The funny thing about using humour in content marketing

In Trends by Peter Gearin

Real-estate site Domain struck gold when it co-produced satirical series Avalon Now, but branded comedy success is never assured.

A valon, on Sydney’s upper northern beaches, is a highly desirable surfside suburb. It’s affluent and insular, and full of fashionable people who share a mod-hippie lifestyle and a view of what it means to be successful. The stereotype is yoga-toned, model-blonde families who dress similarly, get around in identical Range Rovers and eat at expensive cafes that serve macrobiotic kale muffins and Guatamalan single-origin lattes.

All of which makes Avalon a ripe target for satire. Local movie identities Felix Williamson and Bruce Walters saw the potential to take the mickey out of themselves and created a clip called Avalon Now, which won a local short-film festival and a massive online following in 2015.

Enter Domain, Fairfax Media’s real-estate brand. Known exclusively as a print and digital product that provides listings of houses to buy or rent and property advice and information, Domain ran a story about Avalon Now and pushed it onto their social media channels. It attracted a huge response.

“Our audience were commenting and sharing it with their friends,” says Jen Young, Domain’s senior manager, content and social. “It was like a fortunate mistake, really. It showed us [what we could do] by adding a bit of humour, by not taking property too seriously and touching on the reasons why people buy in a certain area. It tapped into the Australian psyche around where people want to buy.”

With a greater emphasis on promoting content through its social networks, Domain took a chance and co-produced a full eight-part series of Avalon Now. “It has such a national appeal,” Young says. “We were finding that we were getting people in Melbourne saying things like, ‘I imagine this to be the Fitzroy of Sydney’. People could still take those little bits of localised humour and apply it to their everyday lives.

“The really big concern for us was if we were pushing the boundaries too far. Will it relate to most everyday Australians? You’re just tapping into that middle-class angst and the dinner conversations that you have with your neighbours, which I think every Australian can relate to.”

The first series of Avalon Now has attracted more than 2.2 million views. Domain commissioned a second series that was released in the second half of 2016*.

Funny business

Just as jokes regularly fall flat, humour isn’t a sure-fire content winner. It’s difficult to do well, often needs to be highly targeted and may naturally infuriate a section of a brand’s key audience.

But if it’s done the right way, humour can be the ultimate content sugar rush for brands. Funny writing or video content can make even the driest business seem more attractive and addictive. If it’s consistently good, brands gain greater utility and credibility and audiences keep coming back for more. Even better, it will be shared freely among their friends.

Author, columnist and stand-up comedian David Smiedt says branded humour is naturally appealing because it’s presented as entertainment. “Rather than us saying ‘I’m marketing to you’, it’s almost an exchange,” he says. “We’re saying ‘I’m going to give you something in exchange for your attention’. So the punter has the laughs and at the same time you almost sneakily embed a brand message in there.

“I think punters are aware of saying my attention is worth something and the charge for that is entertainment.”

Smiedt, who writes columns for a range of mainstream publications, says it can be difficult to find the balance between being edgy and going over the top. “The ideal is to be on the edge so people talk about it,” he says. “It’s a sharp and dangerous hole that you step over into inappropriateness. But having said that, that creative attention is very, very important because if it’s too safe it just becomes digital noise and people go ‘oh, kind of seen this before’.

“It has to be something that’s really taking a view that’s ultra moment and very, very contemporary. It has to have that element of taking the piss a bit to work in Australia. Our humour is very dry. It’s very laconic. It loves butchering a sacred cow.”

Modern Aussie humour that Smiedt says works quite well are what Nandos does on social media (“I like the cheekiness of it”) and the Bondi Hipsters. “You’re setting up a camera and letting two people who worked together previously riff off each other,” he says. “You may only get 30 seconds of it but it’s a good 30 seconds. People will be watching it and talking about it.”

Smiedt says it’s vital that some brands look to use humour to laugh at themselves. “The Old Spice campaign is a perfect example,” he says. “[This is] especially if you’re doing some kind of reinvention as a legacy brand. You need to be able to acknowledge the elephant in the room. By doing that, you kind of go ‘OK, this is where we were and this is where we’re going . . . come with us’.”

When humour goes wrong

The internet is paved with poorly considered or executed attempts at humour on social media. David Smiedt says the simple rule that must be obeyed is that humour can’t be trusted to amateurs.

“Humour is just such a dangerous area,” he says. “The thing is, when it works well it is so incredibly powerful, but you need people with some level of experience to make the call. It’s not the intern who’s looking after the marketing campaign when everybody else is at lunch. It’s someone who makes jokes for a living and knows how to find funny in a way that’s not going to put anyone off side.”

But don’t be tempted to try creating “jokes by committee” – it produces messages that are neither funny nor spontaneous. “You end up with really watered-down content that is too safe to be effective,” Smiedt says. “There needs to be a very direct and punctual chain between the person making the joke and it getting green-lighted by whomever is further up the food chain. Once you’ve missed a 24-hour cycle, it just makes you look aged.”

So how should brands handle it if their attempt at humour backfires? “Acknowledge it but don’t be scared off,” Smiedt says. “Stick to the principle of providing something that’s funny and engaging. Even though people are going to be talking about it, it’s very easy to shut up shop and say we’re never going to do that again. It may be that you’re just looking in the wrong place for your comedic content.”

Smiedt says the other thing that often goes wrong is not picking appropriate gags for the target audience. “If you’re 20 and work in a marketing team but the brand you’re working for is mainly attracting 35-plus, you’ve got to be kind of aware that you can’t just pitch humour at your level. No one over the age 40 is going to get a hashtag joke.”

Avalon ride to success

Jen Young says one of the reasons Avalon Now is successful is that Domain has allowed filmmakers Williamson and Walters complete creative freedom. “We haven’t been involved at all in the scripting or the filming,” Young says. “They are the content creators and we left it to them to tell their stories. They just delivered us a final product. That is very risky for a brand – to put trust in the creators – but content creators understand how to reach different audiences.

“The one thing that brands can sometimes make a mistake with, especially with content marketing being quite new, is that they try and push their branding a bit too much, or try and have too much influence. At the end of the day you just need to put that faith in content creators, who can really just try and understand your objectives and the reason you’re investing in this space. But you have to leave it up to them to come up with creative angles to reach these audiences.”

Young says Avalon Now has helped changed the way people perceive the real-estate brand. “Property can be a very dry topic,” she says. “Rather than Domain just being that place for people who can afford a million-dollar mortgage, it humanises us a little bit more. It allows people to interact with Domain regardless of where they are in the buying-and-selling cycle.”

David Smiedt regards Avalon Now as an ideal model for Australian branded humour. “We’re a nation who loves a bit of a dig – going tongue in cheek. [Avalon Now] is absolutely perfect because there’s a gentle satire and a kind of poking and prodding of the stereotypes we see around us every day and that we recognise. Which is why that series works so well, because we’ve all stood behind that guy getting a coffee or that guy in the bank or that guy at a party.”

*Note: copy updated to include release date of second series.

Links & references

Avalon Now – episode 1

Avalon Now – episode 7

The Bondi Hipsters