Just like you knew not to tell that fart joke at your great-aunt Linda’s funeral, you know when it’s okay to be funny. It’s usually obvious whether or not it’s appropriate to use humor.

Until it isn’t. Until you get sent to HR for loading up your coworker’s desk phone with pennies like Jim from the Office. Because, oh shit—you’re not Jim Halpert and this isn’t TV and SOMETIMES the line’s a little fuzzy.

As much as I like to say that we need a lot more humor in marketing, there are right and wrong places to use it. Let’s talk about it—because HR probably wants to deal with your stupid, inappropriate office/marketing humor even less than you want to have to deal with a visit from them.

5 Ways Using Humor in Marketing Will Make You Shine as Bright as a Freshly-Buttered Biscuit

Because is there anything brighter?

1. On your Twitter.

I’ve gotten more followers on Twitter in the past 3 months faster than I’ve ever gotten them on any other kind of social media, ever. Why? ‘Cuz I got jokes. Once I started writing jokes, I started getting noticed. And the followers rolled in.

People care a lot more about what you have to say when you can make them smile when you say it, and brands have been taking advantage of that for years. It’s especially great when you see a funny tweet from someone as big as, say, Old Spice, since it reminds you that there’s real, breathing (not to mention funny) people behind the tweets.

2. In your customer communications.

I’ll never forget an excerpt I read for a shipping confirmation email in Derek Sivers’s book Anything You Want:

Your CD has been gently taken from our CD Baby shelves with sterilized contamination-free gloves and placed onto a satin pillow. A team of 50 employees inspected your CD and polished it to make sure it was in the best possible condition before mailing. Our packing specialist from Japan lit a candle and a hush fell over the crowd as he put your CD into the finest gold-lined box that money can buy. We all had a wonderful celebration afterwards and the whole party marched down the street to the post office where the entire town of Portland waved “Bon Voyage!” to your package, on its way to you, in our private CD Baby jet on this day, Friday, June 6th. I hope you had a wonderful time shopping at CD Baby. We sure did. Your picture is on our wall as ‘Customer of the Year’. We’re all exhausted but can’t wait for you to come back to cdbaby.com!Derek Sivers

5 ways to use humor in marketing If that doesn’t make you want to get to know the people and spirit behind a brand more then I don’t know what will. It’s magical, little touches like this that give us a much needed break from automated-this and automated-that. Sure, automated is fine for some of your customer communications—but do we really have to make it sound so obviously automated? If they’re gonna have to read it, can’t we at least make it worth their while? Let’s surprise them. Let’s make them smile.

Where else is this applicable besides a shipping confirmation email?

  • Order confirmation email
  • Request for feedback/review email
  • Reminder to renew/schedule/upcoming appointment email
  • Thank you email
  • Your email newsletter
  • Replies to customer comments on your blog
  • And all the other little ways you keep in touch with your customers.

3. On your blog.

Technically part of customer communications, yes. But important enough to break out into a point all its own.

Blogs don’t always have to be all business and sales funnels and page hits and conversions. Show your brand has a soul. Show your brand has a sense of humor. Do it by taking a silly detour every once in a while.

Write with a humorous spin on a relevant topic or go wild with the occasional humorous essay. Don’t know what that looks like? Read a chapter from a book by Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Nora Ephron, or Mindy Kaling. Pick a chapter out of any of them—usually one chapter works well on its own as a humorous essay.

Reading a few books like this will give you the inspiration you need to sprinkle a few funny “essays” into your blog posts. Maybe they’re not directly relatable to your offering, sure. But they’re shareable as shit and make people smile, and I’d say that checks all the right boxes as far as content strategy goes.

4. In print/digital/video ads.

Any kind of ads, really.

But you’ve gotten pumped about Super Bowl ads. You’ve seen those “funniest ads” articles. You get it.

5. When comparing yourself to competitors/your own past brand image.

In ads or on social media, there’s a classy way to acknowledge competitors. And there’s a cringe-worthy way to do it.

I don’t know about you, but direct “we’re better than them” statements are a huge turn off for me. It strips a brand of their self-possession. It screams “trying too hard.”

But when they make comparisons in a funny, lighthearted way? Like they’re just making jokes, and they’re so cool they actually don’t even care what the competitors think?

Or how about when they make themselves the butt of the joke instead?

That’s confidence. That’s owning what you do. That’s just downright sexy.

3 Ways, For God’s Sake, Under No Circumstances Should You Be Using Humor

3 ways you shouldn't be using humor in marketing Good lord, cousin Becky, put away that whoopee cushion. Easter Sunday church service is not the time to give Grandma the whoopee-farts.

In this scenario, you are Becky, and I’m your helpful ole cousin Maison trying to save you from making a grave mistake. I’m also kind of like your watchful guardian angel that slaps your hand away just before you send that email with a Harambe joke to one of your biggest customers. Bad business owner! Down!

As much as funerals, church, baby showers, and yearly performance reviews would all be a million times more fun with a bit of jokes and sketch comedy, we should probably continue to not try to be funny at these things at any time, ever. Sometimes things happen organically, sure, and we all have a nice, big cathartic laugh, but for god’s sake let’s not force it. That’s when bad things happen.

Here’s 3 more places at work you should never EVER try to use humor, cousin Becky. Just don’t do it. Shout your joke into a pillow instead. Tell it to your cat Nacho. Call me and I’ll talk you down. Whatever it takes.

1. When handling serious customer complaints.

They’re probably pissed. Let’s tread lightly. (And seriously. And cheerfully).

Yes, humor can release the tension in an uncomfortable situation. But when you’re in such a sensitive position—a position in which you need to reinforce what your brand stands for to an angry customer—it’s easy to get it wrong and make things worse. It takes someone well-versed in writing and using humor to toe that fine line just right, and unless you’re one of those people, it just isn’t worth the risk.

2. When it’s at the expense of a customer.

Good lord I hope you never thought that was okay anyway. You probably didn’t—whew. But here’s a nice reminder.

If you ever think of a great joke/hilarious but questionable marketing technique that also happens to put down your customers—even in the most subtle way—and you think “BUT IT’S SO FUNNY! Surely I can get away with using this hilarious, only-a-tiny-bit-mean joke!”—step away from the computer and remind yourself of all the reasons you shouldn’t:

  • Again, it can be done but is very hard to get right and it’s not worth the risk
  • You never know when your customer is having an absolutely horrible day—and instead of being the brand that makes them feel a tiny bit better, you’re the one making them feel a tiny bit worse
  • You never know what kind of deep insecurities and personal issues you’re poking at when you make a “it’s just a joke”-joke at the expense of a customer
  • It’s like most pranks: while laughing AT may make you feel funny and pretty and smart, it usually make the person on the other side feel like shit.

If you’ve been on my Twitter you know I’m no PC police, so don’t confuse that—making fun of stereotypes, lighthearted making fun of big groups of people, making fun of myself—for this. This—this is being mean to others and masking it with comedy, which is never cool.

3. When you and your customers are not on the same humor wavelength.

A few weeks ago a dude showed me a meme on his phone and told me it was funny.

I gently broke him the news. “This is not funny,” I said. “But it is,” he said. Again, I assured him, “It is not.”

Surprisingly we did not end up falling in love and having little comedian babies and co-writing hilarious sitcom scripts together forever.

And that’s cool. Just like with food, your sense of humor is a palate that changes and grows with time and circumstance.

this weird email I got did not work.

Perhaps Effie thought I’d have a good laugh at her jokingly insulting me and then want to immediately go check out her website. You might find this incredible but this tactic did not actually work.

When you show me yours and I show you mine, it’s not always gonna match up just right. Sometimes we’ll overlap, but a lot of the times we won’t. And that’s the lovely thing about humor—there’s a place for everyone. There’s a whole spectrum. Your customers are on it, but—depending on what kind of things you sell and who your target customers are—they might be on complete opposite end of it.

If Adult Swim’s marketing team took over the marketing strategy for Prada for a day, I’m 100% Prada’s customers would have one big, collective, luxurious heart attack.

So before you try injecting any humor in your marketing, know exactly who your customers are.

Do they find jokes that use millennial slang hilarious like I do? Or are they a bit too old for that? Do they get the pop culture reference you’re making? Are they cool with a bit of swearing and light toilet talk or is that a huge turnoff? You should have solid answers to these questions before even trying to use humor anywhere in your marketing.

Make ‘Em Laugh And They’re Yours

And the best part about that?

When you make them laugh, they want to be yours. They want to hear more from you. They like liking you and they like hearing your jokes. And they want to share them with others.

You know when you’re driving to work or bored in a meeting and your mind wanders? And all the sudden you remember a funny moment or joke you heard earlier and you can’t help but crack a little smile?

Be that little smirk. Be the reason for that silent little smile. They’ll love you for it.