Funny business: why humour works in social media… and when it doesn’t

Something strange has been happening to our guardians of law enforcement lately. It began with Solihull police in early December:

Then spread to Surrey Police, who appeared to be suffering from an overwhelming compulsion to channel ’90s rap almost-legend Vanilla Ice:

Police with a sense of humour? What was going on?

While some considered the idea of laughing policemen ‘inappropriate’, reaction was generally positive. Solihull police were retweeted more than 22 thousand times. Surrey police’s series of rapping tweets generated more than 5 thousand retweets and 600 new followers, spreading their more serious message to motorists about staying safe in bad weather far and wide. Good relations with the community are a valuable asset for any police force, and raising a laugh was a nice reminder that policemen are people too.

And it’s not just the police that have been turning to comedy. O2 gave a masterclass in how to defuse a tricky situation with humour, when its network failed last summer. Inundated with angry tweets from customers, some highly abusive, its very funny and very human response won it a lot of friends, and certainly helped to calm the irate O2 customer in my household.

Bodyform’s spoof CEO video reply to a snarky Facebook comment, which had racked up 80,000 likes, subsequently went viral itself, with more than 3.5 million YouTube views to date.

Even the White House has got in on the act with their wonderful answer to a petition calling for the building of a Death Star by 2016: this isn’t the petition response you’re looking for.

Humour done well surprises, grabs our attention, connects with us emotionally. If something makes us smile, we want to share that feeling with friends, so we’ll pass it on. And we’re more likely to remember it. 

But B2B’s a serious business, right?

That’s fine for consumers, but what about business people? Credibility and professionalism are key in B2B. Surely funny doesn’t work?

It can. Business customers are consumers too. They like to be entertained as well as informed. A little light humour can help a company stand out from the crowd, communicate complex ideas in an engaging way, and stick in the memory.

And to prove it, here’s a lovely self-parody from IBM, not the first name that comes to mind when you think ‘comedy’:

That joke’s not funny

Humour can be a dangerous thing, though, and there’s a fine line between being witty and being crass. What makes us laugh is very personal – ‘Miranda’ leaves me cold while it may reduce you to hysterics. Understanding your audience is key.

Laughing at situations rather than people – unless it’s yourself – is a good rule to follow. Avoiding the obvious causes of offence – swearing, toilet humour and that list of things that end in -ist or -phobic – also reduces the risk of losing friends and alienating people.

Pay close attention to context – sending out a humorous tweet in the midst of a tragedy or disaster, for example, jars horribly and makes you look insensitive and tone deaf.

And like any written communication, remember that tone of voice is open to misinterpretation, as Pizza Express found to their cost with this recent Facebook post. Even the winking smiley wasn’t enough to stop some people seeing their message as ‘hostile’.

And finally…

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite Twitter come-backs, from NHS Direct, demonstrating perfectly how to bring a little smile into customer service:


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