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What’s the ROI of an LOL? FunnyBizz Conference Makes the Business Case for Humor

Ali Hart headshotWords by Ali Hart
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When it comes to communications, perhaps worse than preaching to the choir is being preachy. Period. This is true whether you’re communicating about sustainability or your product or service. No one wants to be sold to or patronized, so why not lighten it up with a little humor?

This was the focus of the FunnyBizz Conference on June 11 in San Francisco. If you can’t tell from the name, the event featured amusing presenters making the case for humor in your workplace, in your branding and in your life.

It seems like a no-brainer that people would prefer to work in offices with fun environments, but it’s by no means largely reflected in work culture. According to Andrew Tarvin of Humor That Works, 81 percent of employees say a fun workplace would make them more productive. Startups caught on to this but took it to a laughable (not in the good way level) with all the perceived fun; colorful offices filled with pool tables, bean bag chairs, branded hoodies and Instagrammed dogs exist mostly to distract employees from how bummed they are that they never get to go home. But it is evidence that the new wave of business has caught on to this inherent desire for “fun” in workplace culture. Tarvin also noted that 97 percent of professionals believe it’s important that managers have a sense of humor and 98 percent of CEOs prefer job candidates with a sense of humor.

These high percentages are promising but only a small percentage of people likely think they have managers or employees with senses of humor at all, let alone ones that don’t make them cringe (see dad humor). As a result, some of the most cathartic laughs come from making fun of office boredom and lame office culture. On her blog The Cooper Review, Sarah Cooper recently published a widely shared post titled, “10 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings.” She attributes its success to the adage, “it’s funny because it’s true.” What I personally appreciate is that instead of just writing about annoying things people do in meetings, she frames it as tips to appear smart, thereby making it light and amusing rather than snarky and mean-spirited.

We’re a naturally playful species (case in point: your childhood), so who decided we had to put “work” and “play” in two separate buckets? Probably the same people who decided that brands should make you feel badly about yourself, and then swoop in and save you from your ensuing self-destruction.

Jonah Sachs, co-founder and creative director of Free Range Studios, reminded us how brands used to position themselves as heroes with products that would improve you, but that paradigm is no longer relevant. In the words of comedian Rita Rudner, “There’s nothing funny about a confident person who’s doing well.” We all want to see the underdogs succeed so brands should clue into that and in so doing, they’ll uncover more opportunities to use humor.

But what if you think your brand is too serious or important to use humor? DJ O’Neill, CEO of Hub Strategy & Communication, will ask you if your business involves the possibility of your customers crashing to their deaths from 40,000 feet. And even if it does, he’ll tell you that’s no excuse to avoid humor. Virgin America is a perfect example of a brand that takes risks and wins people over. The company even uses humor in the one piece of content that’s technically the most risky - the safety video. Their original video acknowledged that airline passengers tune out these uninspired information dumps because, well, seen one, seen them all … until this one. It entertained, amused and put itself in our jaded shoes. The fact that they’ve released another innovative safety video to six million online views — not on-plane views — is proof that their approach is working.

As presenter Kathy Klotz-Guest suggested, “safe is the new risky.” So here are a few tips from the FunnyBizz Conference speakers to help you lighten up your brand:


  • Mash It Up: Combine two things that are unexpected and people will be amused. Sarah Cooper likes to say, “Boring + Exciting = Funny.” She puts this into practice with her entertaining piece, “If Your Coworkers Were Rappers.” Dan Ilic, an Australian comedian working for Al Jazeera Plus (AJ+), also uses this formula to bring attention to social issues, like in this parody video featuring Guantanamo prisoner David Hicks on an episode of MTV’s Cribs.

  • Play With Contrast: Incongruities can be funny. If you understand the norm, how can you invert it? Jason Miller, LinkedIn’s Senior Manager of Global Content Marketing, Marketing Solutions, likes to play in this space. Prior to LinkedIn he worked at Marketo at a time when companies were all about releasing white papers to drive lead generation. Instead of joining the ranks, Miller took the unexpected route and co-created the “Big Marketing and Advertising Activity Coloring Book,” proving that humor works in B2B marketing, too.

  • Hire Professionals: Most importantly, don’t try this yourself! Sharp wit is a weapon that requires practice and skill; if used improperly, you can impale yourself on it (like I did right there). Hire pros like the FunnyBizz speakers to do the job right and learn from them along the way.

Ali Hart headshotAli Hart

Ali Hart is a media strategist and content producer helping change agents harness the power of humor. From developing creative TV and web concepts to managing comedians to strategizing grassroots campaigns, she has devoted herself to exploring which messages and messengers inspire behavior change for good. Ali holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco, where she currently laughs.

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