SXSW: Cheezburger CEO says Marketers Should Laugh at Themselves More

As CEO of Cheezburger – a media empire driven by memes, fails, viral videos and cat photos – Ben Huh is surrounded by humour all day. Through its ad program, Huh and the Cheezburger team helps brands leverage humour and invites them into the world of web culture. Ahead of his SXSW talk about humour in […]

As CEO of Cheezburger – a media empire driven by memes, fails, viral videos and cat photos – Ben Huh is surrounded by humour all day. Through its ad program, Huh and the Cheezburger team helps brands leverage humour and invites them into the world of web culture.

Ahead of his SXSW talk about humour in the ad world, Marketing spoke to Huh about how brands can can benefit from user generated content, when they should stop worrying about control and laugh instead.

Your business is all about web culture, memes and user generated content. Do marketers understand this world yet?
They’re not comfortable yet. They come from the world of brand as commander where you create a defined box around your brand and say, ‘OK, everything must fit in this or else.’

That worked well in television, radio or print, but when users have the ability to change that message and amplify it to their friends, there is an effect called ‘harmonic resonance,’ or negative virality – negative or misunderstood perceptions of brands. What you have to be careful about is accidentally creating this harmonic resonance, accidentally enabling people to rally around a point and say: we don’t like you and here is why.

What brands do by trying to clamp down is create this harmonic resonance of people saying negative things about them. In popular culture, it’s called the Streisand Effect. The more you try to suppress something, the more they’ll talk about it.

Cheezburger partners with brands and includes them in the meme-making process by asking its users to make brand-related memes. What’s the benefit of this kind of program over traditional display ads?
A lot of brands are becoming publishers. They’re becoming content owners and creators. They know how to harness the power and engagement of user generated content and also memes.

What we’re trying to do with brands isn’t to turn them into memes. We’re trying to help brands recognize the power and process behind memes to help them engage with their customers better. Reaching customers through how memes work – we call it ‘memetics,’ the science of memes.

Memes and humour are some of the most viral content and the most frictionless content on the internet. We’re teaching brands that they can enable users to participate in the content creation process and use it as a method of reaching a larger audience.

Is there a danger in brands using memes in the wrong way?
For a meme to become popular, it needs recontextualization. To become something it originally wasn’t. Users take the original asset and make a caricature. They take one aspect and blow it up, usually out of context. Take the Ridiculously Photogenic Guy. They took his one momentary pose into a random camera and created a whole new legend around it.

Some brands are OK with that – the idea of users running with their brand and having it be something else. They want user [to embrace them] more than anything else. However, some brands are not. It’s a matter of choosing the right tools for the right opportunity. Most brands are very afraid of getting their brand image caught up in something they can’t control.

Lead us through how you create a meme-driven Cheezburger campaign for a brand.
There are three things you can do to help memes. 1) Give them something to play with, a framework. 2) The tools to create a meme or be part of the process. 3) You need to enable communities.

If you’re a cruise ship company right now, you’re possibly feeling a lot of negative effects from what’s happened with Carnival. What we’d want to do is not put the cruise company in the forefront. We want the cruise company to enable people to have fun. We might use a lot of underwater imagery. Animals under water or people making funny faces underwater. The cruise company could sponsor and enable that functionality and gain goodwill, not to be the meme itself.

Your staff has to sift through a mass of user generated content and decide what to feature. How can you spot a submission that will resonate with readers?
We have a massive flow of data. Social data, personal preferences, aggregate traffic. We make that data available to our editors, so they can filter and test what is going to work. We also rely on human judgement. Curation is often an art as well as a science here. We look at the numbers, but the numbers ultimately give way to human judgement.

The staff here does a fantastic job. They’ve developed not only a gut instinct, but also a very numbers-driven mindset about what signals indicate a good piece of content.

Cheezburger is a light-hearted, fun brand. Can more serious companies benefit from humour – or is it not a fit for every brand?
Brands, in the eyes of many consumers, are like people. They’re like friends. If you’re always serious, all the time, you’re boring. It’s not fun. The contrast is also true; if you’re always goofy and messing around, that’s not fun either.

Brands are multifaceted. There is the primary message you want to send, but you also want to engage with them at the level the user wants. Whether you like it or not, people are having conversations about your brand in multifaceted ways.

It’s not just brands who seem on the surface to be fun. You can take something very serious, like enterprise software, and have a sense of humour about it. The humour doesn’t have to be your primary message, but ignoring it misses a lot of opportunity.

Your talk at SXSW, “The Art of Making Fun of Yourself,” is aimed at brands and agencies. Do you think marketers take themselves too seriously?
It’s funny, they don’t actually. The ad world and agency world, the creative folks, don’t take themselves too seriously at all. They know that humour – even in a serious campaign – is a creative lubricant. They use it all the time and are more than happy to be self deprecating about it.

When they show up in front of the client, things tend to change. The messaging becomes different because they sometimes want to kiss the brand’s ass. Whatever the purpose is, some of the creativity gets lost.

What can agencies do in that situation to maintain the humour?
Every brand needs a little bit of serious and a bit of humour. It’s a matter of the right ratio. The internet is driven by humour and it’s one of the most effective ways of getting a message across, so you need humour to be a part of the strategy.

That discussion needs to get to the client. We need to educate brands to see that,  while you have a great brand message in mind, that humour isn’t a always a message. It’s also vehicle. To leverage the vehicle, you have to think about how the internet works.

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