Bob LeDrew

Social Media Humor: Brands, Beware

By: Bob LeDrew | March 11, 2014 | 

Social Media HumorBy Bob LeDrew

There’s an old saying: Dying is easy, _comedy_ is hard.

And it’s even more true when considering comedy in a business context.

When it comes to social media humor, there are inherent risks.

Ask any social media strategist – they’ll tell you engagement is one of the holy grails for organizations.

You want people to get involved with your content, to comment, to share.

And there are lots of examples of brands who ‘get’ online humor, and definitely get ‘engagement with humor.’ Look at the exchange between Oreo and the AMC movie chain.

Social Media Humor

In 2012, the folks behind the Oreo Twitter account sent a tweet asking “Ever bring your own Oreo cookies to the movie theatre?”

Eight minutes later, AMC responded: “NOT COOL, COOKIE.”

Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 3.25.59 PM

The exchange resulted in hundreds of retweets, a front-page story in Adweek, and kudos from all over.

This was great execution. And it would be natural to want to emulate that. But it’s not as simple as yucking it up.

Let me give you another example.

A restaurant in my home town of Ottawa put up a post on its Facebook page last week suggesting that in honor of International Women’s Day, they would be charging women full price.

The post quickly resulted in a storm of negative comment (full disclosure, I was one of the critics), and the restaurant took down the post and replaced it with this apology.

social media humor

Humor is hard. Social media humor is even harder. Some people have the gift; some don’t.

My online friend Allen Mireles just wrote a great post for Vocus with six ways you can use humor in business communication.

Allen shared six rules to follow if you are considering adding humor to your business communications, your own presentations, or online on behalf of your clients.

Here are a few more thoughts, with a more specific focus on social media humor.

Know Your Voice

First, if you don’t intimately know the voice of your organization, then you shouldn’t try humor. When I work on social media with a client, I try to help them know what their organization “sounds like” online. I liken the process to when I used to write speeches.

If I was writing a speech and I could “hear” the person I was writing for in my head, I knew I was on the right track. If I couldn’t capture that voice, the speech was much harder to get done.

A feisty gaming startup, a travel agency, and an insurance company are going to have very different voices from one another.

Whether or not you’re posting funny stuff, you should feel like you can hear your company’s voice in your head.

Don’t Try to be What You’re Not

There is a time and a place for being edgy. And most of the time, a corporate social media account isn’t that place.

Unless you’re American Apparel magazine, Red Bull, or some other brand that lives at some extreme end of a spectrum, the danger in which you place your brand by using social media humor in an attempt to be hip or edgy is often far too great to take the risk.

Timing is Everything

If your organization is one that requires significant levels of oversight and approval of your social media content, chances are humor is not going to be an effective tactic. There’s a level of spontaneity and individuality to social media humor that committees and ‘approval red-tape’ will always stifle.

The famous “Not Cool, Cookie” tweet was done in eight minutes, with no approvals. If it had gone through some levels of corporate hierarchical approvals, it would have taken far too long to be funny, and someone in the chain would have raised a question about whether this was necessary, or funny, or … and it would have died.

There’s a higher chance of humor hitting the mark when the people actually generating the content have a higher level of autonomy. Also, if your people have an onerous approval process to shepherd content through, the chance of them saying “it’s really not worth it” increases.

And finally, when you’re saying or doing something funny using a social media channel, it’s ESPECIALLY important to use your “outsider” eyes on it. You may “get the joke”, but you’re inside your organization. Will outsiders get the jargon, the shorthand, the image? Remember, this ‘joke’ is going to have an indefinite shelf-life. When people stumble upon it 6 months from now, will they still get it?

Humor is a VERY powerful tool that communicators can use. But social media humor carries risks that are far from laughable. Don’t gloss over them.

About Bob LeDrew

Bob LeDrew is principal consultant at Translucid Communications in Ottawa (Ontario, not Kansas). He's been doing communications in one form or another since 1987, and in addition to his consulting work, teaches regularly at Algonquin College and Eliquo Training and Development. He's also the creator of The Kingcast, a podcast dedicated to his favorite writer, Stephen King. He enjoys cycling, animation, whisky, and playing guitar. He usually only does a maximum of two of those at one time.

  • What’s noticeable about the Ottawa example is the amount of people that said they weren’t offended (going by the screen grab), many of whom were women.
    Like you say, humour is subjective – what’s offensive to some is funny to others (and vice versa).

  • Nice observation, sir. It would be fair to say, then, that social media engagement by brands overall carries some risks, no? Not just when it comes to humor. What is understood as a joke when told to your fellow office mates who can read your face and/or body language and/or tone of voice might not go over well posted on your twitter feed. This is typically the case when social media enthusiasts preach about why employees should be empowered to represent their company via social media engagement. It can be risky…and costly. 
    Of course, none of these same enthusiasts run a Fortune 500 company nor would they have to chip in for the lawsuit when a “harmless” tweet is misinterpreted and deemed offensive, nor would they be at risk of being fired by the board of directors for such an egregious oversight, but they preach on anyway.
    Social media can be effective if used properly and under the proper supervision when it comes to brands. I’ve been saying that for years and I’m sticking to it. A few hundred (thousand) RTs won’t make up for a million dollar lawsuit or bad press. I think most companies understand this.
    Just my stupid opinion 🙂

  • Bob-I definitely agree with your message and with the criticism around the Elmdale status update… However for the purpose of your (mostly) well presented argument, I don’t really think it’s fair to compare a small local restaurant up against multi-million dollar brands.

    Oreo and AMC no doubt have a team of strategists, community managers, and marketers behind their presence, whereas the Elmdale was likely one of the owners who wear a million other hats running one of the toughest types of business out there. Chances are the person who posted this didn’t even know about the uOttawa drama and other nuances which made the post particularly stinging.
    As for Oreo–yes they may not have approval levels etc behind their presence but you can be sure they have invested a lot of time and money into proper planning and strategy. They have probably made many mistakes in the past they’ve learned from to get them where they are and they’ve probably had many failed attempt at humor that simply just didn’t garner any attention.
    One of my favourite quotes is “it takes three years to be an overnight success” because we love to jump all over great examples and try to replicate but we seldom take the time to understand the path they took to get there (good or bad). I hope in some time we’ll look at Elmdale as a great example of a small business using Facebook if they’re able to take this incident to heart and learn from it.

  • bobledrew

    krusk  Points very well taken, Kelly. I wouldn’t want to equate a brand like Oreo with an independent restaurant. You brought up the “uOttawa drama”. For those who aren’t Ottawa folk, there were two incidents at a local university that I think had sensitivities running quite high at the time that the restaurant posted their update. 

    I think there still would have been backlash to the post without those incidents, and I sympathize with a busy small business owner. But part of the responsibility people running social media accounts take on is that of understanding the context in which they’re posting. In this case, they were aware enough of things happening to know that IWD was coming up. 

    I hope it will be a learning experience for them. The worst-case scenario would be for them to withdraw entirely.

  • bobledrew

    danperezfilms  First off, your opinions are FAR from stupid. I also think you’re spot on that ANY engagement is risky and must be weighed carefully.  I think you also make a really important point that humour can so easily be misinterpreted in the relatively flat environment that social media presents. Gestures, a raised eyebrow, tone of voice — the best we can do for those is to crudely simulate them with emoji, ALL CAPS, etc. 

    The gold standard, I think, is for people to prove themselves worthy of being able to act independently. When I was a media relations person, I developed the trust of my employers to first deliver statements, then to speak more freely with journalists. The same thing should happen with people who have the keys to the Twitter account or the Facebook page.

  • bobledrew

    Danny Brown  What was really interesting, and sadly, I didn’t screenshot the original post so I can’t show you, was that there was very little if any comment on the original post saying “Ha!” or supporting the post. I think there was a protest to the post, then there was a protest to its removal. That might point to the fact that those who oppose something are far more likely to speak up than those who support it.

  • bobledrew Good point mate. It’s easier to complain than to recognize, right? 🙂

  • bobledrew

    Danny Brown If I’m any example, YES.

  • “Voice” is so important. Lots of organizations and people have trouble figuring out what their voice is, so the ability of an outsider to recognize and capture it is a special skill. Especially for speechwriting, which is so often about getting the tone just right.

  • bobledrew

    RobBiesenbach  In the long term, Rob, I think that communicators have a special ability / responsibility to help identify that voice for the organization. It’s one of the things that we can do best, in my opinion. Sometimes “outsiders” can help an organization focus, but I think the “insiders” often best know the organization’s voice, even if they don’t realize they do.

  • I have to say, being a Torontonian – and not being privy to what’s been happening in Ottawa lately, *I* wasn’t offended when I saw the original post (someone in my stream had a screen grab). But, that’s exactly your point, isn’t it? As the owner was in Ottawa, and was probably up on the latest news, it might have been wise to not joke about International Women’s Day. People make mistakes, and that’s what makes them human. I just hope they won’t be afraid to engage again online.

  • Oh yeah Mr. Funny Man? You. Yes you. I’m talking to you. I’ve seen your humor and its pretty funny. Just don’t be bringing any of that stuff around here. ginidietrich runs a clean blog here. Granted belllindsaynot so much. She totally missed my use of the word balls last week in the comment section of that post everyone was talking about.
    I think the real gem here is try to be funny. Maybe have some success. but the chances of your post(s) being known by people all around really hinges on AdWeek, AdAge, MediaPost, or Mashable picking up the story. 

    I actually found the Woman’s Day joke funny. Just seems the delivery was bad or the wrong source. Donald Trump saying that vs say Ellen would be two different reactions.

  • bobledrew

    Howie Goldfarb Finally, someone thinks I am a MAN. I KNEW that bar mitzvah would take sooner or later. 

    I think your final paragraph is actually spot on. And that’s part of the two-way task of knowing your voice and knowing your audience.

  • You let Bob LeDrew in here? I don’t know if I can keep coming back here.
    BAM, social media humor! Done.
    PS- great article, great link to #whatnot

  • I actually laughed out loud when I got to “charging women full price”. And I’m one of those super-scary feminist types.

  • Tinu  Right? Next thing you know, there’ll be a Canadian flag hanging from the Spin Sucks logo, and a “Brought to you by maple syrup and bacon” disclaimer!

  • Mickey Gomez

    Go, The Bob!

  • Bob LeDrew

    “A” Bob LeDrew, surely.

  • bobledrew

    Tinu  Hahahaha GO’WAY.

  • bobledrew

    Tinu  I’d disagree, but it’s hard to do so whilst cowering.

  • Tinu  I have to maintain better control of editorial around here!

  • Danny Brown Tinu  THAT would be terrible!

  • Howie Goldfarb I’m surprised Livefyre doesn’t put you in detention for using balls.

  • Catching up on all I’ve missed earlier this week…Of course, when I saw this post was by bobledrew AND had Comedy & Tragedy I had to read it immediately!  Sure glad I did…really excellent points and I so agree with the “how does it sound in your head” advice!

    Regarding the restaurant post…I was more “offended” that in their apology they used “to cheap” instead of “too cheap” – starting to think I might have been an editor or English teacher in another life. 😉

  • bobledrew

    lizreusswig Must have been starting my working life in radio that got me addicted to reading what I write out loud. It’s something not enough people do.

  • IndiaHines

    I believe timing is everything in the world of social media.
    Trying to use humor on social media needs perfect timing. My favorite example
    of perfect timing is when different brands began to tweet J.C. Penney when they
    were doing its “tweeting with mittens” campaign at the Super Bowl. Brands saw
    the opportunity and it paid off. Every time someone would mention J.C Penney,
    they would mention the other brands that tweeted them. These brands managed to
    seize a real-time marketing opportunity and they managed to do it with
    humor.  I think these brands were
    so successful because they made sure the content was relevant and it tied into
    their own brands.

  • guptaabhijit318

    Great to know about these important points mentioned on the blog post related to social media.