Creative Thinking

4 Ways Humor Builds an Emotional Connection with Audiences

By Taylor Holland on February 2, 2016

Business might be serious, but people aren't.

We like to laugh. We tell jokes to entertain and bond with others. We look for a sense of humor when choosing a mate. In fact, 37 percent of men and 58 percent of women say it's a "must-have" in a relationship. (For women, this quality even outranks physical attractiveness.)

And while Hollywood awards shows typically favor drama, most people still prefer comedy. This is particularly true for younger viewers. According to a recent study by NAPTE/Content First and the Consumer Electronics Association, comedy is the top genre watched regularly by 74 percent of Millennials (vs. 70 percent for Gen Xers, and 68 percent for Boomers).

Yet, many content marketers still shy away from funny, opting to associate only serious or didactic content with their brands. It's not hard to understand why. Humor is risky because it's extremely subjective. What one person finds hilarious, another might find lame or-worse yet-offensive. Data-driven marketers run into even greater challenges, because you can't quantify humor or create algorithms to determine what will make people laugh.

But when brands do manage to find their audience's funny bone, it's a strategy that pays off.

BuzzSumo recently analyzed 100 million articles to determine what type of emotional connection each of the most popular (i.e., most shared) articles made with audiences. The top three emotions invoked included:

  • Awe (25 percent)
  • Laughter (17 percent)
  • Amusement (15 percent)

Even for B2B brands, which tend to be even more straight-laced than consumer-facing companies, humor can be an effective way to engage audiences. GO-Gulf's data shows that "entertaining" content is one of the top five reasons individuals follow these brands on social media.

So, what makes humor a powerful tool for brand storytelling? And why is it worth the risk to let loose, exercise a little creative thinking, and have some fun with customers?

The Psychology of HumorThe Psychology of Humor

What is humor? What makes a joke, a story, or a person funny?

Philosophers-from Plato to Aristotle to Immanuel Kant-have long attempted to answer these questions. By the 1960s, psychologists had gotten in the game. And in more recent years, even neuroscientists have tried to formulate objective definitions for the subjective emotion.

This, it turns out, is not an easy task. If there is a specific formula for funny, no one has figured it out yet. But scientists do have some general ideas about the psychological origins of humor.

Rod Martin, Ph.D., is a University of Western Ontario psychology professor and one of the foremost thinkers in this field. Author of The Psychology of Humor: An Integrative Approach, he analyzed thousands of peer-reviewed journal articles and other scholarly works, looking for answers.

The American Psychological Association sums up his findings:

What these studies are adding up to is the idea that incongruity-when an idea or an object is out of place-is the heart of humor, Martin says. Truth plays an important role as well: The juxtaposition of the two things often gives people a new insight into a familiar situation, he notes. In fact, much of the enjoyment of humor may come from seeing familiar situations with new eyes.

Cognitive neuroscientist Scott Weems, author of HA!: The Science of When We Laugh and Why, has reached a similar conclusion: Humor usually comes down to conflict. In a recent interview with Scientific American, he explains:

It's hard to define what is humor and what causes laughter and that's because it's really a psychological process. It's the dealing of conflict. Sometimes that's a conflict of emotions and sometimes it's a conflict of thoughts. [T]hat conflict can occur solely within the person and it can occur between people, too, which is why when we meet somebody for the first time, a lotta times we laugh during an introduction even though there's been no joke. [I]t's because both people are kinda working through this greeting process, and it leads to some mixed feelings. [I]t probably goes all the way back to our ape ancestors, who do the same thing. They bare teeth when they greet each other.

Peter McGraw, a professor of marketing and psychology and the founder of the Humor Research Lab at the University of Colorado, has posited the "Benign Violation Theory," which states that humor occurs when a situation is both benign and a violation of moral or social norms, or some other expectation.

In his Ted Talk, he shares several examples of how this plays out in both word play and in physical humor such as tickling or falling. He summarizes:

Walking down a flight of stairs. (No violation, not funny.) Falling down a flight of stairs but not being hurt. (Benign violation. Funny.) Falling down that flight of stairs and being badly hurt. (Malign violation. Not funny.)

What does all this mean for brand storytellers? While no one has been able to clearly define humor, evidence seems to suggest there is an underlying pattern.

Humor is all about challenging expectations, making connections between seemingly conflicting ideas or emotions, and surprising and delighting audiences with creative thinking they didn't see coming.

Of course, it's also about having a little fun. And that is something human beings can't seem to get enough of.

4 Reasons Humor Adds Value to Brand Storytelling

Determining the formula for funny might still have scientists scratching their heads. But figuring out what is funny to your unique audience simply requires understanding your customers, exercising some creative thinking, and perhaps a little trial and error. But at the end of the day, the risk may very well be worth it.

Here's why:

1. Laughter Creates a Positive Emotional Connection to Your Brand

There's a good reason we enjoy watching funny television shows, listening to comedians, or spending time with friends who make us laugh. Laughter triggers positive emotional, psychological, and physiological responses in the human body. Scientific studies have found that laughter increases endorphin production, making us feel good. It relieves stress, soothes muscle tension, improves our immune systems, lessens physical pain, and improves our mood.

Simply put, if you want customers to associate your brand with literally feeling good, give them something to laugh about.

2. Funny Content Is More Memorable

The human brain is wired to hold onto positive memories and release negative ones. Research shows that nearly 60 percent of unpleasant experiences are forgotten, while only 42 percent of good memories fade. This probably explains why some adults like to say "high school was the best time of my life," while teenagers look at them like they're crazy. It might also explain why I don't recall a single line from Schindler's' List, Boys Don't Cry, or Requiem for a Dream. Yet, my mind is full of quotes from South Park, Mall Rats, and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.

Comedy is memorable because it is associated with positive emotions. So if your content makes audiences laugh, they're more likely to remember it when they're ready to make a purchase.

3. Humor Is a Social Phenomenon.

Whenever I hear a knock-knock joke or lame pun, I immediately commit it to memory, because my sister, nephew, and husband's best friend all love stupid jokes. When I see a video or meme featuring a cat with a bad attitude, I forward it to my husband, because our cat is a jerk, so I know he'll get a laugh out of it. And I never watch new episodes of The Big Bang Theory without my daddy, because it's way more fun to laugh along with him.

Since humor is highly social, funny content is highly shareable. And there's scientific evidence to back this up. In a recent Ted Talk, cognitive neuroscientist Sophie Scott explains that people are 30 times more likely to laugh when they are with someone else than when they are alone. And that laughter is contagious, especially if they know the other person well.

Simply put: If content marketing can make people laugh, it can also make them "share."

4. Comedy Makes Brands More Relatable

Individuals have long used self-deprecating humor to make an emotional connection with others. It's a way to say, "I don't take myself too seriously" and "I'm fun to be around." According to researchers from Seattle University, this strategy also works well for leaders, who seem more relatable and therefore more likable when they're willing to make jokes at their own expense.

ScribbleLive blogger, Jennifer Taylor, makes a great case for why a little light-hearted self-deprecation can add value to content marketing by making brands seem less rigid and "corporate," and more relatable. As she puts it:

Don't give your audience a list of reasons why you're better than all the other brands out there; boasting doesn't craft meaningful relationships with the audience. Instead, poke fun at your weaknesses or find a clever way to play with the stereotypes associated with your brand. This strategy gives you a "unique transparency" that customers will naturally gravitate towards.

To illustrate her point, she lists several great examples. My favorite is IKEA's Mänland.

Understanding that many men prefer not to spend hours shopping for home furnishings, the retailer created a "daycare" where men can hang out, play poker and video games, and drink beer while their partners spend time in the store. IKEA set up Mänland locations at several stores around the world and documented the experiment on YouTube. These videos were watched, liked, and shared more than 500 billion times; followers grew by 11 percent in one week, and 84 percent of Mänland guests said they were more likely to return to IKEA.

Bottom line: Humor is subjective, and it's not a strategy that will work for every brand or appeal to everyone in your audience. But it does have proven value for marketers. This doesn't mean your content should be slapstick, shallow, or inappropriate. However, if you can make people think and put smiles on their faces, that's a winning combination.

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Taylor Holland

Taylor Mallory Holland is a freelance writer, editor, and content marketer specializing in technology, healthcare, and business leadership. As a content strategist, Holland contributes thought leadership content for some of the world's top brands, including Samsung, IBM, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, and UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine. She has been a contributor for The Content Standard since 2014.