Tim Washer, Senior Manager of Social Media for Cisco’s Service Provider division is among the funnier presenters I’ve seen. And that’s no accident, Tim has spent much of his career in comedy, writing for Conan O’Brien, doing stand-up and helping IBM and Cisco find their funny bones. Here are some the highlights of my interview with Tim after the BDI B2B Social Communications Leadership Forum and in preparation for my [coming soon] post on FastCompany.com on Tim’s secrets to creating viral videos.
DN: Why do you think comedy is such a good idea for brands?
Let me first qualify, it is not for all brands. I have seen that it works well for large technology companies. It is probably not the best fit for a financial institution, for pharmaceuticals, those industries. However, comedy just has a way to connect with people like nothing else can. Of course you can create a connection through generating a sad emotion, but no brands want to do that. But if you can make an emotional connection with someone, it is an extremely powerful, and can build strong affinity, which is not easy to do in social media.
DN: So what are you goals for your work at Cisco?
With the humor, which is a very small part of our content, we are trying to start a conversation, be authentic, and show we don’t take ourselves too seriously. Once you show someone you’re willing to joke about some issues and don’t take yourself too seriously; you have gone a long way towards creating rapport. You also show you are transparent and authentic.
DN: Can you give me a specific example?
If you look at the [Cisco] TV Support Group video, look at all the coverage we got, we have big bloggers writing about it. But at the same time I am hoping it builds rapport with our audience. There was no product messaging in the video. We just hope the audience finds this entertaining. And if not, ok, thanks for your 2 minutes. What I do is service provider marketing – we work with very technical people. We work with the large carriers and engineers, and so a lot of what we need to produce for them is white papers, technical dry material. So we take 5% of our effort and lighten it up a little bit.
DN: What are the keys to successful B2B viral video?
The first thing is to not include product messaging, your audience can read that on your website. Try to keep the videos short – under two minutes is ideal, but not always possible. A rule I learned in stand-up comedy is to try to get your first laugh within the first 20 seconds. Comedy is about pain – focus on the pain points that your product or service solves, and you’ll mine comedy gold, and start a discussion that can be continued on your blog.
DN: Not trying to sell anything is rather…
DN: Well that’s going to stop a lot of conversations right there.
Sure it is. Of course I have had these conversations over the years with people who own the marketing budget: “Now why in the world would we invest in something that we don’t put our brand on or mention the product?”. Personally I believe that’s not the best use of social media. What is successful in Social media is telling interesting stories and creating conversation. It is not necessarily the place to go out with direct marketing messaging that you would include on a brochure. I think the main goal is really to engage people.
That’s what we did with the TV Support Group video. We took one consequence of a problem and exaggerated it. In the past years, families have been moving away from their TV sets and using other devices for entertainment. So now your television set is feeling depressed and abandoned, which lead us to the concept of a TV support group.Being absurd and ridiculous will get you attention on YouTube, that helps you stand ou from all the other videos and noise.
DN: Do you know when you have a hit?
You just can’t predict what is going to be viral. You can’t set out and say hey let’s make a viral video. You know, [delivering] knowledge is very important. If you share knowledge, it tends to go social–people will share that. But another way is just being silly, ridiculous and entertaining.
DN: Ok so we have don’t try to sell anything, be silly and ridiculous, what are some other keys?
Not just comedy, but being authentic [is critical]. If you’re taping an interview with an expert, do not have him/her recite talking points but share a genuine conversation. I think while you do want to showcase your own experts, I think it is important to involve and invite other people, such as academics and industry analysts to be part of your conversation.
DN: How important is the story?
The story is the most important of all. Story trumps messaging. At the same time it is a challenge because most corporations believe getting the message out is most important, if you’re coming from marketing or communications. You need to set that aside if you want to create something that will work on YouTube. Not every case, but in some cases you need to set that aside and say let’s tell the story here. Whether that is the story of one of your clients, or of how you are having impact in the community outside of the product you make, that’s all good stuff.
DN: How do you manage internal expectations?
In social video and media, it is important not to burden the project with too many expectations. It’s also important to let executives know that there will most likely be some negative comments. Humor doesn’t appeal to everyone, and when audience members can be anonymous, it’s easier for them to heckle. it’s important, especially for companies selling products that cost six-figures with 18 month decision-making cycles, to assure execs that you most likely won’t close a sale with a YouTube video. Again, it’s about starting a conversation and reaching new audiences and maybe prospective customers. .At the end of the video, I include a hyperlink back to a blog where I try to continue the conversation. I think it’s important to send folks to a blog and not a product page on the company website. The other thing is I think, just like in advertising, you’re not going to appeal to everybody–you’re not going to get 100% retention. But you will get some of the folks, some of the people might go and look at your blog.
DN: At least people you like because they have a sense of humor.
That’s right. That’s why I so strongly believe it is important to experiment in social media. You have the rest of traditional marketing that’s already doing a great job for you, reaching these people though other channels. So diversify your approach a bit, and experiment on occasion, with some humor, and just see how it does.