I’m going to start off by showing my age by referencing a movie that’s 30 years old.
Goodfellas, that scene where Joe Pesci is called a funny guy by Ray Liotta and the mood changes. In what seems a surprising development to any Brit – us the nation who would rather be accused of being an unskilled lover than lacking humour – Pesci is not best pleased and, by not best pleased, I mean you suspect he’s about to kneecap the youngster.
(as a reward for making it through this post, the clip is embedded at the end. that will improve my scroll-depth stats no end)
Anyway. There are, it seems, people who don’t want to be labelled funny. There are times when being seen as humorous is not desirable.
It seems to me that all too often this also applies to what gets produced for websites and that can be a mistake.
In my opinion, and backed up by both experience and stats, adding a little humour can lead to greater engagement, interaction and loyalty.
At times, I’ve used this approach in my own career.
Of course, timing matters – this is comedy after all. A sales page might not lend itself to humour. If you’ve got a pop-up on site outlining your approach to keeping people safe during Covid-19 I’d lay off the jokes.
The amount of humour can also vary, you don’t have to turn your page into a stand-up script, it could just be using a bit go a light touch, using humour to display a degree of personality.
At the BBC (it’s been pointed out to me that I mention the BBC loads, but I did work there for 10 years so it does dominate my examples…). Anyway, at the BBC, I used this approach where possible if writing features or making a quiz or some other form of a light-hearted time filler for people.
(I then had to make sure it went to the right sub, not one of the ones who would sub out any degree of personality. I’m not bitter).
As with everything though, it has to be done with purpose, there has to be a reason you’re adding humour.
My role for several years was senior development journalist – this is the editorial equivalent of the chef who just plays around with recipes to see what works.
I was paid, quite well in hindsight, to think about these questions of critical importance. Here are a few thoughts.
How To Use Humour On Your Site
- Ensure the person creating the content is naturally at least a little bit amusing and can create light-hearted content.
Not everyone can do it and when it is done badly it can be awful. At best it will just fall flat, at worst it might be offensive and damaging to the overall brand.
- There is a reason to be funny.
What does it add to the piece? Is it to make it more enjoyable to read? Is it to show that the site has a personality? Is it encourage greater engagement? I will expand on this point below.
- There is an acceptance that it might not be for everyone.
The content should not be offensive to any site users but not everyone has to love it. As an example, it could be a light-hearted look at past winners of an award, maybe the forgotten winners, this to tie in with other, more traditional coverage of the event.
For a brand, it could be a landing page designed to appeal to a certain demographic while other campaigns and tones of content will target other groups.
- It isn’t tied to an age group
There might be an exception here – humour for young children is clearly different to that you might employ for an adult, the tone has to be much more carefully managed.
However, when we’re talking about adults it can be damaging to quality to think solely in terms of younger audiences or other groups. If you want to do an amusing take on something, do an amusing take – something that works for anyone who enjoys light-hearted material and is interested in the subject matter.
The best comedy is loved by people of all ages. I find that when sites focus on the 18 to 25 age bracket (as an example) they dumb down, patronise and produce something that isn’t really very enjoyable for anyone.
- The use of comedy makes the topic appealing to a wider group
For the start of the 2017 F1 season, we wanted to have a quiz on the BBC Sport site – the problem was that the ideas were all pretty tired. Can you name every F1 champion? A general knowledge quiz (who has the most race wins etc). We probably made one of those quizzes, but it would have been utterly forgettable.
A chat led to a much better idea – F1 driver or movie bad guy. F1 drivers tend to wear sunglasses when not in the car, they have a certain menacing look. By taking a couple of hours to find some great henchman images and choosing the right F1 drivers, we had a great quiz, one that got tens of thousands of shares across Facebook and Twitter and brought in non-F1 devotees.
The benefits of this were huge – yes, it delivered page views and shares, but more importantly, it brought users to a page that also had subtle details of our coverage plans for the new season. Many thousands of people who would have been entirely unaware that the F1 season was starting now had a small degree of interest. Some will have watched and listened to the opening race.
Admittedly it will have also inspired others to watch Die Hard, but at least it had an impact.
Annoyingly, the quiz isn’t available any more – the BBC killed off the quiz engine, so here’s a grab of a Reddit post talking about it as some sort of proof.
- The comedy does not belittle your product / service
The Formula 1 example above was the right line of being tongue in cheek, amusing but not insulting to the sport of Formula 1. As the rights holder that wouldn’t have been great.
For comedy, it is often easiest to just rip something apart, to say how awful it is (and, let’s be honest, that wouldn’t be too hard with F1), but, while getting a few laughs, that form of humour will often be wholly inappropriate. This really comes back to comedy and the art of humour being a skill – knowing both what is funny and also what is appropriate.
Our newsletter for the 2016 Olympics was a great example.
The newsletter hit inboxes in the morning, summing up the night’s events (this was Rio so the action took place oivernight UK time) – as such there was little point simply repeating the major news lines, most people would already know them from news bulletins. Instead, we also looked for quirky clips and wrote in an engaging tone that saw click-through rates go beyond 40% and open rates surge.
Key here was also having a reason to use humour. Had the newsletter gone out the second an event finished it might have made sense to keep it succinct, a very simple list of results. Instead, this was a product designed to be enjoyed as a whole, rather than simply a quick news recap.
The top section of one of the newsletter is below.
This email had links through to all the Golds mentioned, but it was the link below that received by far the most clicks. I’m proud of the seven-iron gag!
Producing good light-hearted material can be more time consuming than to have very straight copy – certainly, the newsletter would have been quicker to write if it was in a more bland, basic tone.
There has to be a point beyond simply being fun to write – after all, editorial teams are not of unlimited size.
For the newsletter, we saw that engagement rates were huge and we also got positive feedback. It also wasn’t divisive, unsubscribe rates were never higher than five for the day. However, had engagement rates been mediocre or had there been a negative response we might have decided against the approach.
Key to good editorial – perhaps key to good anything – is to have a reason to try something, is to have a hypothesis that is being tested, but then to have an ability to see whether the approach is a success. You may not always have detailed analytics, but you can at least gauge opinion.
- Don’t assign blame
If you’re going to attempt a lighter, humorous tone then it might not work, or it might not always work. Unless you get things completely wrong, it should never fail to the extent of being a problem, but it may not bring in the new audience you had hoped for or it may not achieve the engagement levels you imagined.
It is OK for things to not work as hoped – it was a valid hypothesis, it simply didn’t work. Learn what you are able to learn from the experiment. Was it the wrong event? Was the tone not quite right?
The only way to progress is to try things.
- Don’t give up too soon
Linked to the above, unless your site is blessed with a huge, loyal userbase it might not be easy to tell whether a change of tone has been a success or otherwise.
Any individual post can live or die by factors largely outside of your control – it may rank in a prominent position on search or be unloved by Google. The post could get a retweet or mention from a prominent social media account that then sends thousands of eyeballs its way. But for this one interaction, engagement might have been far lower.
You need to give it time so that you can start to see patterns. Think of it like an England opening batsman – you don’t want to be dropping them after one Test in which they make two low scores. However, you also can’t be too loyal – if there is repeated failure than eventually that can be said to be the pattern.
Graham Gooch got a duck on Test debut, Keaton Jennings a century. Neither set the pattern for their ongoing Test career.
- Get practice in
Do you have an event you think might be suited to some humorous or light-hearted coverage? Are you planning a campaign that is going to utilise a different tone?
Don’t neglect to practice in advance. Start experimenting with the new tones, perhaps just on the occasional piece of content – find out what works, what level of humour feels right? Does finding your funny bone add significantly to the time taken to produce content?
In previous roles, I discovered that because we had experimented we were then able to commit at bigger events. We would never have attempted a humorous tone in an Olympic newsletter unless we had refined the style over many months, across quizzes, features and social media.
Look for opportunities that lend themselves to this tone and then give them a go.
Right – two more things
Does using humour work on sites, is it an underused tactic? Where have you seen it done well (and perhaps with less success?) Please let me know in the comments or get me on Twitter.
Also, here’s the clip I promised – it’s probably the only reason you scrolled this far. Doesn’t matter, the joke’s on you, it still counts as a completed read in my stats – just by someone who reads VERY fast.