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College is a funny thing. It’s full of scholarly pursuits in the halls of academe, centuries-old institutions with cherished seals, histories of tradition, prestigious alumni, trustees, chancellors, regalia, committees on committees, formal ceremonies, and countless other idiosyncrasies.

Hilarious, right? Maybe not so much. In comparison to an ad like the 90-second video/commercial from, a favorite among teens, higher ed might come across as, well, a little stuffy, outdated, and definitely not funny.

I know: “We’re a university, not a company. We’re not selling things like razors, deodorant or insurance.” Really? Indeed, what we offer is so much cooler, so much more interesting, and important. But why does our marketing have to be completely devoid of humor? 

Especially when it’s well established that humor works.

Yes: Humor Works

That humor works is a fact supported by scholarship. Consider the International Society for Humor Studies and tell your boss this is all scientifically legit.

More proof. A 1993 Journal of Marketing study looking at the effects of humor on advertising concluded that, “'humor is more likely to enhance recall, evaluation, and purchase intention when the humorous message coincides with ad objectives, is well-integrated with those objectives, and is viewed as appropriate for the product category. Under such circumstances, humorous advertising is more likely to secure audience attention, increase memorability, overcome sales resistance, and enhance message persuasiveness.”

That’s especially true for one of higher ed’s most prized targets -- the Millennials. Research by textbook rental company Chegg showed that the promos millennials remember best are funny -- 80 percent recall ads that made them laugh.

That’s exactly what we want as higher ed marketers, right? We want people to remember us. We want to differentiate our institutions, programs and opportunities from the vast sea of sameness in an increasingly competitive industry. Humor can help us do that. 

The downside? Humor is hard.

Advertising legend David Ogilvy wrote,  “I must warn you that very, very few writers can write funny commercials which are funny. Unless you are one of the few, don’t try.”

And there’s a fine line between funny and fail. The Chegg research on Millennials showed that they can be extremely harsh toward failed attempts at humor. For proof, just spend five minutes on Twitter or imgur. 

So using humor effectively in your marketing and communications requires a good bit of consideration and, well, a sense of humor.

Here are some ways to start.

Have Fun with the Familiar 

Humor scholar and William & Mary Religion Professor John Morreall offers an encouraging approach to finding funny: “You know, all you’ve got to do for humor, really, is take something familiar and look at it from a fresh angle.”

Look for those undeniably relatable moments, experiences or realities of university life that you can play with. Things like parking, exam stress, weird professors, text book costs, residence halls all make for good material.

Acknowledge and celebrate them with a funny gif, custom meme, lighthearted video, maybe a mildly tongue-in-cheek tweet. The more authentic and dialed-in to your audience’s experiences, the better. At Clarkson University, students held a Snapchat contest asking for submissions around during the week before finals commonly called Dead Week. Nearly every single one was humorous (or at least an attempt at humor).



Know Your Brand, Inside and Out

If your brand is confined to a rigid style guide, talking points and a positioning statement, you’ll have a hard time having a sense of humor about it. Finding the most relatable aspects of your brand means knowing what others are saying about you. Monitoring their comments can give you great insight into where you’ll find traction with your audiences. Sometimes, it just takes weather.

Study The Internet

To be effective, hitting the right tone with the right audience is a must. At least that’s what you’ll need to be prepared to explain to your boss as you’re cruising YouTube, Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, YikYak, Instagram, quickmeme, Giphy, etc. to find out what’s hot on the web. This is a great way to identify current trends you can spin for a unique take.

WARNINGS: Contrary to popular belief, just because it’s “on the internet” doesn’t mean it’s funny or that you can pull it off. And just because something worked for another institution doesn’t mean it will work for yours.

Test Your Material

Fortunately, testing new material can be relatively low stakes. Use social media to test out ideas and you’ll know quickly if it’s got legs. Limit exposure by using paid social advertising options on Twitter and Facebook to publish to a small group that resembles your target audience. Then evaluate the response. Give it some time. Humor can be subjective. 

Be Appropriate

Humor won’t work for everything. But it can be a valuable part of your marketing strategy. Make sure to experiment with humor where it makes sense. Sometimes that means scaling back the sarcasm and limiting the jokes to be humorous or lighthearted instead of LOL funny. Take small steps when in doubt. Above all, be true to your brand.


Tim Jones is associate vice president of marketing at Clarkson University, in New York.

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