the last few years — remember the amazing potato salad that went viral?  I still maintain that was some sort of undercover ploy by Kickstarter to remind people that they were still relevant and projects of every kind could get funded if they were interesting enough — but I digress.  The ridiculous thing I want to talk about today is a card game brought to us, in part, by The Oatmeal.

Now, most of you are probably thinking exactly what the major news outlets have been printing about this thing: “Who the hell is The Oatmeal?”  The reason they don’t know is because they’ve not been initiated — but The Oatmeal is actually a perfect example of making Internet branding work.  He lives and breathes his branding efforts and he doesn’t apologize for the irreverence and sheer insanity he brings to Internet culture.

The Oatmeal Story

Matthew Inman was a graphic designer based in Seattle when he started drawing the web comic, The Oatmeal.  Because he didn’t give two craps about who or what was reading his comic, he wrote about whatever he wanted — he drew and drew during his off time and spent his days graphically designing websites and whatnot.  His last post to his site 0at.org was in 2011, explaining his decision to switch his focus to The Oatmeal (launched two years previous).

It seems Inman was seeing much more success as The Oatmeal than he ever could have realized as another slightly quirky graphic designer.  Although some may argue this is because he wasn’t that great of a graphic designer or because he cared so much more for his work at The Oatmeal, I think it’s because he put a great deal more effort into branding The Oatmeal than he ever did for himself.

The Oatmeal became an Internet sensation practically overnight, yet Matthew Inman, graphic designer, is a name that people still barely recognize.  The Oatmeal wrote and drew horrific things that people couldn’t get enough of and describes himself thusly on his site:

“The Oatmeal’s real name is Matthew and he lives in Seattle, Washington. He subsists on a steady diet of crickets and whiskey. He enjoys long walks on the beach, gravity, and breathing heavily through his mouth. His dislikes include scurvy, typhoons, and tapeworm medication.“

Among his first published comics was one called “5 Very Good Reasons to Punch a Dolphin in the Mouth.”  Since then, he’s published quizzes focusing on the number of tapeworms that could live in your stomach, drawn comics about brutally murdering anyone in your way with a shovel and authored touching pieces about his dog.  The Oatmeal is the maniac that Matthew Inman never was and we love him for it.

OMG!  Exploding Kittens!

Exploding Kittens is yet another extension of The Oatmeal’s branding and features his wildly popular comic style.  This basic card game promises us maneuvers like attacks that “deploy the thousand-year back hair” and opportunities to look into the deck to “see the future” whereby the player can “feast upon a unicorn enchilada and gain its enchilada powers.”  Fans of The Oatmeal would tell you that this all sounds about right for their favorite web comic.

This is why the game has so far managed to raise $5.9 million dollars, despite the initial funding goal of just $10,000.  Then again, the funding amount isn’t really what’s so remarkable about the whole thing.  I mean, there are plenty of ideas on KickStarter that have managed to raise some bucks.  That potato salad I mentioned earlier…. it raised a cool $50k, but it took some time.  Exploding Kittens fully funded in 20 minutes.  In less than an hour it had raised over $100,000.  There’s a lot more behind those kinds of numbers than just having a KickStarter account.

Believe it or not, kiddos, this is what branding looks like in practice.  Because The Oatmeal has become a well-known Internet brand in only four short years, Matthew Inman just shattered a whole bunch of funding records.  It wasn’t a coincidence, it wasn’t an accident, it was the culmination of years of consistent branding efforts on his part.

Your company can shatter internal and external records just as easily with a consistent and appealing brand image.  As I’ve stated time and again, it’s a simple formula: known demographic + consistent brand image + Social engagement = success!  Anybody can do it.  You can do it.  It’s a piece of cake, really.

The Importance of Brand Identity

Updated March 4, 2015

Kristi Waterworth

No matter how big or small your brand is, your brand identity matters — probably more than you know.  I was approached by a potential client this week and she said something that really stuck with me — she told me she chose me out of a list of copywriters because I had something no one else had.  I had personality.  My writing stood out, my personal branding created a three dimensional image of who I was as a person — and that’s awesome because that’s what branding is all about.

Developing Your Brand Image: Dos and Don’ts

Every business has to learn how to develop their brand in order to succeed.  Whether you borrow your idea of branding from somewhere else or make it up as you go, there are a few keys to really nailing a brand identity.  Let me walk you through them.

Figure Out What Your Company Represents.  There are a lot of ways to do this, from looking at your company leaders’ values to strictly sticking to the playbook designed by your marketing company.  Whatever you do, think of your company like you would a person — and figure out how it fits into the niche you’re carving.  Are you a content generation service run by a bunch of burned-out journalists or is your company united by something else, like a love of ducks?  Whether you’re fuckers or duckers, determine who your company is and what it represents early in your branding process.

Learn Your Demographic.  Even though you need to be yourself, you’ve got to also be something to your demographic.  If you’re trying to sell your products to young mothers and insist on representing your company as a hardcore badass producer of diapers, you may be off target.  Be yourself, but choose your demographic wisely.  There’s probably room for badass black studded diapers, but you’ll have to find the bikers, rockers and other non-conventional (and probably older) parents who want to dress their kids in leather.

Understand You Can’t Be All Things.  Long ago, being in business meant being all things to all people — you were a stuffed suit with nothing in it.  You can’t be that suit in today’s market — it’s a world of niches and generic has no place to fit.  This is what brand identity is all about: giving your brand some personality that helps people to connect to it emotionally.  Your market wants you to be like them, or in other words, they want to be attracted to a company who represents the values and images they hold dearest.

Don’t Stir Shit.  There’s brand personality, then there’s way over the top brand personality.  A lot of people make this mistake early on in their branding efforts — so let me warn you right now about stirring shit.  Don’t do it.  It’s fine to discuss your preferred guitar if you’re a music shop, or your favorite kind of icing if you’re a cake shop, but for fuck’s sake, leave the bigotry, hatred and heated political issues at the door.  You want to stimulate conversation, not alienate half your market.

Yes, There’s a Niche for That.  Whatever it is, there’s a niche for it, I promise.  Whether or not that niche is large enough to be profitable is a question you have to ask yourself as a business.  You don’t want to make the mistake of painting yourself into a too-tight corner.  If you’ve decided to completely ignore my advice and represent your brand as a completely racist producer of organic produce, the chances are really good that your company is going to suffer.  After all, people with liberal ideals (like equal rights) tend to seek out organic apples just like yours.

Even though there aren’t any really concrete rules to developing the right brand image for your company, I can tell you from experience that there are things that work and things that don’t.  Consistency is key, above all else.  Make sure your brand identity and your company’s policies align, that your employees are trained to the corporate culture that will eventually be spun out of your brand’s identity and that all your marketing speaks to your business’s image.