Use Humor and Ridiculousness to Reach Your Audience

Tim Washer

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Tim Washer

Tim Washer, Cisco

Tim Washer, Senior Marketing Manager in Social Media at Cisco, joins the Social Pros Podcast this week to discuss the value in making your customers laugh, how to spend less and storytell more, and bringing ridiculousness to big corporations.

Read on for some of the highlights and tweetable moments, or listen to the full podcast.

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Tweetable Moments

“What you need is somebody who can tell a story.” -@timwasher (tweet this)

The Importance of Ridiculousness

As a comedy writer and producer, Tim’s main role at Cisco is to create storytelling content for YouTube. “I’d like to see us be more ridiculous,” Tim says, and his goal is to get Cisco’s content there. “Being ridiculous is a very small part of what we do, unfortunately.” On Facebook, though, brands are competing with your wife, with your friends, and with Krispy Kreme doughnuts, so in order to get engagement, Cisco has to put together fun content.

When he was with IBM, Tim was instrumental in putting together their first YouTube video in 2006. It was a huge hit, he says, because it was surprising that IBM would put out a self-deprecating, funny video like that. By taking the customers by surprise, Tim’s team was able to create truly engaging content. Even so, “comedy has a tough time in the corporate world,” Tim says. There is a risk that comes with comedy and with ridiculousness, and that doesn’t always play well in the corporate world of committees and consensus.

One of the many successful (and ridiculous) videos Tim has done at Cisco was a Valentine’s Day commercial he helped put together for the Cisco ASR 9000 Series Aggregation Service Router, a top-of-the-line router for big companies that costs about $250,000. What’s the best way to let you know you love her? The Cisco ASR 9000, of course!

The video got attention in the New York Times Blogs and earned more than 200,000 views – not bad for a commercial for something with a two-year buying process that most people don’t even realize exists.

Social Media Stat of the Week: 86% of brands to increase video ad spend in 2014 and Digiday’s Q4 2013 State of Video Industry Report last week told us that 86% of brands will increase their video advertisement spending next year. Where is this money going to come from? Many of the brands (31%) say that they will be pulling advertisements from TV, so their budgets will come from there. Still more of them (33%) said that the increase would not come at the expense of any other budget.

So what does it look like when more money is being spent on video? Tim speculates that a lot of it could go to unnecessary production costs. He operates with little, if any, budget. “What you need,” he says, “is somebody who can tell a story.” His advice is to connect with a film school or an improv troupe and ask them to create a video for you. The key is to not simply pay more of the people who have lived in the corporate culture – hire outsiders, hire freelancers.

Holy Social!

In honor of October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month, women (well, people) everywhere are #mamming – that is, laying their (clothed) breasts on flat-surfaced inanimate objects. The idea is to show solidarity with the millions of women receiving mammograms this October. It wasn’t thought up by a brand or an organization, just two women (one of whom is a breast cancer survivor) who are passionate about early detection and women’s health.

Injecting humor, in this case, is successfully using social to generate awareness for the cause (and to let all of us have a little fun in the mean time).


Four Your Information

How did you get involved with social media?
Tim’s first experience in it was with the aforementioned video he did at IBM for YouTube. Through the success of that video, he was able to find more work injecting comedy into the corporate social media world.

What do you like best about social media?
“It gives you an opportunity to make more people laugh, and that’s what I love about it.”

What do you like least about social media?
There is a lot of red tape in Tim’s line of work: external forces that need x, y, and z from him before he can put out a video. Unfortunately, none of those entities care if he’s created a good story. He has been trying to get the “good story” aspect into the discussion. “Once you start shaving off edges, you’re going quickly towards mediocrity.”

If you could do a Skype call with any living person, who would it be?
Tim would choose Norman Lear, creator of All in the Family (and many other shows). He was the first person to take on race issues on TV and make everyone uncomfortable in a brilliant way. “I really don’t know how he got around the censors [in the ’70s].”

See you next week!

  • NickWestergaard

    Had a blast being on the “stand-in” team as a guest co-host. Glad to keep Jeff’s chair warm. Thanks Jay for making the Social Brand Forum one to remember!

  • Sarah @ Sprout Social

    I love and appreciate using comedy or taking a more light-hearted approach to your goals, but I do think it’s hard a hard sell, especially if you need to convince your boss to go with an outside group to produce the content.

    And what if your crowd doesn’t find it funny? What if it is perceived as offensive?

    While I thought #mamming was a brilliant, but with a quick Twitter search I saw that a lot of cancer survivors found it offensive. While the intention was to bring awareness to mammograms to prevent the disease, some though it made the topic a pun.

    Tim or Jay, can you give any advice on dealing with this kind of negative feedback for something with such good intentions?

    • Tim Washer

      Hey Sarah – Dave Barry famously said, “No matter what happens, somebody will find a way to take it too seriously.” A few suggestions for using humor:

      – steer clear of sensitive topics. With the mamming campaign, it’s too easy for people to misunderstand that folks are making light of a serious topic, even though the intent is to try a different approach to raise more awareness and reach a new audience.

      – Be politically correct, and make sure the humor isn’t poking fun at a specific person or a group; rather, lampoon counterproductive behavior.

      – Like all art, comedy is subject. Some folks will love it or hate it. When people say they don’t want to experiment with humor because they don’t want to offend their audience, that’s a mistake. If you focus the humor on a customer pain point that your company can alleviate, it helps you build rapport by showing empathy.

      – The results of using comedy videos should be compared with the other videos a company produces. Just because a “serious” video doesn’t have any negative comments doesn’t mean that it’s a success — it could mean that the serious video is too boring to garner any attention. I’ve seen companies spend a lot of money on videos that are “safe” but don’t say anything. That seems like a waste of resources to me.

      – Most importantly, give your comedy video a fair chance to succeed by using a team that knows how to write/produce/edit comedy. Ask your agency to help you find some freelance comedy writers, check with an improv theater or a film school.

      — I’ve found that it’s easier to convince your boss if you lower the risk. Pitch a comedy idea for an internally meeting, such as a sales meeting. If the video works, then post to the intranet. Then, to YouTube.

      Good luck with it Sarah.

      • Sarah @ Sprout Social

        Thank you so much for your feedback, Tim. Really appreciated. I love your idea about using humor to focus on a customer pain point!

  • JeremySeoChicago

    Great points. In managing our agency’s Social Media and Content Marketing initiatives, I’ve found that humor is a good way for clients to get to know the people that make up your company/brand. Spot on!

  • Kathy Klotz-Guest

    Great podcast, Jay. ‘Yes, and!’ Tim and I are kindred spirits in improv (short-form and long-form: deconstructions, armandos, and heralds) and marketing.There is always risk in everything new that you do. Humor has a higher bar when it comes to perceived risk, especially because it is easy to get wrong. Few people in corporate get it or have any experience with it. I always start with small risk. The truth *is* funny – it’s the everyday slice of life stuff that makes people laugh. One of my favorite videos ever (outside of Tim’s vids, of course!) is from Kinaxis. And the simplicity and beauty of this video is that it parodies the vendor-customer relationship. As am improviser and writer, I always start with the painful truth about the challenges my customers face. It’s not about being funny – it’s about hitting that truth ‘nerve’ center. Wit matters, too, btw. Even getting people in b2b to smile is huge. Totally agree, though, that you need to get someone who understands comedy, storytelling, and punchlines. It’s a craft.

  • Nandini Rathi

    Hi Sarah, I understand your concerns. Using humor and ridiculousness
    to reach your audience isn’t every publisher’s cup of tea, but then there are
    publishers like The Oatmeal, Gawker, and even celebrity sites like Perez
    Hilton, which have created a vast community for themselves by doing this.

    Most importantly, the rule to create contagious content is all about creating content that evokes emotion. I believe, anything unexpected in an inspirational or humorous manner will lead people to share your content.

    Brands too have been successfully using humour to appeal to their audiences. For example, “The Motherhood,” Featuring Fiat 500L, Evian’s “Baby & Me” ad – there’s
    enough proof to that. So, I do believe funny ads make brands stronger.

    (Disclaimer: This is a link to my own blog) – Have shared more views on how to create viral content:

  • James R. Halloran

    Comedy comes with varied risks. As stated in the article, there’s always going to be an element of risk when it comes to pitching comedy to your audience. The “mamming” scenario was a good example. I also saw an uproar about it desensitizing the seriousness behind breast cancer.

    It’s not only a risk for failing to attract an audience but it’s also a risk for the brands’ reputations who put the message forward into the public. That’s why if you’re going to use comedy, I strongly advise looking into constructing an online reputation management (ORM) strategy before taking the chance with your comical message.

    It’s always going to be a toss-up no matter what the topic is, but serious issues like cancer seem nearly impossible to make funny. The “mamming” video didn’t seem to deliver the message in the right way, to be honest.

  • Chinta Chundary

    my audience enjoy more humor content rather than facts or info