Kendra Bissonnette

The old saying goes, “The customer is always right.” But is this always true in the current age of social media where many customer service interactions take place in a public forum? Smart brands are paying particular attention to the way they interact with customers because their responses are available for the entire world to see.

At last year’s Social Media Week in Chicago, presenters in the “Confessions of a Community Manager” presentation brought up an interesting theory: The customer isn’t always right. They asserted that humor is sometimes useful to diffuse customer service complaints online. A number of famous examples show that humor tanks when it’s insensitive, but being funny is immensely successful when it’s tuned-in and well-timed.

Brands must be prepared with funny messages to capture social marketing "now" moments.

When it’s good to be a wise guy

Recently, there have been many examples of companies trying to infuse humor and personality into their customer service interactions. One of my favorites was a battle between AT&T and T-Mobile over a customer. Twitter user Jay Rooney, a.k.a. @RamblingRooney, took to Twitter when he was considering whether he should switch mobile carriers, and his posts spurred a long series of clever banter between the two mobile providers.

The conversation caught other customers’ attention and created a larger discussion about which carrier was superior. In the end, it looked as though T-Mobile won with its willingness to engage.

Another example is Tesco Mobile’s brilliant response to a customer’s bizarre Facebook post complaining about poor service. The company’s reply inspired a whole chain of hilarious Tweets in which many other users and brands weighed in and demonstrated what can happen when companies pay attention to social conversations.

While these two cases show how brands with agile social responses can spark ongoing customer conversations, a separate instance proves that interactions don’t need to be long to be funny. AMC Theatres’ witty response to a Tweet from Oreo about sneaking cookies into theaters achieved over 1,800 Retweets!

AMC responds to Oreo's Tweet with a big social media response.

This London airport's mis-Post shows why marketers must be careful with funny social content.When it doesn’t pay to be humorous

Being funny doesn’t always work, however, and there are certainly some circumstances when humor shouldn’t be part of the customer service equation. For example, London Luton Airport used a photo to joke about the weather and runway safety in a Facebook post last March. The photo was from a 2005 crash in Chicago, in which a plane slid off the runway and a six year-old passenger died. The post received a huge backlash of angry comments, and London Luton ultimately apologized for mocking the fatal tragedy.

And how could we forget the time Domino’s Pizza mistook a Facebook compliment for a complaint, and followed with a less-than-stellar attempt at humor? In this case, Domino’s post backfired and became a source of ridicule. Consumers were laughing at Dominos, instead of with them.

Domino's provides a response that seems canned and spammy rather than honest and caring.

The benefits of being funny in social marketing

So the question remains: What is the point of using humor to deal with customers on social media? And considering the potential backlash of getting humor wrong – is it worth it?

As a Social Media Strategist, I’d say yes. It is worth trying to work some fun into your customer interactions on social media. When done correctly, there are many benefits to being humorous online.

1. More personality

When you give your social media managers the freedom to be funny, you will give your business more personality. This works particularly well for brands in industries that aren’t ordinarily funny, like technology software. A sassy tweet (when appropriate) can help you stand out of the crowd.

2. Make jokes, save face

Humor can also be one of the most effective ways to diffuse awkward or problematic situations. It pays to lighten sticky situations because social media posts are public, and more often than not, seen by third-party social observers. As we saw in the Tesco Mobile example, the playful response to one user’s strange post caused other Twitter users to rally around the brand and created a fun chain of engagement.

3. Get a bigger audience

The final, and perhaps the biggest reason for brands to use humor on social media is the buzz. Funny social interactions are often covered on other sites, and thereby reach an even bigger audience. Additionally, comical interactions receive a lot of Likes, Comments and Retweets.

All told, brands stand to benefit greatly from using humor online. When done correctly, the benefits certainly outweigh the risks. It definitely takes guts to respond to a customer with a witty Tweet, but I think that it’s worth it. So tell me: What do you think? Has your brand had success being funny online?