True Laughs

How do we do a better job (than our septuagenarian politicians) at audio-visual marketing?

February 2023 Update: I just noticed that there’s now a specialized service provider addressing the very problem this article raised years ago:

Are you like me in that laugh tracks on TV shows make you cringe?

Rewatching old TV shows that made me laugh decades ago, I’m amazed that some (eg Seinfield) had laugh tracks. And even more amazed that modern shows do in 2020. Haven’t we progressed from the Seinfeld to the Curb Your Enthusiasm era, where laugh tracks are replaced with ad-libbing?

One step up from the laugh track is the live TV studio audience, which is sort of a living, curated laugh track. Audience members are warmed up and manipulated into responding in a way that changes how TV (and digital) viewers experience the programming.

In election politics, live audiences – rallies, town halls, stump speeches, etc – sway our digital experience.

We need to see other people interacting with candidates for us to trust them – and we need to see live, unscripted reactions. Like laughter.

Before the pre-coronavirus, the so-called winner of any debate was always the candidate who scored the loudest laugh or got the punchiest crowd reaction.

Whoever succeeded at converting the audience into a laugh track won the day.

Then last week, as the coronavirus was declared a global pandemic, the world of political theatre found itself dispossessed of its key prop, the live audience.

(Nota bene: I’ll name and make remarks on a few political figures here, but I’m limiting my comments here to messaging and communication; I won’t get into politics and policy, let alone who to vote for.)

Joe Biden released a faux press conference in which he acted as though he were a sitting POTUS addressing an epidemic. It was both cringy and uncanny, as in valley 

It would have been vastly improved by adding people to the frame and by allowing questions – any questions – and his own off-the-cuff responses.

On the same day, Bernie Sanders released a no-fanfare videotaped press gaggle that was much more effective because we at least got to hear the voices of journalists asking questions.

And Trump canceled his stump speech campaigning entirely – wisely. Better not to appear at all than to appear to an empty room. Also wisely, Trump continues to stock his press conferences with lots of real behind him (his aides, officials and in front of him – the press). I sincerely hope no one involved becomes infected.

You can probably see where I’m going with this. In marketing, the laugh track or the live audience – even if it’s comprised of professional journalists – is a form of “social proof”.

So how do we engineer this, from our home offices, with our MacBooks, $80 mics, $20 ring lights, and other consumer-grade audio-video hardware and software? And how do we engineer it without crowds at our disposal?

I am certainly not advocating fake press conferences. And solo video presentations such as you find on YouTube are very tough to master – that’s a big investment of time and practice to make it work well for you. Outbound lead generation expert Alex Berman is really, really good at conveying marketing expertise on solo video… but Alex has been practicing it for 8 years

What does that leave us with? Webinars, screencasts, and podcasts (even solo podcasts) are all quite a bit easier to master. 

How do we weave true laughs, or at least true interactions, into that type of content marketing?

I’m not an expert here but some of the best examples I have seen are (a) Philip Morgan’s “Dev Shop Marketing Briefings” (webinars, basically), and (b) Seth Godin’s Akimbo podcast. In the latter, Seth does a really good job of getting readers to record questions – and he then answers them, much like a reader mailbag. My experience is that sometimes the Q and A is better than the main programming, just as Sir Richard Francis Burton’s footnotes often upstaged the writing the referenced((His body of work is overwhelmingly amazing, but if you read just one book I’d suggest, “Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah & Meccah”, where the footnotes sometimes occupy more page space than the main text. Here’s one. Must have been interesting in the pre-Internet, pre-encyclopedia days.)).