To Prank or Not to Prank: The ROI of a Brand Hoax

brand hoax

By Kerry Gorgone, {grow} Contributing Columnist

After grade school, I didn’t think much about April Fools’ Day, but social media changed that. With the advent of social media marketing, the April Fools’ brand hoax has become the Super Bowl of marketing hijinks, with each company trying to win the hearts and minds of the ad viewing public through online tomfoolery.

Many people love these brand hoaxes (me among them), but I’d maintain that any piece of content needs to provide a return on investment for the brand. Here are some ways to loosen up and have fun with your audience without straying too far from your business objectives.

Your ad or other content might be a joke, but it should support a real business objective.

Amazon Echo’s April Fools Prank—introducing “Petlexa” so your pets can talk to Alexa—showcases features that Amazon Echo actually supports. For humans, at least. So people might view the video and chuckle, but they’ll also gain a solid understanding of what the Amazon Echo does.

ThinkGeek always goes all-out for April Fools Day, featuring gag products on their website. You can’t actually buy them, but they will produce them if there’s enough interest. Not only does ThinkGeek get a laugh from its audience (who can shop for real goods or share the gag goods and drive traffic to the site), they get low-cost research they can use to develop new products.

If you can’t figure out a way to make the joke pay off for you, consider a charitable cause.

Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, there’s no graceful way to work a business-related call to action into your April Fools Day prank. When that happens, transfer the benefit to a cause your audience cares about instead.

In 2014, Uber and TOMS partnered up to prank their audience with a video announcing the rollout of “ShuberX,” a partnership in which Uber “drivers” would show up in a Flintstone-style cardboard car and give the rider a pair of TOMS so they could run alongside them. TOMS provides shoes and clean drinking water to needy communities, but there was a business benefit for Uber, as well.

In the description for the video (which has more than 50,000 views), viewers are prompted to download the Uber app for iPhone or Android. “For every new Uber user who enters promo ‘shuberX’, $10 will be donated on your behalf.” (Current Uber users who entered the promo code were eligible to win a shuberX prize package.) People can be very picky about heavy-handed attempts to cash in, but the tend to be more forgiving when you’re asking to benefit a cause, so try to find a charitable angle.

If you can’t see the video above you can watch here: Toms X Uber

At the very least, don’t harm your brand.

At the very least, you don’t want to your brand to suffer any blowback when gullible consumers actually fall for your joke. Brands in emotionally charged industries (like wedding planning) should be especially careful.

Which is why I was surprised when, The Knot, a popular wedding planning website, pranked their users for April Fools Day 2017. Registered couples received an email that 500,000 Knot.com wedding checklists had been deleted because the company’s database was compromised.

Their message prompted couples to login and find out whether their checklist was affected, at which point they let the couple in on the joke and shared some free offers. Some people probably took it in stride, but I’d expect at least a handful of users to go into full bridezilla mode.

With April Fools’ Day 2017 safely behind us, businesses can start planning their next bit of fun. Just remember, not everyone has a sense of humor, so be sensitive, be savvy, and be ready to serve any suckers who actually fall for your brand hoax.

kerry gorgone

Kerry O’Shea Gorgone is a writer, lawyer, speaker and educator. She’s also Director of Product Strategy, Training, at MarketingProfs. Kerry hosts the weekly Marketing Smarts podcast. Find Kerry on Twitter.

Illustration courtesy Flickr CC and ieshraq.

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