Humanizing Corporate Twitter Accounts: Why Humor Works

It’s much easier to build affection towards brands when they feel human, as opposed to the standard cold tone of a business playing it safe. When companies only use their Twitter for shouting promotions and responding to complaints, they’re squandering the unique interactive potential of social media by treating it the same as 20th century mass marketing. Take this tweet, which sounds like it was copied and pasted directly from a TV commercial:

People are already tuning out this kind of advertising on TV, so why would they voluntarily opt in to more of it on Twitter? Information about sales and new products is important, but it’s “closed loop” content. In other words, followers are less likely to retweet overt promotional material – so if that’s all the account tweets about, they won’t reach or convert new potential customers. In the world of earned media, brands have to put out content that gives some kind of value to the customer, content that they’ll actually want to see and retweet. A 2012 study on the top 100 most engaging Facebook posts in the fast food industry found that fewer than 20% featured straight-up promotions such as buy-one-get-one offers, discounts, sweepstakes or contests.

Arena Flowers, a UK flower delivery company, used to have a traditional, strictly business Twitter account – tweets about flowers, few followers and no interaction. CEO Will Wynne says he understands the lack of engagement: “Unsurprisingly, people are not that interested in tweets about flowers…it’s just not that interesting, not much changes.” So now they tweet things like this:

Wynne explains the motivation in the change of strategy: “This was not a value added activity for us, an organization with limited resources…the value of our twitter account in its previous form was absolutely nil. Options: either change the approach, carry on wasting time writing stuff that no one reads or stop tweeting.” The account now features hilarious one-liners and random silly thoughts, with almost no mention of their actual business.

Wynne admits the new style got a mixed reaction: Some thought they had lost their senses, and “other flower-related businesses looked over protectively and offered us kindly words of advice about how to conduct ourselves on Twitter properly.” But the zany tweets got them noticed, and their followers love it so much that they’ve become enthusiastic brand advocates.

The retweets, favorites, and rave reviews from fans put the Arena Flowers brand in front of exponentially more eyeballs than when they tried to promote their business directly. This is exactly what they were going for, according to Wynne: “It would be annoying to keep pushing buy messages (the average Brit buys flowers twice a year). So our plan is to keep people engaged and have our name in their head so that when they do buy, they think of us.”

Chapin Clark of Cannes Lion winner R/GA says humor “imbues the brand with a more human face — a warmth and familiarity that people can identify with,” as he put it at a SXSW panel called Being Funny on Twitter (Without Getting Fired). It gives people a reason to follow and a positive association with the brand, even if the tweet isn’t actually related to the product.

Previously perceived as an old-fashioned deodorant worn by your grandpa, Old Spice famously reinvented its brand with The Man Your Man Could Smell Like (currently boasting a whopping 45 million Youtube views). Their Twitter displays the same charmingly unapologetic absurdity.

When Old Spice picked a fight with Taco Bell, the result went viral – and not only on Buzzfeed and Adweek, but also more “serious” media outlets like the Atlantic, BusinessInsider, and ABC News.

This kind of offbeat humor with a shot of testosterone is distinctively Old Spice. Taco Bell is another brand known for its cheekiness that frequently engages in Twitter banter.

But even when (or perhaps especially when) brands aren’t known for their sense of humor, it makes waves when they let their hair down and joke around. This little tiff reached the front page of Adweek and nabbed almost two thousand retweets.

Here’s another example of brands throwing down: After Twitter user Laura Ellen tweeted about following both Kit Kat and Oreo, Kit Kat challenged Oreo to a duel for her affections in the form of a game of Tic Tac Toe. As Mashable notes, this was a clever choice that allowed Kit Kat to show its product.

Oreo declined, probably to avoid the awkwardness of potentially losing the game. But they did so in a tactful way that complimented Kit Kat and incorporated their slogan “Gimme A Break.”

As long as they keep the “fight” light and fun, the ensuing publicity is actually a win for both companies. Most corporate Twitter accounts remain more of a presentation than an interaction, but conversations can make the company feel more human, and that makes it much easier for people to bond with them. Taco Bell’s clever quips excel at making their brand seem like a person you want to be friends with…or more than friends:

Taco Bell’s social media community manager says, “every day, we get tweets and Facebook posts from consumers asking us to marry them,” and an increasing number of people are incorporating the brand into their actual weddings. Taco Bell has also honored passionate fans’ requests for everything from a custom speedo with its slogan “Think Outside the Bun” to a poster of the Beefy Crunch Burrito (which racked up over 66k notes on Tumblr).

Taco Bell wins a lot of love from fans for firing off fresh, funny replies tailored to the individual tweet or Facebook post. Ron Faris, CMO of Virgin Mobile USA, describes how social media is all about context: “Talking to consumers now is like engaging a group of people mid-conversation at a cocktail party: You want to know the right time to step in, the right time to bring context and contribute to the conversation. That’s a revolutionary approach to advertising, an industry founded on the concept of shouting messages from billboards to break through and win your attention.” Taco Bell shines in this area. It doesn’t limit its responses to tweets it’s tagged in – it keeps an eye out for people talking about the brand and then surprises them by jumping into the conversation.

They also participate in trending hashtags, something I haven’t seen from any other major brand. By finding a funny way to make themselves relevant to whatever people are talking about, they hijack the wide audience on the trending hashtag feeds.

They even surf the pop culture zeitgeist – here’s a perfect example of knowing how to step into a conversation and contribute:

And their strategy is paying off: In the aforementioned study on the fast food industry’s most engaging Facebook posts, Taco Bell led by a wide margin with almost twice as many top 100 posts as the next closest competitor, and it snagged the #1 post with 87k likes.

Taco Bell prioritizes conversation and community building over self-promotion, and their humorous indirect approach nets them a lot of free exposure and brand loyalty. Their brand illustrates how far companies can go using nothing but free resources, if they’re willing to stop relying on the traditional style of promotional content and take a leap. Other companies should move into the 21st century and take advantage of social media’s unique potential by revamping their approach from a broadcast to a conversation.
Morgan Kee

Rolling Stone Controversy

Rolling Stone: A Publication Rooted in Controversy

Rolling Stone has covered rock and roll, politics and culture for more than 40 years. Beginning as an underground magazine in 1967, Rolling Stone was immediately controversial due to its coverage of and ties to the hippie counterculture movement during a particularly tumultuous time in the United States.

Although a mainstream publication now, Rolling Stone hasn’t lost its controversial tendencies.  In January 1981, the Rolling Stone cover featuring a naked John Lennon spooning Yoko Ono raised eyebrows. Another cover featuring a nude Janet Jackson stirred up controversy in 1993. And in June 2010 Michael Hastings’ story, “The Runaway General,” made headlines across the country and the eye-opening investigative journalism led to the end of General Stanley McChrystal’s military career.

Outrage at Boston Bomber Cover

Now, Rolling Stone is making waves again with its August 3 issue.  The cover of this issue features a photo of Dzhokar Tsarnaev with the tile, “The Bomber: How a Popular, Promising Student was Failed by His Family, Fell in to Radical Islam and Became a Monster.” Many are outraged and feel the photo glamorizes Tsarnaev and therefore completely disrespects those affected by his alleged violent actions. The public voiced their opinions online, sparking a #BoycottRollingStone hashtag on twitter, discouraging anyone from purchasing this issue of the magazine.

Mayor Tom Menino wrote a letter to Jann Wenner, co-founder and publisher of Rolling Stone, condemning the article, and pointing out that the magazine should have instead focused on the “brave and strong” survivors of the bombing. Menino closes the letter with these powerful words: “The survivors of the Boston attacks deserve Rolling Stone cover stories, though I no longer feel that the Rolling Stone deserves them.”

The Other Side

It has yet to be seen if Rolling Stone had any interviews with Tsarnaev or uncovered any new information on the bomber, but not everyone is angered by this Rolling Stone cover. USA Today reported that Rolling Stone’s first response to this issue was to refer to their cover story on Charles Manson with the coverline “The Incredible Story of the Most Dangerous Man Alive.”  This article, which features an interview with the man convicted of conspiracy and murder, won a National Magazine Award in 1970.

Boston Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham’s article “The Rolling Stone cover image can’t hurt us” makes a case for the Rolling Stone cover story. She points out that Rolling Stone “does something newspapers like [The Boston Globe] have taken great pains to avoid: It convicts him.”  In response to the criticism of the particular photo chosen for this cover, Abraham argues this: “To see him as that skinny kid on the ground, or on the Rolling Stone cover, is to confront the possibility that good-looking kids who seem totally normal, good students who give off no sign of trouble at all, can become monsters, too.”

The editors at Rolling Stone issued a statement on Wednesday afternoon defending the article.  In this statement they said “the cover story we are publishing this week falls within the traditions of journalism and Rolling Stone’s long-standing commitment to serious and thoughtful coverage of the most important political and cultural issues of our day.”

What do you think?

Was Rolling Stone just trying to gain publicity with this? Were they wrong in publishing this story, or could it be a historic piece of investigative journalism? Would your opinion change if they had used a different photo of Tsarnaev?

Comment below.

Brigid Gorham


Infographics: The good, the Bad and the Useless

Humans are largely visual learners, and all different types of publications are starting to use infographics and visuals to appeal to these natural tendencies. According to visualization researcher Fernanda Viegas in the 2010 film “Journalism in the Age of Data,” “Half of our brain is hardwired for vision. Vision is the biggest bandwidth that we have in terms of sensory information to the outside world.”  Consuming information visually makes it easier to understand and analyze, especially when the information is large amounts of data.  New developments in technology allow for better visualizations, and the natural human attraction to these graphics fuels continuing popularity of data visualizations and infographics.

Seeing information allows us to comprehend it differently than if we simply read the data or heard it recited. Aaron Koblin, also featured in the film “Journalism in the Age of Data,” created a data visualization and explains just how useful it can be: “It’s one thing to say there are 140,000 planes in the sky above us, and that kind of registers.  But at the same time if you can see the ebb and flow of the system you can make insights about population distribution, about infrastructure, about the decisions that are being made by air traffic controllers.”  Creating visuals to display data allows for a deeper level of comprehension and analysis.

Interactivity with this data can help us understand it even further and makes it more entertaining.  The New York Times realized this trend early on and now has an entire page on their website dedicated to infographics and interactives on all topics from the Olympics to elections, business, culture and more.

 NYT  graphics and interactives pages

As they become more popular, blogs, magazines and newspapers often use infographics to attract readers. Others attempt to encourage clickthroughs by making sure to include “[INFOGRAPHIC]” in their tweets with a link to the visualization.  While these can be incredibly helpful and have changed the way we consume some information, they aren’t always necessary. An infographic should display data in a way that the viewer can visually understand it, not simply put numbers inside shapes, use color and different fonts.

There are many websites and blogs that criticize and discuss infographics.  For example, this tumblr page features examples of unnecessary and confusing infographics, like the photo pasted below, originally taken from  It takes a few moments of reading to simply understand what it’s about.  Its creator scattered some sentences around the page and extracted percentages only to display them out of context and in bright colors.  It would be easier to comprehend this information if it were in paragraph form.  Using different colors and sizes can sometimes help us organize information on a page by looking at it, but using too many can also hinder comprehension.

When used correctly infographics can be helpful, interesting, and fun.  You can create your own with a variety of tools online.  Check out our simple graphic below, created using tagxedo.  This image enables a viewer to see what BIGfish is all about at a glance.  Words used most commonly on our website are displayed in larger fonts. You can perceive and interpret the information more quickly than if the information was presented in sentences or even a chart.  Data visualizations are here to stay, and can help drive traffic your website or blog by appealing to the visual nature of humans as long as you know what you want to convey to your audience and carefully consider the best way of doing so.

BIGfish infographic

Brigid Gorham