Funny or Die? Why B2B Brands Shouldn’t Be So Scared of Comedic Content and Social Media

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth post in a multi-week series on how to effectively leverage social media for your B2B Business. In the previous post, social media and content strategist Jay Baer delivered Tips for Turning Your B2B Facebook Page Into a Beacon for Your Brand. Prior to that, social media coach Mike Sansone outlined 7 Steps to Successful Youtube Marketing.

When social media strategist and self-described “Corporate Comedian” Tim Washer pitched his first comedic video to IBM in 2004 the collective response from the technology giant’s management team was pretty resounding. Comedy? IBM? Ah, yeah, no thanks.

The reason for the company’s hesitance was understandable: comedy carries the perceptive burden of being offensive, and that scares the heck out of big corporate B2B brands like IBM.

Here’s the problem with that fear: Comedy, itself, isn’t offensive, says Washer, who is now a Senior Marketing Manager for Cisco Systems. Rather, it’s poor judgment, awful execution, and a failure to calculate context that causes crickets when a business’s goal is belly laughs.

Washer recently sat down with OpenView to tell the story behind IBM and Cisco’s successful comedic experiments, sharing some tips that can help smaller B2B startups leverage comedy (and other humanizing content) to fuel a truly impactful social media strategy.

In 2006, you produced a series of six “The Office”-themed videos for IBM that centered on the company’s million-dollar Mainframe system. How did you make something that dry seem humorous?

The buyers that were considering IBM’s Mainframe system were making million dollar decisions that typically took 12 to 18 months to make. That process can make you go crazy, so we tried to lighten things up a bit. Our goal was to draw attention to the efficiency of the product, but we didn’t want to make it obvious. So we buried that message with a few subtle, silly videos that would lighten the mood and make our prospective customers laugh a little bit.

It was a huge success, largely because people didn’t expect comedy from IBM. They expected all of our content to be very buttoned-up and very black and white. With the Mainframe videos, we flipped the script a little bit and tried to show buyers that we were human; that we like to laugh as much as they do. In the end, I think we had a 2,500 percent increase in visitorship to our Mainframe blog, and some of IBM’s key analysts and influencers began spreading the videos through their networks. It really illustrated the beauty of pairing great, lighthearted content with effective social networking.

What can B2B companies learn from a B2C startup like DollarShaveClub.com, which released a pretty hilarious YouTube video in March to trumpet its launch?

Well, the first thing they can learn is that great video content and smart social media distribution can have a huge impact on customer reach and engagement. Since that video launched it’s been viewed almost five million times, which I’m sure has played a part in the company acquiring thousands of new customers and its first million in venture capital.

More importantly, it’s just another case study in creating great content that resonates with a target audience. With social media, that kind of content can spread like wildfire and fuel the kind of PR and social buzz that big marketing budgets try to buy. With B2B technology companies that are selling several thousand — or million — dollar solutions, a funny video isn’t going to compel customers to buy. It might help create valuable brand equity, however, and it’s going to increase the likelihood that they’ll pay attention to what you have to say.

Tying everything back to social media, why do you think comedy resonates so well in the social space?

Laughter is contagious. It’s one of the most intimate connections you can make with a customer or a prospect. And if people — that includes the press, key analysts, and your target customers — find your content clever, intelligent, and entertaining, they’re much more likely to share it with their connections.

B2B companies need to remember that social networks are outposts or destinations for their customers. They go there to take a break. That doesn’t mean you can’t share case studies or technical data sheets via social media. It just means that you can’t be afraid to occasionally share content that will make them happy they stopped by.

Can comedic content work for any B2B brand, or should businesses in some industries be cautious about using it?

There are a few exceptions. For example, if you’re in the healthcare or financial industries, comedy might not be the best approach. The simplest way to analyze the right content for your customers is to better understand your audience and what it will respond to.

Comedy is certainly one strategy, but it’s not the only one. At Cisco, for example, we’re in the process of publishing a six-part documentary focusing on the impact of the telecom industry. There’s nothing funny about it, but we hope the videos tell an honest, compelling story. Ultimately, that’s the goal of great content, right?

We’re all human — even if the B2B businesses we sell to sometimes feel like faceless institutions. Behind those institutions are people and if you can get them to respond emotionally to your content the residual social and financial benefits will take care of themselves.


Tim Washer
is a social media manager for Cisco Systems and a moonlighting comedian writer/actor whose credits include the Late Show with David Letterman, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Saturday Night Live, and the Onion Sports Network. Before joining Cisco, Washer was the head of social media video production for IBM, where he helped produce the company’s wildly successful YouTube series, “
The Art of the Sale.”

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