The Role of Humour in Driving Customer Engagement
Jing Gea, and
aLaboratory for Intelligent Systems in Tourism, USA
bAnnenberg School of Communication and Journalism
University of Southern California, USA
Customer engagement is seen as a central measure of marketing effectiveness on social media;
yet, very little is known about the factors that drive it. This research focuses on message
characteristics and more specifically the role of humour in encouraging likes, comments and
reposts. Based on a sample of firm-initiated Weibo posts by a Chinese provincial destination
marketing organization, it investigates whether humorous messages are more effective. In
addition, it also considers whether a message contains a product focus and is complex in terms
of its length, lexical density and inclusion of multimodal elements. The findings confirm the
proposed influence of humour but suggest an even stronger impact of non-product related
contents and also indicate that the message factors modelled only account for about 25% of the
variance of customer engagement.
Keywords: humour; social media; customer engagement; product focus; message complexity.
Humour – a means of providing pleasure, initiating social interactions and generating
affective responses from an audience (Meyer, 2000) – has been found to enhance
marketing communication efforts. It can assist marketers to advertise and promote
their products and services because marketing messages presented in an interesting
way draw consumer attention, increase message comprehension and contribute to
positive attitudes toward these messages (Eisend, 2011). Marketers can further use
humour to disclose difficult information and establish rapport by entertaining
consumers (McGraw, Warren, & Kan, 2015). Humour in marketing has been found to
assist in developing a well-regarded brand image and building strong relationships
with consumers (Speck, 1990). Humour further helps with initiating interactions with
both familiar and unfamiliar audiences (e.g. existing and potential customers) (Lynch,
2002). The reason is that it is capable of influencing a person’s positive affect,
invoking solidarity and creating affiliation (Meyer, 2000). This capability of humour
to initiate social interactions makes it potentially a very powerful tool in the context
of social media marketing.
Humour has been researched to some extent in tourism marketing and has been found
to be especially effective in the tourism context due to the hedonic nature of tourism
products (Pearce & Pabel, 2015). The tourism literature identifies several advantages
of using humour in tourism marketing: Consumers tend to concentrate more on
tourism marketing messages involving humour (Pearce & Pabel, 2015). Humorous
tourist postcards and brochures are more likely to be disseminated. Destinations
presented in humorous advertising can generate more discussion among tourists and
increase tourists’ willingness to visit the destination (Pearce & Pabel, 2015).
However, research has yet to explore tourism-related humour in the context of social
media marketing. Humour structure and use capabilities and conventions on social
media differ from those in traditional media. The technological basis of social media
not only accommodates humour morphologies facilitated by traditional media, but
also affords new ones (Shifman, 2012). Findings from previous studies on the
effectiveness of humour in marketing can therefore not necessarily be directly
transferred to the social media context.
The effectiveness of social media marketing efforts is typically judged by the level of
customer engagement achieved. Humour on social media is inherently associated with
sharing (Shifman, 2012). Marketing posts involving humour are ranked as the top
reason that consumers are willing to interact with firms on social media (Nielsen,
2015). Importantly, marketing promotions on social media through humour can
generate large amounts of reposts in a short time period (Northrup, 2015). Although
the effectiveness of humour in digital contexts is generally assumed to be high
(Shifman, Coleman, & Ward, 2007), evidence derived from systematic, empirical
research is generally lacking. To fill this literature gap, this research aims at
answering the following question: What is the relative importance of humour in
driving customer engagement with tourism marketing messages on social media?
2 Theoretical Foundations
2.1 Customer Engagement Metrics
In the context of social media marketing, the ultimate goal is to encourage customers
to enter a conversation (Solis, 2010; Gretzel & Yoo, 2013). Customer engagement has
therefore emerged as an important concept in determining the effectiveness of social
media marketing efforts, including in tourism (So, King & Sparks, 2014). Customer
engagement is defined as the sum of customers’ behavioural manifestations that have
a firm focus, reach beyond purchase-related interactions and are the result of strong
motivational drivers (Van Doorn et al., 2010). Customer engagement is typically
measured using likes, comments and shares (Coelho, Oliveira, Almeida, & O'Connor,
2016). Table 1 provides further information on the metrics. Liking is a way through
which consumers react to firm-initiated posts – it not only shows that customers
recognise and approve the firm-initiated posts, but also gives credibility to such posts
(Ge, Gretzel, & Clarke, 2014). Commenting is a means through which consumers
offer their own commentary to postings by adding new content (Boyd, Golder, &
Lotan, 2010). Comments can help the firm maintain conversations but also give
consumers the power to structure the conversation. Reposting is a channel through
which consumers can spread firm messages, resulting in consumer conversations with
an extended reach and enhanced interactivity (Boyd et al., 2010). This means that
reposting implemented by customers can expand the audience beyond those viewing a
firm’s corporate social media page.
Although liking, reposting and commenting are all well-regarded social media
metrics, they are not equally valuable. A large number of “likes” are only of value if
they represent genuine connections (Gretzel & Yoo, 2013). Unfortunately, “likes” are
often acquired during firms’ promotional efforts and do not mean that the consumers
actually appreciate and engage with the marketing posts. For instance, consumers may
like firm-initiated posts only for the purpose of receiving an award such as a discount.
Comments are the most cognitively and behaviourally demanding form of
engagement, because consumers need to read and process the marketing posts and
then provide information and/or their opinions. On one hand, comments allow tourism
marketers to gain consumer insights and market intelligence. On the other hand, their
potential adverse effects cannot be ignored: Consumer comments can include
statements that are completely irrelevant to the marketing posts. Even worse,
consumers may publish aggressive comments that can undermine the communication
efforts of the firm. Reposts disseminate the original marketing message to a wider
consumer audience and are therefore usually seen as the most important form of
engagement for marketers (Boyd, Golder, & Lotan, 2010). Consequently, to more
effectively measure firm-customer interactions, weighted engagement metrics are
typically used (Margetts, 2013).
Table 1. Social Media Metrics (adapted from Coelho et. al., 2016)
Endorsing firm-initiated posts.
Visible on firm’s social media page.
Adding information to firm-initiated posts.
Structuring firm–customer conversation by either maintaining,
challenging or redirecting.
Visible on firm’s social media page. e.
Spreading firm-initiated posts.
Expanding firm–customer conversation.
Visible on firm’s social media page and on customer’s personal
Our research proposes that humour in firm-initiated posts is an important factor
encouraging all types of customer engagement. Humour is defined as a rhetorical
device included in a message to persuade the audience (Meyer, 2000). A rhetorical
device refers to a linguistic mechanism, which, in the case of humour, manufactures
for instance a play on language to create a non-literal meaning (Weaver, 2010), with
the goal of evoking attention and positive affect in the audience. According to
Aristotle, to persuade someone through something pleasurable, the language should
have a ‘foreign air’, something removed from the ‘common-place’ (Freese, 1926).
Closely related to this is the notion of language novelty on social media, spurred by
technological affordances (e.g. hashtags, memes, animated GIFs) as well as by the
creative culture that gives rise to humour on social media. The significance of
novel/clever, pleasurable content on social media lies in its great potential to generate
a higher audience response (Brennan, Halliday & Tafesse, 2015). Indeed, humour
usually necessitates a response by the audience (e.g. laughing or smiling or at least
smirking or winking) (Knight, 2008). Importantly, beyond “likes” or smiley face
comments, humour on social media can initiate different kinds of sharing, including
1) sharing as diffusion; 2) sharing as participation; and 3) sharing as communication
(Shifman, 2012). Previous studies show that consumers are more likely to disseminate
firm-initiated videos involving humour (Brown, Bhadury, & Pope, 2010). Research
on sharing as participation concentrates on online political campaigns and finds that
using humour helps in generating cooperative actions from an audience (Shifman et
al., 2007). Sharing as communication means respondents perpetuate humour by
imitating or repackaging the humorous language (Shifman, 2012). Based on the
power of humour to initiate different kinds of audience responses, we propose:
H1. Humour posts lead to more customer engagement than non-humour posts.
To investigate the relative role of humour in driving customer engagement, we also
investigate other factors that could influence customer engagement, including the type
of content addressed in the post (product vs. non-product posts) and the complexity of
the post (length, lexical density and multimodality) (Figure 1).
Fig. 1. Proposed Theoretical Model
Social media have created a new marketing paradigm – it is all about people sharing
opinions, experiences and expertise in a networked online space (Gretzel & Yoo,
2013). To accommodate this change, marketers need to reflect social media culture in
their marketing messages (Gretzel & Yoo, 2013) and adopt a “reach-through-
relevance” approach (Russell, 2009). On social media, consumers exert a greater
power than marketers in terms of actively seeking, creating, consuming and
responding to firm-generated content (Brennan et al., 2015). It is no longer about
what marketers want to communicate to consumers but all about communicating with
consumers about the things they care about. Consequently, existing literature urges
marketers to stay away from straightforward advertising and selling (Gretzel & Yoo,
2013). Instead, they need to focus on becoming involved in customers’ experiences,
lives and needs in order to foster value co-creation (Chathoth et al., 2016).
Drawing on use and gratification theory, scholars have classified firm-generated
online posts into product and non-product categories – the former includes
informational and remuneration posts and the latter consists of entertainment and
social posts (Brennan et al., 2015). While informational posts inform consumers about
products, organizational news and marketing activities for the purpose of creating
positive consumer experiences, remuneration posts contain information that associates
with benefits including content featuring promotions, trials, coupons and other special
offers (Coelho et al., 2016). Customers engage with product-related posts for the
purpose of seeking information, gaining a reward or receiving economic incentives
(Coelho et al., 2016). As consumers exert an increasing power on social media,
however, it is challenging for marketers to use product-related posts to generate
superior consumer response. Consumers, as sophisticated social media users, have
become an expert and sceptical processor of advertisement (Baltas, 2003); they can
access product-related content in a more convenient format and richer detail from
alternative sources (Brennan et al., 2015) and, thus, are prone to ignoring ads.
As Russell (2009, p.9) asserts, to engage consumers on social media, marketers
should behave like “invited guests, bring wine” and talk about things that are relevant
to the consumer. Consequently, non-product posts are credited with the capability of
effectively engaging consumers on social media. Entertainment posts provide
consumers an opportunity to distract and divert themselves, and offer aesthetic
enjoyment and emotional release (Luarn, Lin, & Chiu, 2015). Besides, social posts
offer consumers content relating to their daily life, which encourages participation
and facilitates interaction (Luarn et al., 2015). Social posts often contain phatic
communication or small talk, which may include greetings and life philosophy (Kwok
& Yu, 2013). Studies have shown that these non-product posts can exhibit high levels
of commenting, liking and sharing (Brennan et al., 2015; Coelho et al., 2016; De
Vries, Gensler, & Leeflang, 2012; Kwok & Yu, 2013; Luarn et al., 2015). First,
consumers may consider these posts as more appealing to their friends than product-
related posts (Luarn et al., 2015), hence fostering reposting. Second, the informal
atmosphere characterising the day-to-day interactions on social media condition
consumers to become more receptive of non-product posts (Brennan et al., 2015).
Third, the entertainment value of the social media space is an important factor for
using non-product posts to motivate consumers to participate in firm-initiated online
activities (De Vries et al., 2012). Based on this evidence in the current literature, the
following hypothesis is proposed:
H2. Product-related posts lead to less engagement than non-product posts.
2.4 Message Complexity
Complex messages require consumers to have high motivation and ability to process
them (Otondo, Van Scotter, Allen, & Palvia, 2008). The current literature often
discusses online post complexity by focusing on three constructs, including post
length, lexical density and multimodality. While these factors can enhance the
informativeness of marketing messages (Trefzger, Baccarella, & Voigt, 2015), they
also elevate the resources needed for message processing. Social media posts
typically have word limitations (Boyd, 2010), and social media consumers have been
found to endorse pithy marketing messages (Lebherz, 2011). On social media,
however, lengthy messages with too much information may confuse consumers,
discourage their willingness to consume the information and lead to negative effects
(Akdeniz, Calantone, & Voorhees, 2013). Lexical density – a kind of complexity
resulting from the density of meaningful words in a text – influences the readability of
the text (To, Fan, & Thomas, 2013). Texts with a high lexical density deliver
compacting information that poses challenges for reading comprehension (Fang,
2005). Multimodality – a means of composing messages (Murray, 2013) – refers to
complexity resulting from the need to process different textual elements: written text,
images (still and animated), videos, emojis, hashtags and brackets. Highly complex
messages create information overload – a state in which the amount of information
that merits attention exceeds an individual’s ability to process it. Previous research
shows that online posts delivered through multimodal forms of the text (e.g. photo,
video, text) negatively influence generating customer comments, reposts and likes,
because they take customers a longer time to view and understand (Luarn, Lin, &
Chiu, 2015). When consumers are not able to process a message, they will
reject/ignore it (Petty & Cacioppo, 2012). Based on the preceding discussion, the
proposed hypothesis is:
H3. Message complexity leads to less engagement.
3.1 Study Context
When discussing tourism marketing, China cannot be ignored. China’s domestic
tourism, as well as outbound tourism, have been experiencing rapid growth
(ChinaNationalTourismAdministration, 2016). China has been the largest outbound
tourism market for three consecutive years, and is poised to overtake the US as the
number one travel market in the world in 2017 (China Internet Watch, 2015). While
preparing travel plans, an increasing number of Chinese tourists rely on social media
platforms (China Internet Watch, 2016). Consequently, it is expected that by focusing
on tourism marketing on Chinese social media, this research will be able to provide
especially rich and relevant insights into customer engagement based on humour. The
importance of the Chinese market will further ensure the practical significance of this
research for Chinese and international marketers.
Sina Weibo offers this research an ideal platform to examine customer engagement
through humour. It is one of the most popular microblogging networks in China,
which not only has the largest number of consumers and firms, but also showcases
rich firm-customer interactions (China Internet Watch, 2013). Moreover, the
advanced technological basis of Sina Weibo allows this research to investigate and
compare the distinctive structure of humour and non-humour messages, and the
dynamic customer responses. Third, Sina Weibo entails a unique humour culture.
Although the popularity of humour on China’s social media as a whole is an
important emerging trend, the use of humour on Sina Weibo is particularly eye-
catching (China Daily, 2015).
Destination marketing organisations (DMOs) specifically charged with promoting
tourism at a specific destination (Gretzel, Fesenmaier, Formica, & O’Leary, 2006),
are optimal cases to study customer engagement through humour on social media.
Among all travel-related corporate accounts on Sina Weibo, DMOs are major
contributors (China Internet Watch, 2015); they fully leverage social media
technologies to achieve their marketing goals (Ge, Gretzel & Clarke, 2014). To test
the conceptual model, a case study of one provincial/autonomous DMO was
conducted to be able to keep destination-specific impacts and influences stemming
from the composition of the followers constant. To select the case, one of the authors
subscribed to all provincial and autonomous DMOs with a Weibo presence and
followed all activities for two weeks. Shandong DMO emerged as the most active and
advanced user of Weibo and therefore represented the best case for this study.
3.3 Data Collection
This research selected DMO-initiated humour and non-humour posts published by
Shandong DMO over the course of one month, starting September 10, 2014. All of
the collected posts (301 in total) were further processed in two phases. In the first
phase, irrelevant posts were removed. Irrelevant posts refer to repostings of customer-
initiated posts because this research focuses on firm-initiated engagement strategies.
In the second phase, humour posts were identified through three steps. First, in
accordance with conceptualizing humour as a rhetorical device, firm-initiated humour
posts were selected based on linguistic characteristics indicating non-literal use of
language (Weaver, 2012) instead of focusing on the psychological mechanism of
humour. Second, this research confirmed the humour identification through an online
survey of 112 Weibo users recruited through the online survey platform Wei Diaocha.
They were asked to simply determine the presence/absence of humour rather than
rating the extent to which the posts were humourous or indicating the type of humour.
Third, ambiguous posts were clarified with graduate students. A total of 15 posts
could not be classified through these steps and were excluded. To obtain equal
proportions, 100 humour posts and 100 non-humour posts along with consumer
response metrics including liking, commenting and reposting were selected from the
3.4 Data Coding and Analysis
Based on the above discussion of customer engagement, this research argues that
consumers disseminating messages to other consumers is the most important metric
for tourism marketers. Following this line of thinking, this research adopted the
weighted engagement formula used by Unmetric.com (likes + 5 x comments + 10 x
reposts). Specifically, the posts had an average of 26 likes (minimum 3 and maximum
197), 48 reposts (minimum 2 and maximum 164), and 7 comments (minimum 0 and
maximum 70). The average weighted engagement was 539 (minimum 34 and
With respect to the independent variables, the posts had to be coded to reflect whether
they contained humour, a product focus and three aspects of complexity. The humour
coding strategy was explained in Section 3.3. Due to the sampling approach, exactly
50% of the posts included humour. While product-related posts were coded to include
informational and remuneration content, non-product posts were coded based on
entertainment and social content (Brennan et al., 2015). Coding was done by one
expert coder and confirmed by a second coder. A little over half (54.5%) of the posts
were directly related to the destination or its tourism products/services, while the rest
pertained to greetings, life philosophy or other non-product related topics. The
correlation between humour and product-focus is significant but weak (with a
coefficient of .271). Contrary to what one would expect, 68% of humour posts
actually have a product/destination focus compared to 41% of non-humour posts.
Complexity encompasses three dimensions of posts: length, lexical density and
multimodality. Post length was measured as the number of Chinese characters in a
post. Characters were counted by using the Chinese Microsoft Word character count
function. Lexical terms include nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, and the lexical
density is measured as the number of lexical terms divided by the total number of
words per post (De Ascaniis & Gretzel, 2012). Lexical terms were identified based on
Wu and Zou (2009) and the coding was confirmed by a Chinese linguistics expert.
The posts included in the analysis were on average 82 characters long, with the
minimum being 10 and the maximum 140. They included on average 59 lexical terms,
with a minimum of 8 and a maximum of 114. The lexical density varied between
14.4% and 91.9%, with the average lexical density being 71.2%. A categorical length
variable (short, long) was created using the average as the cut-off point; similarly, a
categorical lexical density variable (low, high) was computed with the average lexical
density as the cut-off point. With respect to multimodality, the elements coded were
written text, static image, moving image, video, emoticon, hashtags and brackets.
Only 5 posts (2.5%) of the total were text-only posts, and a large majority of posts
(88.5%) contained a static image. Further, only 1 post contained a moving image and
only 1 post contained a video; some of the posts (14%) contained emoticons.
Interestingly, almost half (49%) of the posts contained brackets to emphasis certain
text elements. About 22% of the posts also contained a hashtag. Multimodality
reflects the amount of different elements a post contains beyond the text characters
and was coded as 0 if the post was text-only, as 1 if it contained one additional
element, etc. and therefore represents a scale from 0 to 6. The descriptive results show
that 2.5% of the posts are text-only, 37.5% contain at least one multimodal element
(static image, moving image, video, emoticon, bracket or hashtag), 43% contain 2
additional elements, 16.5% contain 3 and only 1 post (0.5%) contains 4 additional
elements. None of the posts contain more than 4 additional elements. On average,
posts contained 1.75 elements.
The data were analysed using the general linear model procedure in SPSS with
weighted engagement as the dependent variable and humour, product focus, multi-
modality, length and density as the factors. Interaction effects were not modelled as
there was no theoretical support for them.
The general linear model with weighted engagement as the dependent variable was
significant overall, with an Adjusted R Squared of .255, suggesting that the elements
considered in this study explain about one quarter of the variance of weighted
engagement and that there are other things that drive engagement that are clearly not
considered in the model (e.g. the actual content, quality of writing, time of posting,
etc.). The research model assumed a positive impact of humour and negative impacts
of product-focus and complexity. As the results show, humour was identified as a
significant predictor (F=17.9; p<.001), with humour posts encouraging consumers to
engage more (Mean humour post = 587.3; Mean non-humour post = 490.6).
Moreover, product focus emerged as the strongest driver of engagement (F=36.8;
p<.001), with non-product posts achieving higher levels (Mean non-product posts =
716.3 vs. product posts = 390.87). As far as complexity is concerned, much less
pronounced but still significant influences were found for length and multimodality.
Post length negatively influences engagement (F=5.0; p<.05; Mean for below average
length posts = 591.5; above average length = 496.8) as does multimodality – the more
elements a post contains, the less engaging it is (F=3.0; p<.05) (Text only Mean =
1,112.0; Text +1 = 627.4; Text +2 = 465.1; Text + 3 = 456.2; Text +4 = 124). No
significant influence was found for lexical density. However, the results confirm the
hypothesized direction of influence, with the mean of low density posts being 597.2
and that of high density posts 478.4. Thus, except for lexical density, the model
confirmed all proposed influences but showed that product focus is a stronger
predictor of engagement than humour.
5 Conclusion and Discussion
The results of this research support the idea that tourism marketers can navigate
customer engagement on social media by developing marketing messages through
humour and with a specific content and structure. Based on these findings, this
research can draw several theoretical and practical implications. The confirmation of
the first hypothesis approves the notion that humour can be used as an effective
communication tool to stimulate interactions (Meyer, 2000). The reason could be that
in the context of social media, the innovative use of language through humour may
shape a distinctive online participatory culture – it is concerned with new expression
and engagement, strong support for creativity and a tendency to share entertaining
messages (Shifman, 2012). Given the significant role of customer engagement in the
tourism context (So et al., 2014), this result also supports the idea that humour may
assist tourism marketers to have delighted customers and maybe even fans, permitting
high levels of emotional bonds and relational exchange (Sashi, 2012). The
confirmation of the second hypothesis supports the idea that social media create a new
marketing paradigm with a distinctive culture – it requires tourism marketers to
deliver content relating to every aspect of consumer life (Chathoth et al., 2016) and to
avoid hard advertising and selling (Gretzel & Yoo, 2013). This result also underpins
the notion that non-product posts may assist marketers to speak to loyal customers,
which permits a high level of relational exchange (Sashi, 2012). It also offers tourism
marketers insight in terms of how to develop product-related posts endorsed by
consumers. For instance, they can integrate social or entertaining elements into the
posts promoting products and services. The confirmation of the third hypothesis
emphasizes that online posts, which are planned to generate consumer responses, need
to be designed in a way that they can be processed quickly and easily (Trefzger et al.,
2015). This result also reminds tourism marketers that, although multimodal forms of
text allow them to overcome the constraint of word limitations on social media, they
still need to select appropriate elements based on the specific marketing
communication goal and keep the message simple.
There are of course limitations to the research that suggest potential areas for future
research. First, this research focused on one social media platform. Although Sina
Weibo offers an ideal environment for examining customer engagement and humour,
future research should investigate other platforms such as WeChat. Second, the case
study method allowed for a look at the focal factors in isolation; however, it would be
interesting to see whether the discovered effects hold true across DMOs with different
follower contingents and destination brands. Third, although this study identified that
humour posts lead to more engagement, it is not clear if humour posts always surpass
non-humour ones. Depending on the nature of the content, e.g. negative factual
messages, humour may be seen as inappropriate. Comparative research should be
conducted to identify humour effects in positive and negative posts. Last, future
research should identify additional factors that possibly drive weighted engagement.
Despite the limitations, the paper provides several contributions. First, it expands the
use of humour in the tourism literature by adding a new application area. The extant
literature mainly focuses on the use of humour in traditional media while the use of
humour on social media is not mentioned at all. This research also broadens the
current humour literature in tourism mainly focused on Western humour by
introducing humour-related concepts in a Chinese social media context. Second, it
offers insight into social media affordances and their linguistic relevance. Third, this
research contributes to the literature on social media marketing in tourism and
confirms that effective engagement depends on not only message content but also
message structure. It also affirms that marketing on social media is indeed very
different from traditional marketing and requires a rethinking of approaches and of
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