This month’s B2B content question comes from Alistair Ross, who wants to know: “Why is there so little humour in B2B content?”
It’s a fair question. At a time when everyone in B2B is talking about the importance of emotion and brand likeability, content in the sector seems to be getting more and more serious. In fact, 69% of our pals on LinkedIn said there’s less funny content now than there used to be.
To answer Alistair’s question, we’ve enlisted comedian and copywriter Lianna Patch, an expert in using humour to boost conversion rates.
As well as considering why funny content feels so scary, Lianna shares some tips to help you avoid potential pitfalls and get off to a great start.
We also get a perspective from this month’s guest co-host, Radix Senior Copywriter Katy Eddy, and hear a copywriting tip of the month from our Head of Copy, Matt Godfrey – who tells us how to write a great opening line to get readers hooked.
You’ll find a full transcript of the episode at the end of this post.
Funny B2B content: where should you begin?
If you think about it, there’s a lot about work which is kind of ridiculous. So it’s no wonder Lianna thinks there’s plenty of scope for B2B marketers to use humour to good effect. Helpfully, she shared three tips to help you do it well:
1. Emails are a safe place to start
If you’re experimenting with humour, emails are a good place to begin. It’s a personal space where you’re building a one-to-one relationship with your reader, and gives you the chance to warm things up before reaching for the jokes. First, flex your tone a little – making it friendlier and less formal – so when you introduce humour it feels more natural, and less of a shock.
2. Observational humour works well – especially in B2B
Observational humour is one of the safest styles, because neither you nor the reader are the butt of the joke. Instead, you’re commenting on something you can both observe – whether it’s a pop culture reference, or something about the industry you’re writing for. If you can laugh together at an aspect of the job, it shows you understand how they’re feeling.
3. Don’t make a joke in isolation; help your reader too
Humour can be a powerful way to defuse a difficult situation. But you can’t leave it there, or your reader will feel like the joke’s on them. Instead, end your communication by explaining, very clearly, how you’re going to help. As Lianna puts it: “I know you’ve been waiting a thousand lifetimes for this delivery – so in the meantime, here’s what we can do…”
In this episode, you’ll find…
1:00 – We welcome our co-host, Katy Eddy, to B2BQ&A.
2:40 – We put Alistair Ross’s question to Lianna Patch.
13:20 – Katy and David share best and worst examples of humour in content.
21:20 – Matt Godfrey supplies our copywriting tip of the month.
Have you got a question for B2BQ&A?
How to listen
- You can download the episode here (right-click and select “Save As” to download)
- Or you can subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts
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- And don’t forget you can follow us on Spotify
- Firstly, thank you, Katy, for being a brilliant co-host.
- Thanks to Alistair Ross of LogicLogicMagic for your thought-provoking question.
- And Lianna Patch for giving us an excellent answer and lots of useful tips. (Lianna promises to overshare about her personal life on Twitter.)
- Thanks to Matt Godfrey and his (strangely Australian-sounding) robot twin for that dazzling copywriting tip of the month.
- And last but not least, thank you to everyone who contributed to the LinkedIn vote and discussion, especially Andrew Last, André Spiteri, and Craig Clarke.
Podcast editing and music by Bang and Smash.
Transcript – B2BQ&A 102: Why is there so little humour in B2B content?
Alistair Ross: Why is there so little humour in B2B content?
Katy Eddy: That’s an excellent question. Let’s ask… Lianna Patch!
David McGuire: Hello, listener, you are very welcome to B2BQ&A, the podcast where we go in search for an answer to your question about B2B content writing. This is episode 102.
Katy: In a moment, we’ll ask comedian and copywriter Lianna patch a question from Alistair Ross: why is there so little funny content and B2B? Lianna will also share some pointers to help you use humour well in your own copy. And we’ll hear copywriting tip of the month from Radix’s own head of copy, Matt Godfrey.
David: Well, sort of.
David: My name is David McGuire. I’m creative director at Radix Communications, the B2B writing agency, and this month, our guest co-host is none other than Radix’s senior copywriter Katy Eddy, and we’re actually in the same room for the first time in what feels like years. Katy, welcome.
Katy: Thank you. Thank you for having me back. Firstly, I’d like to apologise to people for the inevitable echo because we don’t believe in soft furnishings at Radix.
David: No. Yes, as you can hear we’re recording this surrounded by breezeblocks, and minimalist style.
Katy: It’s very fashionable.
David: How are you, Katy?
Katy: I’m very well, thank you it’s nice to be back near people.
David: Yeah, isn’t it?
David: And talking in real life and not having lag in conversations. But now I have no excuse for when my brain shuts down. It’s just all me.
David: I won’t tell anyone if you don’t. So Katy, as guest co-host, would you mind telling the listener how they can get in touch with us?
Katy: I can absolutely do that. Listener, if you have any comments or suggestions you can find Radix on LinkedIn or Twitter @radixcom. Or, if you want us to answer your question on a future episode, record a quick voice note and send it by email: email@example.com.
David: Cracking job; thank you very much.
Katy: Right then, let’s get on to this month’s question. Come in Alistair Ross.
Alistair: Hello. I’m Alistair Ross, creative partner at LogicLogicMagic. And my question is, why is there so little humour in B2B content?
David: This is a really well made point Alistair. When we think about the really memorable examples of B2B work, I mean, especially B2B videos, so many of them are funny, but actually, those examples are few and far between. And when I asked on LinkedIn, 69% of respondents said B2B content is more serious now than it used to be. And that comes at a time when people are talking a lot more about emotion in B2B content and the importance of B2B brands being likeable. So it seems a bit well, weird. To get to the bottom of it all. I asked Lianna Patch from Punchline Copy. Lianna is a comedian herself, but also she’s a copywriter and she’s worked on subjects as interesting as accountancy software and legal contracts for business. So I started by asking her Alistair’s question, why is there so little humour in B2B content?
Lianna Patch: I think it’s because people are scared. And there’s a holdover from, you know, business culture of the past, where we’re expected to be very formal and professional. And the definition of what’s professional is still kind of mired in. “Dear Sir, or, Madam, I have this offer for you please, at your earliest convenience reply”. And that’s not how humans talk. Right? So there’s this resistance because it’s scary to try a new thing. It’s scary to be the only one in your industry trying the new thing. But I think the payoff can be incredible.
David: And is that harder to do in B2B, do you think?
Lianna: Only because of the mindset, and because there are more corporate structures and people to get through and permissions to get, you know, if you’re running your own thing, you can decide to change the way you communicate. But if you’re working with 50 other people who also have to be on board, then it’s much slower and often doesn’t happen.
David: Do you think the picture has changed lately?
Lianna: Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I hope that I see a trend toward using it more. I wonder if the pandemic has affected people’s willingness to go out on that limb? Because like everything is on fire all the time. So like maybe we shouldn’t joke, although I think it works to lift the pressure sometimes.
David: So if the listener was tempted to start trying a bit of humour in their B2B content. Do you have tips for them? Where should they start? Because you know all about being funny, right?
Lianna: I hope so. God, I hope so. I’m just an enthusiast, just a casual observer. I always say start in emails, because that’s where you have that one-to-one relationship building opportunity. It’s less risky. And then even within that, you don’t need to start your email like, “Hey, David, knock, knock, who’s there cold email” although I love that, and I would love receiving that. There’s a spectrum, right? You can sort of ratchet up the warmth and the personality. So maybe you switch from saying, Dear David, to Hi, David. Maybe you contract more words from “we do not do this” to “we don’t do this”, which hopefully, you don’t have to say all the time. You know what I’m saying? Like there’s a way to just be friendlier, that’s on its way to actual humour and jokes.
David: So you’re kind of warming them up. And then you’re hitting them with the jokes…
Lianna: Hopefully. And maybe that’s a confidence builder on the end of the person who’s trying it for the first time.
David: Sure. And then are there aspects of B2B that you think are kind of particularly – so emails as a format, good place to start? Are there kinds of aspects of when you’re writing to someone about their job where humour can be particularly helpful?
Lianna: I think so. Especially if you have to deliver bad news, or you have constructive criticism or feedback to deliver, couching that in some sort of humour or observation that makes them feel like we’re in this together, or I know how you might be feeling to get this news. And I get it. And like, hopefully, it doesn’t ruin the rest of your day, or whatever. I think that can help soften things and make people more receptive to receiving bad news or criticism. But you don’t want to joke about them. You don’t want to joke about their ability, like big warning sign, big caveat.
David: Okay, so you don’t make jokes at their expense. But you might joke about the realities that they’re facing as part of their work.
Lianna: Right, right. So this is something that I tend to teach is that observational humour is one of the safest styles of humour. And that’s making a joke about something that we can both observe in our environment, or in pop culture or current events. That brings us closer together, but I’m not the butt of the joke. And you’re not the butt of the joke. So we can safely laugh at it together
David: with you. And presumably, within B2B, the point is that you have to show them how well you understand their job.
Lianna: Right. So like, if you’re, if you’re delivering the bad news that supply chain disruptions have kept your container in port, and you still don’t have, you know, this product for your client, depending on how many times you’ve had to tell them and like how receptive they might be to this. You might say, like, I know, it’s, it’s been 84 years and use that gif from Titanic of the old lady like holding them. “It’s been 84 years…” although that might be too niche. Like, I know, You’ve been waiting forever. And it really feels like this for me. I feel like I’ve lived 1,000 lifetimes just waiting for your container to be offloaded. But in the meantime, here’s what we can do. And here’s some ways that I can help you. So if you’re going to make a joke, in a bad situation like that in a fraught situation, remember that you should end with helping them. Don’t just like, make a joke and leave them there.
David: As you mentioned earlier, for a lot of people in B2B, the problem is going to be getting that stuff past their stakeholders, right, getting that stuff approved and signed off. You got any tips on how they can approach that?
Lianna: They can point to the piles and piles of research, showing the benefits of humour for relationship building information recall, anxiety reduction, you know, ability to see someone who’s making your life harder as a person with their own issues, and not just like a problem. There’s so much research out there pointing to the psychological, social and emotional benefits of humour.
David: So could you give an example that has kind of worked for you in B2B of using humour?
Lianna: Yeah, so I worked for a client called Sprinkler Supply Store, and they wholesale sprinkler parts and landscaping equipment. So I wrote some email series for them, some automated email series. And I think usually in all across all industries, but especially in like B2B and manufacturing, you get someone clicking on in Klaviyo, and just using the default flows that are already set up, but we wanted to do something different and fun. And so we set up an abandoned cart flow, where we talk about one of the guys who works at the company is crying because you haven’t finished checking out and then the second email is like “Kyle is under the desk, now he won’t come out we had to call his mom” and the third email is like, “Look, Kyle’s on his last legs, we need you to finish paying.” And the client gets good feedback on that all the time, people respond to those emails and say like “This brightened my day, this was really funny and unexpected.” And they notice elsewhere in the funnel that I worked on optimising with them, they noticed that microcopy that feels friendly and feels funny and like, hey, a human was here, a human paid attention to this, I will buy from them with more confidence now. Because if they pay this much attention to their checkout flow, someone will be there when I need support.
David: I guess what I see with a lot of brands that use humour to attract certain clients is that by doing that, they’re trying to kind of turn away people that maybe aren’t such a good fit for them. And maybe it’s a good way to find the clients that are the best fit for you and the way that you want to work. Does that sort of make sense?
Lianna: Yeah. When you start to get more comfortable with your sense of humour, and your personality, and how you can bring that into your communication, any disconnect between that and a potential client is probably a red flag. Like, I have no problem with people who want to be very formal about their projects. And like, obviously, I send proposals and we do contracts. And you know, I have an invoicing software like that kind of professional, obviously, very important. But if we’re not able to write each other quick email saying like, “Hey, did you get a chance to look at the document? Yeah, I did. I’m out this week, but I’ll look at it later.” If every email has to be like, “Julieta, upon receipt of your former email…” I have decided that, you know, that it’s not a good fit. And I tend to sort of repel those people before they even get to me on purpose.
David: Is there a challenge where people are maybe nervous because not everyone agrees on what’s funny, right? It’s a very personal thing.
Lianna: Definitely. Yeah. And I think that’s part of the resistance. People are afraid to make a joke because they don’t know if it’s gonna resonate with the other person. And I think getting around that starts with knowing your own sense of humour. And starting to know your own sense of humour involves looking at what you enjoy. What makes you laugh, being mindful in the moment? What shows and comic books and cartoons do you like now? And did you like as a kid, what stand-up comedians do you find really funny, and just get very curious about what it is about them? Maybe it’s the subject matter, maybe it’s the delivery, maybe it’s the sophisticated joke setup, and you just have like an incredibly highbrow intellectual taste and humour. But that will help you connect with what you find funny. So you can bring a little bit of that in at a time, and it feels authentic and not like you’re trying to be someone else.
David: If the listener wants to find out more about you, either your comedy or your copywriting? How can they get in touch with you?
Lianna: They can find me on Twitter @punchlinecopy where I share far too much about my personal life.
David: Don’t we all. Thanks again, Alastair, for your question, and thank you, Lianna. I had an absolute blast talking to you, which is kind of predictable when you think about it. Katy, what stood out for you there?
Katy: I mean, I think for a start, she is very correct in saying that people are scared of it because I personally am terrified. There’s something that feels so risky about putting a joke down on paper and sending it to a client. I feel like an inherent need to defend a joke that I make and over explain it to the point where it stops being funny.
David: Explain a joke, it no longer works.
Katy: Exactly. And it will always get taken out anyway. Because I think, yeah, people are super nervous about it. And with good reason, I think. Well, I think I see more examples of humour going badly than humour going well. And it depends whether you think all publicity is good publicity.
David: Can you think of an example of humour going badly?
Katy: I mean, I always lean on the same thing every time, which is the messages you get when things crash. This isn’t a B2B example, specifically, but it’s something I see a lot when Chrome breaks and you get a little sad face, and you get oops, and I’ve been harping on this literally my entire career at Radix. I hate it. I hate it so much. It makes me so angry, just irrationally angry. And I get it like objectively it’s, you know, it’s designed to diffuse something that’s frustrating to you, but I see red at that point. I’m starting to think that maybe I’m just a bad person that doesn’t like humour. I thought I did. But maybe I don’t.
David: Yeah, I mean, I think like MailChimp do this really well, like there’s a whole guide for MailChimp’s writers about what you do and what you don’t joke about. An error message is, you know that the whole thing is about what is the reader feeling in that moment, if the reader is frustrated and a bit annoyed, making a joke at that moment is maybe not the thing to do. But it’s all situational, about the audience rather than about you, which I think is pretty is pretty clever. I mean, there are good examples, though. I mean, B2B is kind of ripe for that observational stuff that Lianna was talking about, because there is so much about work that is ridiculous.
Katy: Oh, yeah. So silly. And I think, with the exception of a few, probably executive level, people who take it very seriously, I think it’s universally accepted that business structures and things we do on a daily basis, are very silly.
David: You just need to want to point it out. Right?
Katy: Exactly. Like you need someone who’s probably braver than I am to point out that we’re all just sitting at our little computers writing our little emails.
David: One of the best examples of humour I’ve seen lately, in a B2B context is like the Apple thing that they did last year that was shortlisted for the best content of the year. The one that like this whole working from home thing. And, you know, they kind of just exaggerated how ridiculous everything was now everyone was kind of working from home, but not doing it in a way that was anyway, kind of making a light of the pandemic, I think it was quite skilfully done. So when you’re writing a piece of content, and you’re thinking of putting something in funny, is that coming from you? And then you’re explaining to the client, or is the client pushing you to be more funny?
Katy: I think usually, if a client is telling me to be funny, I will do absolutely everything in my power to tell them not to be funny. I feel like if they come to me expecting to try and be funny, it’s not gonna end well. I do. Only with clients, I know really well. And I’ve spent a lot of time like, stewing in their brand voice, I think, then you get, you get a sense of what you’re able to joke about, and the kind of jokes that would fit with their tone.
David: I have this theory that puns specifically – humour, I have time for – puns specifically, I think are a nightmare in B2B. Because most of the time, we’re writing for people that have spent more time in that industry than we have. And so they’ve seen all the puns, like if you’re someone like us, and you write for this industry, that industry, the other industry a little bit at a time a pun might seem really fun to you. But like if you’re an OEM in the air conditioning industry, how many times do you think you’ve seen puns with the word “cool”? That’s a cool solution. Yep. You know, or I see so many things aimed at the automotive industry, that are always switching gear or puns with drive, you know, drive results? Like do you not think that they’ve seen all of that already? I think that’s always the slight worry that I have. Is it the like, it’s old hat already for the audience.
Katy: Yeah, I kind of think about it, in the same way as I experienced in retail, when I was younger, when something wouldn’t scan properly. And the other person is like, oh, it’s free. And, and you know, that’s very hilarious. Well done, congratulations. But also, you’re probably the eighth person, probably on the same product that doesn’t have a proper barcode on it, asking me that question. And, I mean, in that case, you’re paid to laugh. But when you’re trying to sell to somebody, or you know, convince them to come to your company, they’re just gonna roll their eyes is so hard, like, there’ll be a physical creaking noise.
David: So we think probably observational humour about how ridiculous work is, is good. And it helps you as a B2B brand to show someone how well you understand their job. Puns may be less so
Katy: Maybe, definitely not. Thank you.
David: So I actually wanted to get to the bottom of this idea about whether there’s less humour in B2B than they used to be ‘cause I kind of feel like all the good examples that I know apart from the apple one are kind of four or five years old. So I asked our friends on LinkedIn 69% said there’s less funny content now than there used to be. Andrew Last at Harvard says it’s definitely becoming rarer, which is a shame because it has so much impact. Andre Spiteri says they’re still some funny stuff, but sadly, again becoming rarer, while Craig Clark at Marketreach says they’re actively trying to encourage people to try it. Recently, I’ve spoken with a marketer at a B2B tech company that’s well known for its humour. And even there, they are deliberately trying to move away from it. I mean, is that a trend that you see things are more serious than they were?
Katy: I’ve definitely seen less of out in the world. I think, for me, personally, I’m in the fortunate position where I’m starting to bed into clients that I’ve worked with for four or five years, they’re trusting me a little bit to have a bit of fun. Yeah, I’m currently working on a project which is targeting UK health providers. And I think there’s a good opportunity there to tap into a little bit of their gallows humour, but not too much of it. I don’t want to be stepping on toes.
David: So if there’s less funny content, then maybe that is an opportunity. Either way, thanks to everyone who took part in the discussion, you lovely, lovely people.
Katy: Now it’s time to hear our copywriting tip of the month. Radix’s Head of Copy, Matt Godfrey is far too shy to record his actual voice. So we had to get a computer to read his tip for him.
Robo Matt: When you’ve finished writing a piece, delete your first sentence. Too much B2B content opens with unnecessary exposition, especially considering we’re typically writing for an expert audience so by deleting your first sentence, or even your first paragraph, there’s a good chance you’ll have a much stronger opening that will hook readers in rather than telling them stuff they already know.
David: Thank you for that Robo Matt. It’s good advice, especially in B2B. Katy, is that trick that works for you?
Katy: Yeah, absolutely. I think. I mean, for me, I’m a very aggressive self-editor. So it’s not just the first line or the first paragraph that goes. It’s often the first 300 words that I have written, but, yeah, it’s about acknowledging how much of your writing is working yourself up to the point that really matters, I think, and, you know, culling what is extraneous.
David: Anything that enables us to delete in today’s fast moving, competitive digital landscape, comma,
Katy: Yeah, no one needs any of that. No one.
David: Well, I’m sorry to say that is all we have time for this episode. Katy, please, would you thank this month’s contributors.
Katy: Huge thanks to Alistair Ross for asking such a thought provoking question and to Lianna for answering it so excellently. And also thanks to Matt’s robot twin for the copywriting tip, and to everyone who took part in our LinkedIn poll and discussion.
David: And thanks to you, Katy, awesome as ever, and lovely to see you in person, of course. And even if the room is a bit echoey nice to actually do this the proper way. Listener remember, it could be your question that we answer in a future episode. If you have a question for B2BQ&A to answer, email and voice memo to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or find us on social media. I’ll see you next month for a special B2BQ&A when we’ll be trying to answer the contentious question: what has been this year’s best B2B content? Until then, make good content and remember a day without laughter is a day wasted. If you spent the day laughing on a zoom call, well make your own mind up
David and Katy: Goodbye!