Expressing yourself in 140 characters is an art.
Done well, tweeting can even land you a dream job. Here at Fast Company, our executive editor Noah Robischon even has a framed edict on his office wall: "Stop tweeting boring shit." But stifling yawn-worthy tweets is one thing, composing a one-line comedic gem for the masses is quite another.
We’ve come to expect it from stand-up comedians such as Megan Amram, the spambot @horse_ebooks that posts bits of context-free hilarity randomly pulled from online texts, and formerly unknown Justin Halpern, who rose to fame tweeting the caustic observations of his father from @shitmydadsays. But brands bringing the funny on Twitter? Not so much. To wit: @ChipotleTweets took to fake hacking its feed to produce a stream of nonsense notes meant to evoke a chaotic mirth similar to that of @horse_ebooks. Though the tactic earned the burrito chain several thousand new followers, Chipotle quickly resumed its regular (not particularly humorous) promotional voice.
There’s no hard data on whether funny tweets sell more product, in part because it's hard to quantify a medium that’s so subjective. What we do know is that recent a Nielsen study indicates digitally native Millennials have a better ability to receive rapid delivery humor than their Boomer counterparts. We also know that tickling someone’s funny bone is a key to forging bonds with customers, the kind of engagement that can translate directly to the bottom line. To better understand the slippery concept of successful silliness, we asked our Twitter followers to tell us about their favorite funny brand tweets and talked to companies about their best practices.
Define Your Voice
Seamless inspired serious Twitter love when the company kept delivering meals to hungry New Yorkers during Hurricane Sandy. But the company keeps the orders flowing in thanks to a steady stream of tongue-in-cheek tweets like: "It's 4PM. Do you know where your afternoon waffle fries are coming from?" according to Ryan Scott, Seamless’s vice president of marketing. Scott describes the brand as "fun, witty, and quirky," and says that’s translated well on social media where the team interacts with their fans as friends.
"Before publishing a tweet or responding to one of our fans, we think, "Would I laugh at that? Would I be compelled to share this image? Would I RT this tweet?" Scott explains. Thanks to Seamless’s leadership allowing them to take "deliberate risks," Scott asserts, "We can try new things and have fun with the latest trends." Think: photos of a staffer’s hot dog socks or clinking margarita glasses on National Tequila Day.
Though he wouldn’t specify numbers, Scott says Seamless analyzes content and engagement metrics to determine what works and what doesn’t. With over 65,000 followers on Twitter, Scott says funny tweets do drive traffic to their site which can be converted into sales.
For every five people who LOL, there’s sure to be some who don’t get the joke. "The important thing for us is if we find it funny," says Patty Jordan, Eat24’s creative director. The meal delivery service now operating in over 1,000 U.S. cities applies a broad stroke of drollery, starting with its channel’s bio. "Our mission is to keep you from having to cook, shop, or wear pants. Order today, leftovers tomorrow. Did you just solve dinner twice? Yes, you did."
"There is no secret sauce," Jordan points out, followers who appreciate their particular flavor of humor often find them. Those who don’t care for it simply unfollow the feed. Jordan says that though people can be "jerks and trolls" on the web, not many people have given Eat24 negative feedback. Being authentic carries responsibility, Jordan quips. "When humor is your voice, if you aren’t offending someone you are probably doing it wrong. You can’t be wishy-washy."
That said, the Eat24 team (there are seven who handle social media) try to respond to every @ reply, even the ones who might be challenging the brand to a verbal sparring match. Eat24’s rule of thumb for combative individuals: "Don’t start a Twitter war. Just see their side and move on."
Even if they are not trying to be funny, some corporate accounts feed followers a steady stream of promotions peppered with puns, wisecracks, or other content meant to capture fleeting attention spans on Twitter. Marketing veteran Cameron Reed thinks this is an unfortunate by-product when brands try to engage customers on social media. "It’s all supposed to be connecting with brands you care about," he says, "but people don’t need to be communicating with certain brands."
Reed admits that brands such as Charmin have successfully built a personality based on a product. "Bum jokes are allowed to be crass," he notes. Meanwhile, Reed thinks cleaning products, grocery stores, or snack foods have been generally less successful at bringing the funny. "There’s a couple hundred junior marketing individuals hired to work with unsubstantial copy [that's] run through the corporate grinder to the point that it’s just more noise on the Internet."
Instead of simply complaining about it, Reed started his own parody feed for Doritos Ontario a couple of months ago. Tired of sponsored posts in his social feeds, Reed and a friend started riffing about the possibility of a corporate brand serving up hyperlocal snack foods with regionally flavored content to boot. Reed set up a page and started tweeting all manner of "branded nihilism." In just two months, @DoritosOntario amassed nearly 3,000 followers, many of whom responded to our query for funny feeds.
Reed says no one from Frito-Lay has contacted him to take down the site—or asked to work with him. No matter. As a veteran of both advertising and marketing, Reed views the five minutes he spends on the parody site daily as a means to raise the bar on his work. Especially because not many are in on the joke and think the account is real.
"It gives us a better critical filter on type of media we consume," he says. A lot of advertising and marketing is necessary, but noisy, he says, and a lot of it is really terrible. "Anything that engages people to think, forces us who work in the industry to get better and find more authentic ways to communicate."
[Image: Flickr user Jeffrey Zeldman]