Why so serious? Embrace fun and comedy in your higher ed. marketing and communications.

Let’s face it, higher ed. is a very serious place. Degrees and diplomas are to be earned and GPAs should be top-notch. Not to mention — world-class research. There’s no room for shenanigans, jokes, or humour.

Or is there?

Student fun and good-natured antics have enriched campus lore for centuries — ever since the first universities were established in Europe. And that’s to say nothing of the professors and instructors who have left an indelible mark on their students by teaching in off-the-wall ways and assigning wacky projects in institutions around the world.

Humour and fun are happening on your campus, too. The question isn’t if you should embrace it as part of your external communications for recruitment and retention purposes, but how and when

We’re giving you our unabashed permission: Make ‘em laugh.

4 big-time benefits of embracing the funny in your higher ed. marketing.

You may be unaware of the hijinks going on outside your offices. Or perhaps you do, but are afraid to give it a platform because higher ed. is a very serious place, right?

There are many benefits to highlighting the hilarious and the light-hearted fun going on around campus. And they’re well worth stepping outside your comfort zone to capture, cover and scale up. 

These benefits look like:

  1. Boosting recruitment efforts. 

A school that knows how to have fun — and celebrates fun — is bound to attract and retain more positive attention than one that does not. Your latest tweet about a professor’s good-natured prank on her students could mean the difference between a high school student deciding to enrol at your institution or picking your competitor instead. 

2. Improving campus-wide mental health. 

From stressed-out grad students to homesick freshmen, overwhelmed faculty to COVID-weary staff — everyone on campus can benefit from a light moment. As one McMaster University writer put it when referring to mysterious chalk drawings of whales that appeared around campus, “They helped me forget about the world for a moment and live in the world of imagination.” Mental health issues have mushroomed; it’s well-known that humour plays a big role in alleviating its negative effects. Giving everyone something to chuckle about is a strategic act of care

3. Enhancing students’ ability to learn. 

It’s also been proven that humour indeed has a place in the classroom as well. Humour has shown to have an increase in learning, self-motivation, class attendance, test performance, divergent thinking, and interest in learning. Not only that, but it creates a positive social and emotional learning environment and a common psychological bond between students and faculty.

Recently, Inside Higher Ed wrote about a newer term called ludic pedagogy that suggests that “play and fun have a rightful and important role in in the classroom.”

From the Latin ludere, ‘to play,’ this model focuses on creating positive, fun experiences while still maintaining academic rigor. It … combines the related concepts of fun, play, playfulness and humor to establish a context for a positive, effective learning environment.

Sharon Lauricella and T. Keith Edmunds, Inside Higher Ed.

4. Building long-lasting relationships with alumni. 

The advantages of embracing antics extend off-campus, too, namely with your alumni. In a study by Iowa State University, it was proven that, “alumni are more likely to be donors if they are very satisfied with their student experiences, if they are involved and engaged as alumni with the university, and if they are kept informed about what is happening.” 

So it goes without saying, recognizing and leveraging fun and unique opportunities with students will only work to strengthen their memories and bond to your school once they graduate and become alumni.

From giggles to guffaws: taking small, medium, and large steps to embrace humour around campus.

Once you start looking for it, you’re sure to find them: the how-did-they-do-that student stunt, the hilarious GIF your president tweeted, or the mind-boggling engineering assignment given by a tenured professor. 

Still, you may hesitate to wade into the comedic waters, especially if it’s not something you’ve embraced before. Don’t worry. From small giggles to medium chuckles to full-out guffaws, here are three levels to help you recognize and harness comedic opportunities so your marcomm efforts — and the relationships formed at your school — have more resonance and staying power.

It goes without saying, before you highlight any story, make sure it is tasteful, respectful, moral, legal, and professional. You don’t want to give voice to anything that would put your PR on the defence

Now that we have that out of the way….

Giggles: Smaller shenanigans found on your higher ed. campus.

Start your foray into the funny by finding smaller acts that may or may not have the potential for you to help turn into something bigger. This could be using your social media channels to re-circulate and champion campus shenanigans, or capturing and sharing original content.

Example: In December 2021, University of Toronto students added the letter “f” to the lower-case “arts” in a temporary Faculty of Arts & Science sign that had been erected in anticipation of a major renovation to a hall in the building. The student newspaper covered the story.

Then, the dean of faculty retweeted the paper’s story, adding the funny caption: “This really stinks.” 

A small gesture, sure, but it shows an unexpected playfulness and sense of humour that demonstrates a wider point. This leader, her faculty, and maybe even the whole of the university knows a good joke when it sees one. And that can’t be a bad thing.


To take it a step further: First off: Save that sign! Second: Be creative. Introduce an annual wine and “stinky” cheese mingler for students, administration, faculty and alumni in recognition of a renovation milestone, or to launch a new phase of the capital project. Tie it to a major science news announcement about methane gas, anatomy, sustainability or dairy, for instance. And ensure the sign and theme has a place at the hall’s actual grand ‘re-opening.’

Finally — to fully take it up the chain to the Guffaw level — keep that fire going every year with grand re-opening anniversary opportunities that not only build those relationships, but, like the above, are goldmines for marketing and communications storytelling content. And don’t forget — it’s never too late to introduce a tradition!

Chuckles: Substantial student stunts or school programs.

Beyond a funny TikTok or a small prank, unusual courses, off-the-wall assignments and quirky campus activities are all fodder for editorial content, a news release or media pitch, or marketing materials. 

Example: A University of Denver professor with a soft spot for buccaneers had his first-year students analyze the life of pirates to identify underlying science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) concepts. The final project tasked students with building model ships out of cardboard and duct tape in The Pirate Ship Challenge. They only received an A if the professor tried out the boat in a swimming pool — and didn’t sink.

Take it a step further: The school may have sought earned media to amplify the experience. But it now has a bigger opportunity to help keep the tradition alive. Scale up and turn the Challenge into an annual event (to take it to the Guffaw level), where students, alumni, media and other members of the public watch students race their creations. And how will you recognize the first pirate ship to cross the finish line — and the first one to sink? Well, that’s up to your marketing and comm team!

What about a good-timing hook? How about International Talk Like a Pirate Day or a major movie release featuring pirates. Think about the marketing and communications potential in all of that.

And beyond: Who knows? With some fame, the event could lend itself to a STEM building wing being renamed by an enthusiastic and financially supportive alumni.

Guffaws: The stuff of campus lore and potential for benefactor involvement.

A big comedic opportunity is one that has all your school’s owned channels (social, web, newsletter, alumni magazine and other donor comms, student newspaper), achieves earned media and is in some way recognized at the time by the school itself. Not only that, but this type of event must be legendary in status to ultimately become an opportunity where the school recognizes or honours the prankster(s), player(s), academics, or staff. 

Example: In 1958 at the University of Cambridge, a car had been mysteriously hoisted onto the apex of a 70-ft college building overnight. No one knew how the car got up there, nor did anyone claim responsibility. But the dean of the college had an inkling who was responsible and sent a congratulatory case of champagne to a group of students. 

The car-hoisting story made headlines around the world. 50 years later, at an alumni event, a group of engineering students revealed how they did the job. And here’s the best part: Many of the students not only went on to enjoy successful careers, but they also became generous college benefactors. 

Take it a step further: Cambridge could extend the story by awarding the students honorary doctorates. Though the group revealed their long-held secret at an anniversary dinner, it would have been an ideal opportunity to record the confession, using the content in various communications for posterity.

And in some ways, the university was lucky the students became benefactors. The dean who sent the champagne was onto something. Had he worked with the culprits and administration, the stunt could have become a milestone moment for the university’s engineering program by recognizing and honoring the students’ brilliance, which in and of itself demonstrated not only the smarts of the talent within the school’s walls, but the creativity, freedom and independence of their thinking — golden assets in many professions.

That, and it shows a certain culture had to have been at play at Cambridge at the time for the students to have undertaken the stunt at all. Hijinks aside, imagine all the annual opportunities those 50 years could have provided to build those relationships, to turn them into something much more powerful for the alumni, College, faculty and new students.

Law school or freshmen orientation: humour and fun belong everywhere in higher ed.

You may be tempted to only look to your undergrads for giggles and chuckles. But like the engineering students at Cambridge, your professional-degree and graduate students have their own “inside” fun and games to get classmates and others rolling on the floor. 

After all, they need levity just like any other student — maybe even more so because of their levels of stress. So do faculty and staff.

The student years: Where memories are formed

From funny tweets to pirate-inspired academic courses, there’s so much possibility for comedy on campus. It’s all about encouraging fun, celebrating it in your communications, and turning it into something positively distinctive that your higher ed. institution can be remembered by. 

The key is — whatever it is, the activity or act must contain the right ingredients. Beyond the comedy factor, does it showcase the talent, smarts, creativity and/or independent thinking of the participants? Does it in some way shine a positive light on your school? And does it convey an underlying message that your school harbours a culture where people are welcome to grow and not only think, but step outside the box? When the answers are yes, then you’ve got something to laugh about.  

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