Every year on April Fool’s Day, the marketing world goes wild. Big brands from Google to Frito-Lay jump on the bandwagon, launching imaginary new products and announcing new corporate missions in an effort to outdo each other with the best prank of the season. But why? Why is April Fool’s so beloved by marketers? What does it do for a marketing strategy — and should you be doing it next year?
Maybe — but maybe not. Humor is a powerful marketing tool, and April is a great excuse to use it even if it’s not part of your usual branding. But like all marketing strategies, you shouldn’t implement it just because everyone else is doing it; you need to know why before you can know whether it will work for you. Here’s why pranks can be great for marketing— and how the big brands use them successfully.
Show off your company personality
As a small business or entrepreneur, you probably don’t struggle with a big, corporate image, but that doesn’t mean your personality always comes through. Take an honest look at your copywriting and branding, and you might discover that it sounds a little dry at times. Do your customers really feel like they know you? Does your personality make you stand out? Or are you just one of a million similar small businesses that do what you do?
If you struggle with sounding impersonal, humor can help you break out of the mold. For example, on April 1, 2009, the magazine The Economist announced it was building a theme park called Econoland to “promote The Economist brand to a young and dynamic audience.” The theme park was a joke, but the prank did appeal to a broad audience.
Want to implement this tactic? It’s easy — any prank will show off your personality and help customers connect to you as a person. Just make sure your April Fool’s joke is in good taste.
Have fun and get creative
Pranks and humor don’t just impact your outside message; they influence your internal team dynamics, too. By giving your team (or even yourself, if you’re a soloprenuer!) permission to be silly and think outside the box, you encourage a mindset of creative fun. And getting creative with humor might even help you get creative with more serious projects, too.
Few companies exemplify creativity better than Google, which holds regular hack days where employees get to work on something innovative and new. And Google is also known for its April Fool’s Day pranks, which are often elaborate and absurdly believable (remember Google Nose?). Getting creative sparks more creativity — and it’s fun.
How can you do this? Try thinking crazy — and then think crazier. Try playing the inefficiency game: start with a ridiculous idea, and then try to make it more ridiculous, more inefficient, or more impossible.
Introduce a new idea or product
Introducing a new joke product is a great April Fool’s prank. But your new product doesn’t have to be a joke — or not entirely. A fake product idea can be a great way to test the waters for a real new product or shift you’re thinking about for your company. You can put an idea out there without committing to it and get a feel for what your audience would think without any risk.
You wouldn’t be the first to turn a prank product into a real one. Look at ThinkGeek, whose Star Wars Taunton sleeping bag was designed for April Fool’s but later licensed by Lucasfilm for development. (And yes, Star Wars fans: you can still buy one.)
Want to try this next year? Take a look at the ideas tucked away in the back of your head. You know – those really innovative or slightly nutty ideas that you come up with in the middle of the night and think you might want to try with your company someday? Add a few twists to make them even more ridiculous, and announce them as a joke product. Then see what your audience thinks.
Get featured seasonally
You probably know that jumping on trends can be a great marketing tactic. When you connect your brand to something that’s happening in real time, you’re participating in a larger conversation that’s already going on, and that’s a great way to get attention. Newsjacking is a hard way to do that; joining seasonal trends is an easy way. If you create a really great prank, you just might get featured on news roundups — many of which run articles every year about the best marketing pranks.
Look at Seattle real estate company Findwell, whose 2014 April Fool’s prank about a new condominium community just for Seahawks fans landed a link on a Geekwire roundup along with Google and Kickstarter.
Want to get your brand’s joke featured next to Google? Look for sites that posted roundups of pranks last year, and send your joke press release to the writer.
Unless you already have a big audience, it’s hard to predict whether something you create could get picked up on social media. The internet is fickle, and what’s popular one week might not be the next. And on April 1, you’re competing against a lot of other brands (including really big ones) who are all trying to do the same thing you are: leverage the season to attract attention.
But there are some ways for you to make your joke stand out from the crowd. As an example, look at Scope’s 2013 ad for bacon-flavored mouthwash. Proctor & Gamble noticed the bacon meme trend and used that as inspiration for their prank — and social media embraced it.
Want to increase your chances for a popular prank? Take your inspiration from trends. You can also consider getting other brands in on the joke with you — the more people who are promoting your meme, the more likely it is to take off.
Make fun of yourself
Humor can quickly backfire, and what sounded funny inside your team might not sound funny at all to your audience. If you want to play it safe, just be silly without making fun of anything. But if you really want to poke fun at someone, poke fun at yourself. And if you want to do it really well, make fun of yourself and your company for the same things that your customers are likely to make fun of.
Need an example? Look at Twitter’s brilliant 2013 prank. That year, Twitter announced that it was introducing a two-tiered service, and that vowels would be discontinued for non-paying customers. The twitterverse erupted with the news, which mocked the common tendency for tweets to leave out vowels in order to fit messages into 140 characters.
How can you try this yourself? Dig into your customer feedback: your emails, comments and interactions with your audience. What questions do they ask often? What confuses them or bothers them? What do they complain about? These could be good ground for humor — as long as you avoid the impression that you don’t take customer concerns seriously.
Unless playing pranks is a regular part of your marketing strategy, chances are that your April Fool’s joke will surprise your audience. It might even shock them — in a good way. Surprise is a powerful trigger to get people to react, which means they’ll be more engaged in what you have to say and more likely to respond. And engagement is always a good thing.
For an example, take a look at our own email yesterday. It was a little shocking, but it drove a lot of engagement — most of it positive. Many of our readers jumped in on the joke themselves, like Penny, who wrote:
“Finally! A resource for us — the pole dancers of the world. As you have always encouraged us to find our niche, I have truly found mine: middle aged, overweight pole dancers!”
And Dan, who asked,
“Don’t we all need to move to Montreal to fully ’embrace’ this new thrust?”
Want to get similar results? Do something surprising — maybe even a little shocking or offensive. As long as you know your audience, you can touch on controversy without getting too offensive, and you’ll get more response. Just make sure that you’re prepared for the backlash, and that you know how you’ll respond if people get mad.
Marketing with humor isn’t as easy as it sounds. There’s a lot more to it than just coming up with a silly idea and putting out a press release. But if you do it right, taking advantage of the absurdity that takes over the internet every April could be well worth the effort.
Did your company play a prank this year? Will you next year? Why?