Applying Humor to Your Business Communications

“Computers are useless.  They can only give you answers.”

Pablo Picasso

When considering the question of “How do I improve my business communications?”, humor may be the answer. The decision should be based on what type of communications you seek. There are several roles humor can take … to grab attention, to make a lasting impression or to build a longer term relationship with your readers. Alternatively, a more serious and “professional” sounding message may be better suited to a more formal communications, in which case humor may not be appropriate.

Let me explain. It might not be the best idea to use humor when talking about a financial institution’s lending practices, or the way that a customer’s money is managed.

When we write or speak to an audience, often we are really trying to build a relationship with our audience in order to convey a thought, a message or a suggestion to purchase a product r service. As part of establishing that message and gaining credibility, it can be quite effective if you are communicating more as a friend or advisor. In that case, humor can definitely play a role in helping to build the relationship, earn trust and communicate on a more personal level.

South West Airlines (SWA) is an excellent example. They have effectively used humor in their verbal communications. Each flight attendant was clearly encouraged by their peers and supervisors to include humor as part of their pre-take off, FAA required announcements at the beginning of every flight.

In today’s YouTube age, there is another incentive: to become the next big hit.  Watch this video for an example of a video that has gone viral, with nearly 1 million hits so far. Interestingly, SWA’s practice began before the age of the Internet. Now these videos are actually a form of advertising, helping to increase brand awareness – and might even generate a ticket sale or two. Clearly, humor can lend itself to social networking marketing quite nicely.

While SWA’s topic is serious, the message has been effectively conveyed in a joyful, playful manner, with short one-liner jokes intermingled with information on what to do in an evacuation, and how the seat cushions also works as a life vest. In the end, passengers felt more relaxed and at ease, trusting that SWA had things under control in the passenger’s best interest while helping to pass the time during the boring announcements that business travelers all know by heart.

TD Ameritrade is an example of when a more serious communications was best. Their selection of Sam Waterston as a spokesperson conveys a serious message that TD Ameritrade is a secure institution you can trust, based on our associating him as being a District Attorney for Law and Order, even though it is just a character he plays on a television show. But don’t expect Sam to crack a joke during his endorsement during the ad.

Similarly, if you are writing a business plan to demonstrate intimate knowledge of your industry or market opportunity, it is trust that you are trying to build. As you might not have the opportunity to build a relationship over time with multiple interactions of your readers and prospective investors, you might only have one chance to make a first impression. In this case, your tone should probably be authoritative and professional, demonstrating you are serious about your business plan and the investment funds you are requesting. Probably not a good place for humor in your communications.

Each of these examples offers best-in-class leveraging of humor – or a lack of it – to accentuate and exemplify business communications. Deciding whether or not to use humor, however, is harder and riskier. Your message must indeed BE funny, or else the opposite effect will occur, possibly even alienating you from your target audience, and clearly hurting your communications objectives.  As it is more riskier to use humor, the choice is often to simply avoid it.

Next time you ask yourself whether humor might be appropriate in your next business communications, the answer won’t come from a computer.  It should be based on your subjective decision, half-based on theory and half-based on a gut feel if it really is appropriate.

 
Gordon Benzie is a marketing adviser and business plan writer that specializes in preparing and executing upon business plans and marketing strategies. Gordon can be found on Google+.

Sometimes The Best Marketing Communications Can’t Reverse a Brilliant Contract Agreement

I can feel the pain the marketing team for the wireless division must be dealing with at Verizon, even more so now the news was just announced that AT&T had indeed signed a 5 year agreement to distribute Apple’s now infamous iPhone.  So, Verizon is locked out through 2012 before they can think of carrying the now icon status phone.

Of course, this was a risky move on Apple’s part, to lock in a distribution partner for a relatively new product in an untested market.  But, clearly each party recognized the importance of helping each other out – from the development plans and specs to which features should be offered or not.  In the end, it was a brilliant move.

So, what do you do if you work in the marketing communications department at Verizon?  As a marketing and business plan writer, I can relate.

First thing is to bridge the “product divide” by offering as close to a product replacement as possible, which they clearly have done with the Android.  But, for those of you who have actually gone into the store and tried using the Android followed by the iPhone, you know that there really isn’t much of a comparison.  In the end, I personally chose the iPhone based on ease of use, product design and the simple fact that my 3,000+ song library will seamlessly connect with my new phone.

What do you do next?  One option is to re-define the debate.  For example, a new importance or decision factor could be introduced into the mix that might cause a reconsideration of the purchase.  For example, the network coverage of Verizon could be argued as being more comprehensive – clearly this is also a strategy they have pursued.  Further, I would suggest that this strategy could be exemplified by noting that all the data traffic that the AT&T network now has is starting to clog it up, such that iPhones are now not being sold in New York anymore.  But, the downside to this type of strategy might lead some to conclude that “everyone is now going to AT&T, so what am I doing at Verizon?”

New features is another angle, to them message that “if you want X, then you need to go with Verizon.”  For example, perhaps there is some type of value added service or partnership that could be established to offer a new value to those with Verizon, such that the loss of not using an iPhone is less of an impact.  Then, plaster the market with this new offer.  How about advance, limited screenings of new movies that can be seen on your Verizon phone through a special user interface that is securely offered to just Verizon customers?  Or, perhaps there are a series of local events that could be sponsored by Verizon that their customers are exclusively invited to?  The communications could then be focused on the fact that the phone company you choose should be based on more than what a particular phone they offer.

But, in the end, it is a long, uphill battle for the Verizon marketing communications team for now, at least until the end of 2012, or until when that contract can be ended.  My guess is that considerable efforts are now being done to try and “woo” Apple into breaking their AT&T contract, and that AT&T is spending an equal amount of time to ensure the agreement is air-tight … which is probably an excellent use of their time.

 
Gordon Benzie is a marketing adviser and business plan writer that specializes in preparing and executing upon business plans and marketing strategies. Gordon can be found on Google+.

Try to Avoid FUD in Marketing Communications

I find it interesting how one industry trend / improvement can often lead to new problems.  Growing globalization of manufacturing systems is a trend that has been in place for well over a decade.  It has put a new threat on the table that isolated plants never faced – the threat of a cyber attack from remote locations.  This is a threat that will undoubtedly catch some manufacturers off guard, but, theoretically, this threat has been around for at least 10 years.

Having a perspective from working in the network security industry, administration and implementation of a new security system typically doesn’t just happen on its own, given the tight focus on improving bottom line results.  Often, it takes a cataclysmic event to warrant the additional, new expenditure on a security measure.  It takes a global “black eye” on the industry to get serious traction and attention by those not yet impacted by the event.

For Visa card merchants, it was the TJ Max high jacking of information from at least 45.7 million credit and debit cards.  Hackers accessed customer information in a security breach that the discount retailer disclosed back in 2007.  See the story here. After this event, security became a top of mind event.

FUD_hammer1From a marketing perspective, there is no tougher topic to communicate and try to influence purchase behavior. The gatekeepers seem to have only a vague connection between what is happening to their competitors and what might happen at their own firm. With everyone over-worked today – often for less pay in our current recession / post-recession period, not many managers are looking to take on a new job or responsibility.

One thing for certain, the FUD approach doesn’t seem to work. Trying to use Fear, Uncertainty or Doubt to “hammer down” a purchase decision seems to backfire more often than not, leaving a bad taste in the mouth for those prospects you reach out to.  It is almost as if your reader doesn’t believe it, doesn’t want to believe it, or, if the numbers are so bad, can’t believe it. I have found that the best approach is to simply lay out the facts whenever possible, pointing to the probability of a serious event occurring, and how that likelihood of happening might impact that person’s company and job, as a “soft selling” message approach.

As an example, security is really a preventative purchase rather than a “threat” one. So, perhaps it should be viewed as an insurance cost to manage or mitigate risk.  Therefore, the right person to speak with is not the IT manager whose job will be harder to implement a new system, but rather, the one who is responsible for managing the company’s risk.  This might instead be the CFO or controller, but most likely, will be someone in the corporate office, rather than an IT or single plant manager.

The first key to effective marketing communications is to understand who the best person to speak to is.  With that settled you can then figure out how to write with the appropriate message, tone and wording to get their attention.  This can be the first step to building credibility as a trusted adviser – a company that your prospect wants to do business with. A trusted adviser doesn’t try to scare their client into doing something. Instead, they try to offer insights to trends and analytical support to help them make the best decision given the current environment and knowledge available.
Gordon Benzie is a marketing adviser and business plan writer that specializes in preparing and executing upon business plans and marketing strategies. Gordon can be found on Google+.

Evolving Social Behaviors Necessitate a Change in Marketing Communications

I would propose a correction to one of Benjamin Franklin’s famous quotes.

“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

benjamin_franklin_nothing_certain_but_death_and_taxes_and_technologyI think he missed a third certainty:  technology advances.  Since early inventions such as the cross bow or sword to the digital society of today, social patterns have changed as new weapons, inventions or technology advances are introduced into a culture or society.  Early warring nomads with a weapon advantage expanded their geographical reach to take precious resources, land and women … and as a result, these actions then changed cultures.

Today’s technology advances can be attributed in part to the proliferation of digital data that is increasingly universally available – viewable to an audience of one, or to a much larger group.  The way we interact, communicate and entertain as part of our social lifestyle has changed, and will continue to do so, as a direct response to this technology advance.  As marketers, we must also change.

For example, the changing technology advance of the digital video recorder (DVR) has triggered a new social behavior of fast forwarding through commercials.  Commercial communications effectiveness as a branding or lead generation tool has declined, reducing the return on investment of an advertising spot.

These types of changes necessitate a questioning of prior lead generation and business development techniques.  By examining emerging social patterns, new opportunities for marketing communications can be revealed, often better than the approaches they replaced.  The objective of a marketer hasn’t changed.  What has changed is the medium and method of attempting to influence a purchase decision to be in favor of their product or service.

The key is to reach out to where people are socially interacting, to then be part of that community, which will then assist with your marketing objectives.  This is why social networking communities are so hot right now, and why every marketer is under pressure to understand this medium and figure out how to monetize a revenue model tied to this activity.

Look at the Internet, as a form of lead generation, and an example of how good can come with the digital revolution.  Google is a very profitable company because their ad revenue model is highly effective.  Never before have marketers been able to pin point prospective customers by filtering search activity by selective words and phrases, with very calculated return on investment to better fine tune spend rates and ad performance metrics.

One of the toughest challenges to deal with in times of technology advances is when your own business or industry becomes a victim in the steadily advancing society.  No one wants to be the next buggy whip manufacturer, yet in order for change to occur, there must be a thinning of the herd to make room for a new wave of advancement and enlightenment.
Gordon Benzie is a marketing adviser and business plan writer that specializes in preparing and executing upon business plans and marketing strategies. Gordon can be found on Google+.