Humor and B2B Marketing: A Love Story

Business-to-business companies often can’t find a way to fold humor and storytelling into their marketing, because what they sell isn’t… well, funny. Or they think it’s not much of a story. Here’s how one company challenges that assumption.

If I were Cisco Systems trying to show how the role of information technology (IT) is changing, I could commission a research-based whitepaper detailing new consumption models brought about by cloud, security, mobility, and programmable networks. I might talk about how that is creating new markets and business models, transforming communication and knowledge sharing, and significantly changing the role of IT.

Or…

I could tell you a story featuring a real chief information officer sharing in clear, simple language about how she’s using technology to sell more beer to the people who want to buy it. And toss in a few bits of humor and playful improv to give it warmth and a little personality.

Which would you find more compelling? Here’s my vote:

I suppose my setup wasn’t entirely a fair comparison. There’s obviously room for both in business — complex whitepapers that give a comprehensive look at the changing world of IT, and lighter, story-based videos that add a heartbeat and pulse to an idea. But the video—shared with me by my friend Tim Washer, who helped produce it and co-stars as the overly friendly waiter—works for three reasons:

1. It’s a lively approach for customer videos and testimonials—as opposed to the canned customer testimonials more generally seen.

2. This is an enticing piece of marketing for a information-rich, meaty microsite published by Cisco.

3. It tells a true story well. The video features an actual CIO — Marina Bellini, who works for Grupo Modelo in Mexico. (Grupo exports Corona.)

Cisco’s Voice of the Customer team—featuring Tim along with Andy Capener and Chris Huston—produced the video, one of a series of three featuring real CIOs having real conversations about jobs they pretty much love. This YouTube playlist links to all three videos, and here’s what any company can take away from this series as a model for an effective approach:

Ban Frankenspeak. In a lot of customer videos, you see folks who are speaking in corporate lingo, using buzzwords and talking points. But CIOs are real people with real personality, and I like the innovative approach to show true personality in corporate IT.

How did Cisco pull it off? “A key to getting people into a relaxed, conversational state of mind is getting the right environment,” Tim said. “We knew we did NOT want to shoot this is a conference room, but instead wanted to show these folks in some non-business-related setting and interrupt that” typical idea.

Tell a simple story really well, aligned with a bigger idea and broader strategy. We’re all familiar with the classic voice-of-the-customer talking head video. Cisco sought to create a different model for the typical corporate approach.

“We wanted to add an entertainment element, which I think is critical for a video to find an audience on YouTube,” Tim said. Secondarily, it wanted to humanize the companies—both Cisco and the client company—by letting the audience see a personable, conversational side.

(Notice how I said personable and not personal there? The CIOs aren’t talking about their home life or children or pets; the video isn’t personal. But they do talk about business with plenty of personality—that’s personable, and in my mind a sweet spot for business-to-business companies.)

As for the bigger strategy? That was to highlight how modern CIOs think more strategically, transforming IT from a cost center and into a source of revenue — by connecting to new customers and new markets.

Keep it tight. These videos are all a mere two-ish minutes, which was also a strategic move.

“Our hope is that by making these fun and keeping them short, we’ll be able to reach a new audience on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and so on… and if the topic is relevant to them, they’ll visit our blog for more info on the Fast Innovation topic,” Tim said.

Take a risk. The Cisco team worked with some constraints (filming at an executive conference with only 15-20 minutes with each CIO during the session breaks) and with an element of fear: Tim worried that the CIOs might be reticent or hesitant.

(They weren’t, by the way. Turns out that CIOs can be total hams.)

But this last point is critical. Great content very often means taking a risk: No matter what your data shows about your audience, you still might miss the mark.

But when it hits? It’s magic.

Total Annarchy

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23 Responses to Humor and B2B Marketing: A Love Story

  1. Leigh Durst says:

    Nice Ann. This is exactly what I’m trying to get a client to do in describing the transformative effects of their efforts. :) It’s a great example to bring to them.

    Plus Tim Washer is so funny. :D

    • Ann Handley says:

      Glad to hear it, Leigh! I think the idea of focusing on “story” is often overwhelming to companies, especially in the B2B space. But I like this as a simple model to follow.

      And yes – Tim is!

  2. DJ Waldow says:

    ANN!!! Can you blog every day? I would pay you to blog every day. #SSS.

  3. Pingback: How IT Is Changing: A Story About Beer | Social...

  4. Great video. Nice job Tim! You continue to inspire me.

    Note: This article needs more Churchkey. I need Churchkey!

    Cheers!

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  6. Siva says:

    Ann, Great….content. I am in India working with young students helping them finding their Life Purpose and Dream Career. I believe, stories are wonderful ways to connect with people, especially when marketing, even when you market yourself to a perspective employer. Thanks for sharing this.

  7. Ann, I love your final point about the value of risk taking. Jonathan Fields and Seth Godin describe this point better than I can in their conversation: Seth Godin On Books, Business, Choices and Life.

    To paraphrase your good friend, Seth: “If you care (but you’re scared), nothing happens. If you care (but you aren’t scared), magic happens.

    As always my friend, thank you for sharing the magic …

  8. Paul Gillin says:

    Tim is a treasure, and Cisco is lucky to have him. As you point out, Ann, this interview is mostly unscripted and the humor doesn’t get in the way of the message. Tim’s talent with one-liners is what makes it funny. You never know what he’s going to say next. Cisco is breaking new ground in using humor in a B2B context.

    • Tim Washer says:

      Thanks for the encouragement Paul. There were a few times during this production process that I thought I might be granted the career opportunity to go back to waiting tables. But I’m please with how this series turned out, and that we were supported to take the risk.

  9. Josh Light says:

    Ann,

    Nice article. Cisco did a great job with this video. Non-evasive, filmed in a place people can relate to, and such a genius idea to get real CIOs to participate.

    How many turned your friend down?

  10. Thanks to share this information. i am impressive to this blog..

  11. Nice piece, Ann. Tim is awesome; his one-liners and facial expressions are priceless. Humor need not be so scary; this is a great example of ‘simple.’

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  13. Corina Kennedy says:

    Thanks for sharing Ann. I love the approach Cisco has adopted in sharing customer testimonials. It’s not always easy to simplify complex concepts but Cisco nailed it in an entertaining way. The waiter played his part to perfection.

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