Why Humor in B-to-B Marketing Is Serious Business

New study and live test show old creative biases about B-to-B marketing are dead wrong

Judy Begehr
SVP, Strategy gyro Cincinnati

Serious products for serious buyers. That’s typically how business marketing rolls. In the business-to-business space, using straightforward, no-fluff messaging tends to take precedence over establishing and fostering emotional connections to brands. So, we couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to challenge traditional business norms.


Consider a survey gyro recently conducted in February 2019 that asked chief marketing officers about their favorite movies and movie genres. Among 24 categories, comedy was most frequently listed as the CMOs’ top movie genre.


Yet, if you ask almost any B-to-B marketing executive when they’d consider incorporating an emotion like humor into business advertising, they’d say they might use it as a communication technique to raise awareness … but accomplish little else.


How do we know? Humor is actually an emotion we thoroughly (and seriously) investigated in a three-part, multi-year survey with our partner, Research Now SSI. The research, which was completed in July 2018, revealed more than 1,000 business decision-makers held beliefs about humor in B-to-B marketing that were actually false. Across the board, findings proved that despite previous beliefs, respondents — including IT leaders, finance professionals, engineers and marketers ­— actually preferred humorous ads for hardcore business products and services.


Why? Because even business people are human. And humor, much like a favorite movie, can impact the way we think and feel. In fact, humor in B-to-C advertising has been proven to help in three beneficial ways:

  • Tap into emotions that create positive feelings, which can have a favorable impact on brand perception.1 
  • Drive higher levels of attention, which can lead to more cognitive understanding.2 
  • Be more interesting. If done well, humorous ads stand out in a good way. By contrast, if an ad is boring, the audience is less likely to be persuaded in their purchase decisions.3

In the first two phases of this three-part research study, we explored what business people say about the use of humor in business marketing. Through qualitative and quantitative research, we asked business buyers to consciously consider ads and think about their responses to humorous ads and rational ads. (Obviously, this is not how people typically consume ads.)


The first two phases of research revealed general consensus among serious B-to-B buyers across four areas:

  1. Most business professionals like humorous B-to-B ads and see them as more entertaining and less boring than rational ads.
  2. Humorous ads reinforce certain brand attributes, making the advertised B-to-B brand seem more approachable, likable, relatable and innovative.
  3. Most believe that what humorous ads in B-to-B do best is attract attention, reinforce brand recognition and raise awareness. 
  4. Despite all of the above, most executives consider using humor in B-to-B as simply too risky of a technique. And, if given the choice to run a humorous ad or rational ad for their own company, the vast majority would choose a rational focus on facts, features and benefits. (Wah-wah.)


Ultimately, we revealed an extreme creative bias against using humor in B-to-B marketing.



We wanted solid evidence to prove this bias as true or false — behaviorally. That’s why we partnered with our savvy client Hyland to understand what business buyers actually do when exposed to a humorous or a non-humorous version of an ad in a live, in-market environment. So, we tested two interactive, digital ads of similar creative quality for Hyland: one rational and one humorous. Then, we gathered information on buyers’ behaviors following exposure to these ads.


The rational ad showed Hyland’s OnBase product’s features, functions and benefits in a straightforward fashion. The other ad presented a wisecracking juggler; and the more a user clicked, the more rings the juggler took on. All the while, the juggler made comments, like, “Are these rings some sort of IT metaphor … wait, am I a metaphor?” and “You can’t break me. I’m programmed for this.”


Not the usual fare for a company that creates powerful enterprise content management software used by the government, hospitals, insurance companies and the like. It was unexpected. And so were the results.


The successful results of the humorous ad were wild. We saw huge jumps not just in awareness, brand favorability and attitudes but also in the mid-funnel to bottom-of-the-funnel behaviors.


Notably, the humorous ad resulted in the following surprising boosts:


Lift in reported behaviors

  • 469.9% lift in online search
  • 159.6% lift in those who discussed the brand
  • 75.6% lift in brand website visits
  • 42.6% lift in purchase consideration

Lift in brand metrics

  • 182% lift in positive brand attitudes and associations
  • 46% lift in brand favorability
  • And, despite previous assumptions, there was only a 17% lift in brand awareness.

Drew Chapin, vice president of global marketing and communications at Hyland, said, “The findings are impossible to ignore. My first reaction was that we need to get serious about humor.”


The research proved that the creative bias against using humor in B-to-B advertising is not only off base, but it’s also just plain wrong.


It’s no longer enough to effectively target decision-makers precisely; you need to make them feel something, too. By making them laugh, smile or otherwise engage in a positive manner, you are greatly increasing the power of your brand message.


Now, there is a tremendous untapped opportunity for B-to-B brands to use humor to their advantage. After all, few things are more humanly relevant than humor. So, what is the greater risk: Adding humor to the B-to-B toolbox or reaching for the same old bag of hammers as everyone else? The answer is no joke.


Want to know more?

Read the full white paper on the three-phase study, “The Business Case for Humor in B-to-B,” at: https://www.gyro.com/wp-content/uploads/gyro-Humor-Report.pdf 


1Calvin P. Duncan, James E. Nelson and Nancy T. Frontczak (1984), “The Effect of Humor on Advertising Comprehension,” Advances in Consumer Research 11:432–437, eds. Thomas C. Kinnear, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research.

2Paul Surgi Speck, “On Humor and Humor in Advertising,” A Dissertation in Business Administration Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of Texas Tech University, December 1987.

3Russell I. Haley and Allan L. Baldinger (November 1, 2000), “The ARF Copy Research Validity Project,” Journal of Advertising Research 40(6): 114–135.