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+.