A little humor can be effective when marketing to CEOs

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Marketing is no laughing matter. It's both science and art, and is subject to increasingly sophisticated measurements of the impact a campaign has and the return on investment it brings an organization.

Still, sometimes a little humor can go a long way toward scoring a marketing goal. This month I spoke with Craig Conard, President of Sudden Impact Marketing, a Westerville, Ohio-based marketing company. We discussed the impact and implications of humor in a marketing campaign.

"So, a marketer walks into a bar..." Why is humor often taboo for marketing "serious" products and services?

Conard: I think the typical line of reasoning is that C-level executives are very serious and don't have time for nonsense. Perhaps we can talk about a no-nonsense approach to wooing C-levels with humor?

Sounds like an oxymoron.

Conard: Think about it: You spend 15 hours of calling just to get one C-level executive on the phone. And many typical 1:1 marketing approaches for C-levels are just not that successful. A no-nonsense approach to wooing C-levels with humor can achieve three major objectives:

  1. It gets through the gatekeeper. It's not "just another mailer" or vanilla communication.
  2. It's going to get the C-level's attention for at least a period of time.
  3. It can deliver a succinct value proposition and provide a little levity at the same time.

But why humor? Why not a straight-forward white paper or executive roundtable invitation?

Conard: Can you imagine how much boring marketing communication C-levels get each week? "Come attend our event and learn blah, blah, blah." David Ogilvy said, "No one was ever bored into buying."

But think about the flip side. How often do you think people are joking around with C-levels? Not that often. People simply enjoy laughing and end up liking people (and companies) that make them laugh. Unexpected levity is a pleasant surprise, so long as you are not wasting their time and it is in good taste. C-levels are willing to have a chuckle. They are not willing to spend the day on something silly.

What is the first thing a marketer should do to get started using humor?

Conard: First, you want to make sure that the message you're delivering breaks through the clutter to get a momentary look from the C-level executives. They are more apt to look at your marketing if it is out of the ordinary. Don't go out there with a product message to a C-level. It needs to be the higher-order business issues they deal with every day, the things they care about, such as budgets, personnel and staffing, and services delivery from their supply chain and to their customers. If your message touches on things they talk about with their executive team, then you have hit on something that will catch their interest.

Reminds me of the joke, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?"

Conard: Exactly—practice, practice, practice. In the case of marketing, it's prepare, prepare, prepare. Every time I read something that addresses profiling of IT executives (the audience Sudden Impact's customers hire it to reach), I send it to all of the account people. I always send information to my team. You need to read and really understand your target's perspective.

You must know your target audience. You may think you want to target a C-level audience, but you need to think about what they care about before you do this. If it isn't their job to know about your solution, service or product, then you are targeting the wrong prospects. Marketers often think that they need to go to the CEO to get to a sale completed quickly. And that may be true in smaller companies. But in both large and smaller companies, if what you're saying isn't something they care about or keep up on, you won't get any response.

Can you give me an example of a humorous campaign?

Conard: Sure. First, when I say humorous, I don't necessarily mean "side-splitting comedy." What I do mean is something that looks at a particular topic with a dose of tongue in cheek. We have done things where we develop characters that represent our target audience and the business challenges they face. Then we personified those challenges and came up with super villains who were responsible for slowing down the workflow of a business.

We had a lot of fun with it and created graphic novels, interactive games, even an action figure. Yet within all of the fun we also presented real hard-hitting, reality-based content. So we cut through the clutter with humor and then delivered valuable information that the executives could actually use. We had a 12% response rate, more than $5 million in pipeline, and closed revenue of $1.7 million within six months.

OK, so how do you tell your internal marketing team or sales team that you're planning to use a humorous campaign to make the numbers?

Conard: First you need to steel yourself for hecklers. As a marketer, you will have some internal clients sometimes push back and say something that you're planning sounds ridiculous. You need to be willing to weather some arrows. When you get 8% to 10% or better response rates, they will ask when the next humor-based program starts.

Can you give me an example of humor that works versus humor that doesn't work?

Conard: I don't think that crude humor or anything that stereotypes anyone is appropriate. It can distance your intended target. The idea is to make fun of a challenge your target audience can relate to. This way you are demonstrating that you understand the challenges they are facing.

Lisa Dreher is VP-marketing and business development with Logicalis Inc. ( She can be reached at [email protected], or via Twitter at @LisaDreher.

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