Cheezburger’s CEO on Laughing Matters

No matter what cracks you up on the Internet—smiling sloths or parading penguins, toddlers trimmed in toilet paper or supermodels stumbling in stilettos—chances are you have Ben Huh to thank. He’s the founder and CEO of Cheezburger, a Seattle-based media company with 45 hugely popular humor websites. Among them: FAIL Blog, Daily Squee, Know Your Meme and the grandkitty of them all, I Can Has Cheezburger?, an ever-growing trove of “LOLcats” (animal photos often paired with misspelled captions meant to seem written by the animals themselves).

Huh co-starred in LOLwork, a funny reality show about life at Cheezburger that aired last year on Bravo. The web teems with shots of him grinning in his trademark white-rimmed glasses, wearing a hat shaped like a giant burger, and posing with cats (real and fake) that resemble Cheezburger’s mascot, a jolly gray feline known as Happycat. At a conference last year, Huh—who looks a bit like the South Korean pop star Psy—brought down the house by dancing up to the mike in a bright blue, Psy-style suit, channeling manic-cowboy moves from the singer’s Gangnam Style video.

He is, in short, living, galloping proof of his belief that “humor has a real power to keep people loyal to a subject matter, to a brand, to an identity.” But here’s the thing: Huh says his public persona is an act. “I would never consider myself a comedian—I’m a pretty serious guy,” he says. “But when I started doing [Cheezburger], people expected me to have a sense of humor.” So he invented one, borrowing visual aids from his own websites. In the six years since, Huh has learned all an entrepreneur needs to know about lassoing the power of funny.

You can has clientz n colleaguez who luvz you

Why add humor to your business plan? “You’re trying to bring people closer together,” Huh says. “Humor is a great bonding material. You’re trying to show that you care and you understand your community.” Within a company, he says, humor has a way of “collapsing the power distance”—making employees both freer to share ideas with bosses and more invested in their jobs. At Cheezburger, for instance, creative teams are encouraged to give themselves funny group names. Clips from LOLwork (which Huh swears is an unstaged slice of office life) show staffers riding a Segway, strumming a ukulele, and doing tricks with their tongues and eyeballs. And these men and women do, in general, look more like Happycat than Grumpy Cat. “We use humor as a way to encourage people to feel ownership” of their work, Huh says.

Customers love a chuckle, too. “Given a choice between doing business with a company that is good but has no sense of humor, or doing business with a company that also puts a smile on my face, oh my God, I’m going to choose the company that puts a smile on my face every time,” Huh says. Imagine you own a coffee shop where you scribble a java-related joke on the chalkboard every day. “Your coffee may be exactly the same as the coffee next door, but you’re providing a better experience. You want your customer walking out the door saying, ‘I want to come back here.’ ”

Chalkboard quips are just one way, of course, to give your clients a giggle to go. You might also try putting something amusing on sales receipts. Or on custom-printed postage stamps. Or—like a growing number of businesses—on your packaging. (Huh cites the current boom in playful pizza-box drawings, many examples of which can be found online.) In sum, be on the constant lookout for ways to inject “a little puff of personality.”

You don’t has to be hilariouz—or original

As Huh’s own story proves, you needn’t be Chris Rock or Ellen DeGeneres to use humor effectively. “Humor isn’t only about laughing, it’s also about just putting a smile on people’s faces,” he says. “I think the vast majority of humor out there is not laugh-out-loud funny, and that’s OK. The fact you got them to smile is a hell of a lot better than the next guy.”

You don’t even have to dream up the smile-worthy stuff yourself. “The best ideas in the world are recycled,” Huh says. You can, for instance, use another business’s ad campaign as inspiration for your own. “You can’t borrow it verbatim—but you can certainly apply it,” he says. Old Spice’s popular “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like,” he points out, is really a variant of Dos Equis’ “The Most Interesting Man in the World”—who in turn grew from the list “Chuck Norris Facts.”

The Internet, meanwhile, offers no end of funny items you can simply snap up. Chief among these are visual “memes”—widely circulated images and video clips that you’re free to share via social media. And let’s not forget the web’s wealth of puns, one-liners and quirky quotes. If you Google “coffee jokes,” for instance, you’ll get around 14,000 results.

If you’re feeling more ambitious, you can use tools such as Cheezburger’s meme/LOL builder (access it by clicking create next to the lightbulb—upper right on homepage) to re-caption a meme before sending it around—or upload a photo of your own cat, kid or canary and take a whack at creating a meme.

Remember to read sites’ fine print and/or contact their copyright holders to find out what uses of their material are allowed—especially if you’re thinking of recycling or tweaking it as part of your advertising or merchandise. When it comes to content you find or create on Cheezburger’s many sites, for instance, you are welcome to share it via social media or on your personal or business website. (If Cheezburger doesn’t provide a link to the social media you use, you’re asked to give Cheezburger credit for the content and link back to it.) For licensing info on using specific material in advertising, merchandise, sponsorships and so on, you should contact Cheezburger directly.

But do yer homework first

People tend to treat humor as an emergency. If something strikes them as funny, they want to show it to others immediately. This may be fine with friends or family, Huh says—but not in business. Before you send a joke or meme to colleagues or clients, keep in mind that your only reason to click “share” is to strengthen your ties with them. “If you have any inkling or doubt that this might not work, that this may be offensive to people, you’ve got to test it,” he says. The steps are simple:

• See what’s already making people in your line of work laugh. Let’s say you run a scuba-diving company. Visit other scuba businesses’ social-media sites and message boards to find out which jokes and memes are getting the most “likes,” Huh advises. “It’s almost inexcusable to not be funny today, because it’s really easy to see what people have done and see what people like in your community.”

• When you find a meme you might want to share or modify, check to see where it comes from (usually obvious on the link or post). If it started at a site you wouldn’t care to be associated with—ScubaDiversAreMorons.com, say—that’s a red flag. More often, though, it will come from a more general site such as Cheezburger. You can go there and see how many “up” or “down” votes the meme has had, and what sorts of comments people are making about it.

• Do a trial run. After you create or change a meme at the likes of Cheezburger, viewers can rate and share it. It takes just 24 hours to tell if your meme is “getting any traction,” Huh says. You might also post or share the meme on a private site (your friends-and-family Facebook page, for instance) and watch how people react. And remember the power of old-school, face-to-face polling. Ask a few male colleagues, for example, if they’re offended by that cartoon that shows a guy wearing scuba gear just to pick up women.

• Is your meme or joke still looking golden? It’s ready for business.

Now and then, humor may misfire despite all precautions. But assuming that you steer clear of the truly egregious (racist slurs, say, or rape jokes) your audience will likely let it go. “People are willing to forgive as long as you don’t [offend] repeatedly,” Huh says. Case in point: Not long ago, Cheezburger ran a video of a panda wrestling with her baby. “People were like, ‘Oh my God, that panda is abusing the other panda!’ ” Huh recalls. In fact, he says, the filming was done at a zoo, and the behavior was normal and not harmful. “We wrote back to our audience and said, ‘It’s OK. We think this is a lot of fun—it’s like wrestling with your brother!’ ” End of crisis. Such explanations may not win everyone over, Huh says, but the kerfuffle will die down. “You’ve shown you care and that you’ve thought about it.”

Turn feedbak into LOLz

As your business grows, people will inevitably write about it in blogs, tweets and message boards. Reading such posts doesn’t just tell you what people do and don’t like about your company (which is of course important to know), it can also pay humorous dividends, Huh says. You might, for example, find out that people adore that talking gerbil that appeared briefly in your bicycle shop’s last ad (the one in the Tour de France jersey). Bingo: you know you should make him your new mascot as well as the profile photo on your company’s Facebook page. Or perhaps customers, dissatisfied with a certain product of yours, are giving it unflattering nicknames. You might defuse their annoyance by using the same names yourself. (“Good news! We’ve heard your complaints about our ‘cry-athlon bike’ and are happy to say our new saddle cover makes it way comfier.”)

Perhaps most important, try a little self-deprecating humor when you answer letters or calls of complaint. (“Sorry about that shipping delay—a carrier pigeon would have been faster!”) Such an approach can make customers much more sympathetic, Huh says. “Self-deprecation is about, ‘We make mistakes and we recognize it and we’ll fix it,’ ” he says. “It’s not about, ‘We suck.’ ” But save your humblest remarks for private replies. You wouldn’t want that self-deprecation to be on a public website, where competitors can exploit it. “It might come back to bite you later,” Huh says. “The Internet doesn’t forget anything.”

Take it from the man in the bright-blue suit and the cheeseburger hat.

Get Ben Huh's advice on adding humor to your business on SUCCESS.com.

Leave a Reply