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

BIG fish PR is an unconventional agency that helps its clients redefine their industries.