Humor in email marketing. Humor in email marketing.

How to use humor in email marketing

There’s nothing inherently funny about insurance. It’s boring to talk about. It’s boring to think about. When you actually need to use it, generally it’s because something bad has happened.

And yet, somehow, insurance companies are behind some of the most iconic (and funny) American ads and advertising mascots of the past two decades. There’s a gecko. There are cavemen. There’s a duck. There’s an upbeat and quirky saleswoman named Flo. There’s Jake from State Farm. And the latest addition to the bunch is a crime-fighting emu. So what gives?

GEICO was the pioneer behind the trend of adding humor to insurance ads.  In the late 1990s, when insurance advertising was dominated by messages that conveyed dependability and the promise of family security, GEICO introduced its gecko. The humor resonated, setting off a chain reaction that has redefined an industry’s approach to marketing.

The insurance companies’ success demonstrates just how well humor can break up the mundanity of marketing and create an unexpected connection between customers and a brand. In fact, a recent study by the Academy of Marketing Science found that humor in marketing has significant impact on holding a customer’s attention and fostering a positive attitude toward a company. However, one reason it works is because it’s not easy. Humor is deeply subjective; when a joke lands, it’s tapping into sensibilities that sit close to the core of who we are. When humor doesn’t land, it might be doing just the opposite: Triggering our defenses and making us feel isolated or even attacked.

In this article, we provide a basic framework for determining whether or not humor is a viable option for your brand’s email marketing. We also go over some practicable, implementable suggestions for first dipping your toe into using humor—and then fully employing it as a marketing and branding tactic.

Is humor right for your brand?

On one level, humor can work for any brand. As the insurance company example illustrates, a strategic use of humor can work for products regardless of whether there is something funny about them.

The question isn’t whether you can use humor effectively—most brands could use humor. The challenge is to figure out how humor can be employed for your brand, and how high the stakes are if it fails.

If you’re selling something fairly benign—say, travel accessories or plaid shirts—a humorous approach isn’t likely to offend your customers. Furthermore, much like humor itself, these items are often inextricably linked to identity. A marketing pitch that successfully employs humor while promoting a product that’s important to a person’s sense of self can be immensely powerful.

If, however, you sell something more serious—say, high performance blimp parts or caskets—humor becomes a much dicier proposition. We’re not going to say you categorically can’t use it, but it’s quite a needle to thread; you don’t want any customers to feel like you’re mocking them or belittling something inherently difficult and sensitive. In other words: If you want to make an advertising mascot for your casket business named Casky the Dancing Casket, you may see your unsubscribe numbers skyrocket. 

Here’s a good example of how a serious company with a serious social mission still finds a way to strategically use humor. TOMS was founded around the principle of making a positive social impact with its business; for every pair of shoes a person buys, they donate a pair to someone in a developing country. Humor isn’t necessarily correct for many of TOMS’ emails, especially those relating to its social mission.

However, that doesn’t mean it’s never right. They’re still a shoe company targeting a younger demographic, so when they’re promoting a “fun” line of shoes or doing something else lighthearted, they’re not afraid of humor.

TOMS Star Wars ad.
Via: TOMS.

Clearly, when it comes to humor, it’s important to pick your spots well.

Baby steps into using humor in email marketing

If your brand has never employed humor in its marketing, you may want to test the waters a bit before diving in head first. After all, a sudden shift from straightforward to witty messaging might be jarring to core customers who are accustomed to a voice that’s already been established and fine-tuned.

Go from corporate to conversational

Brands that have developed a track record for stoic, straightforward messaging may have trouble identifying an avenue for a more humorous pitch. A wise first step is to try a more conversational tone with an email campaign.

  • Rather than composing an email as if addressing your full email list, approach it like you’re speaking to one loyal customer who you know well.
  • Avoid sales jargon and cliches like “best-in-class” or “customer-focused.”
  • Keep your sentences short, natural, and friendly, and don’t worry too much about perfect grammar. 
  • Try reading your content out loud; if it sounds unnatural and salesy to you, it’s likely your customers will feel the same way about it. 

Follow these simple steps, and an impersonal pitch like this…

As the pioneering world leader in personal space travel, SpaceCorp offers best-in-class excursions to Mars—and that’s not all! Our customer service is unrivaled (the customer always comes first with us), ensuring that your journey will be safe and replete with all the comforts of home, wherever in the universe you reside.

…becomes this:

Hop on the next ship to Mars! Sit back, grab a cocktail, and enjoy time with the fam on your way to the Red Planet. 

Once you’re comfortable operating in a more casual mode of communication—and your customers are comfortable receiving it—you can sprinkle some humor into your marketing emails.

The funny subject line

If you’re hesitant to jump right into a funny sales pitch, a subject line might be a better place to start. After all, one study found one-third of emails are opened because of the subject line alone—so it’s good to stand out in the inbox with something that makes a person smile.

Puns are a delicate art, but a pun that’s good—or so-bad-it’s-good—can help you differentiate your email from others. Here’s an email from Sephora using a so-bad-it’s-good pun in the subject line. (And also employing another humor-adjacent technique: Referencing a song lyric. Subject lines with a song lyric or movie quote have almost twice the open rate of other emails.)

Sephora's pun email.
Via: Milled.

Just because you’re using humor, it doesn’t mean you need to avoid other tried-and-true subject line techniques (like creating a sense of urgency or being timely and topical). Here’s a subject line with an unexpected joke twist that still manages to use action-oriented language.

Whatever route you choose, the key is to keep your subject line on point while piquing your customer’s curiosity enough that they’re compelled to open the email.

A/B testing your humor

A/B testing is a staple of advertising and marketing, and can be utilized to test out humorous sales pitches. After you’ve put together a typical email blast, try making an alternate version that integrates some playful content. Segment your audience so you can send each version email to a similar demographic group (say, men between 18 and 39). After 24 to 48 hours, you should have a good idea of how each email is performing. If the humorous email is significantly outpacing the standard version, it’s very possible that you’ve struck a positive chord with your customers.

The normal caveats with A/B testing apply. Don’t change more than one variable in the email, or you won’t know what caused differences in your results. (If you change the copy, the images, the color, and the offer, you won’t have any idea which thing was influencing readers most.) And you need enough people to send your variant to in order to get statistically significant results. (Use this calculator to model whether your list is large enough to get trustworthy results.)

Strategically using April Fool’s Day 

Timing is of the essence; if you want to try your hand at humor when your customers are most receptive to it, you can’t go wrong with April Fool’s Day. Granted, your customers will be expecting jokes from everyone, so your content may not stand out. But you’ll give yourself the opportunity to get comfortable with humorous marketing and establish a springboard for further experimentation.

In this email, West Elm keeps their April Fool’s joke simple—a receipt from the future to show off its sale prices. This email was delivered with the subject line “Thanks for your order!” While likely creating a moment’s confusion for many customers, the joke is quickly revealed with a fake receipt that effectively highlights significant discounts on offer. 

Via: PostUp.

Making humor part of your email marketing strategy

Once you’re comfortable using humor in your marketing emails, you should abide by a few standard principles to avoid brand-damaging blunders. The last thing you want is for your playfulness to be perceived as callous or oblivious toward your core customer base. The following tips can be used as a roadmap to keep your gags on the right track.

Don’t operate in a vacuum 

Most eCommerce shops don’t have a huge marketing department with teams of brand developers fine-tuning every communication for perfection. Still, your emails should pass through at least one or two other people before you hit send on a campaign. This is especially true for content that deviates from the norm; research has shown that failed attempts at humor have unique power to damage attitudes toward brands. If you’re new to humor, you may want to start by asking trusted colleagues if your jokes will land with your customers. Remain open to honest feedback, and if the consensus is that your content has the potential to flop, it may be best to revise or move on altogether. 

Make sure you fully understand a trend before you start joking about it

One common marketing blunder is the misuse of timely humor and trends. In particular, light-hearted treatment of current events with heavy societal implications has resulted in PR disasters for numerous brands. Kenneth Cole learned this lesson the hard way after its bizarre attempt to tap into global discussion of the Arab Spring in 2011:

That underscores an important reality: It’s critically important for brands to fully understand a situation before they turn it into a joke or sales pitch. Additionally, some social issues are too complicated and sensitive for brands to appropriate for a sales pitch. Even the best attempts at participating in important social discussions are prone to heavy backlash. 

If you’re aiming for timely humor, it’s best to tap into inoffensive subject matter that’s conducive to laughs. For example, a play on “May the force be with you” from Star Wars has turned May 4th (“May the 4th be with you”) into a faux-holiday. Many brands have participated with great success.

IKEA May the Fourth ad.
Via: AdAge.

This content from Ikea checks all the boxes: It’s timely, it’s on brand, it incorporates a clever play on words, and it wouldn’t offend even the most sensitive Ewok.

Monitor your audience

As you continue to use humorous marketing, it’s important to assess how receptive your core audience is toward your well-meaning attempts to make them chuckle. If you see a rash of unsubscribing after a humorous email, it could indicate it wasn’t funny—or wasn’t funny for your audience.

For example, studies have shown that openness toward humor in marketing varies by age groups; middle-aged folks tend to be more receptive to humor than older and younger people. If your core age demographic is 24-36, you may want to be mindful of what millennials find funny and steer clear of jokes that employ dated cultural references. Even if you’ve got the perfect way to tie Milli Vanilli to your latest sale. (“Blame it on the rainboots” and so on.)

Key takeaways

Humor has the potential to amplify a brand’s message and distinguish it from the pack, but it can be tricky and intimidating to get started.

Before moving forward with a humorous sales pitch, eCommerce shops should think about whether lighthearted content is compatible with their brand and products, and employ a number of tactics to ensure their jokes land with customers.

  • Get started with a more conversational tone. Before committing to a humorous sales pitch, brands can test the waters with a more casual and personal approach to email marketing. Some simple tweaks include shorter, simpler sentences, avoidance of common sales jargon, and a looser approach to grammar.
  • Try out a funny subject line. Brands that are squeamish about a humorous sales pitch can play with subject lines to get a sense of their customers’ openness to levity in marketing.
  • Employ A/B testing. A simple A/B test within a small segment of a brand’s customer base can serve as fertile testing ground for experimentation with humor. 
  • Use April Fool’s Day as an entry point. A great time to joke with relative impunity is when everybody else is doing it. April Fool’s Day is cultural moment when lighthearted humor abounds, and customers will be expecting it.

And once you’re regularly using humor in your marketing, there are ongoing steps to make sure it doesn’t backfire—or lead to a PR nightmare.

  • Subject your work to multiple editors. The best way to avoid misfires is to get more eyeballs on your content before sending it to customers.
  • Be smart with timely humor. Some current events are simply too sensitive to be treated lightly. Aim for cultural moments that most people feel good about or are completely innocuous.
  • Pay attention to customer demographics. Make sure your humorous marketing content will appeal to your core customers; avoid humor that will offend or feel irrelevant to the people who support your brand the most.
Matt Maggiacomo
Matt Maggiacomo is a writer, digital fundraiser, and musician with over four years of executive-level experience in nonprofit management. He has been utilizing digital technology to promote his creative projects since 2001 and is the founder of the creative consultancy Pitch & Prose.

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