If you're investing in content marketing, ask yourself, "When was the last time my customer printed out my content and hung it up on their wall or made a T-Shirt with it and gave it out at trade shows?" For most companies the answer would be "NEVER!"

But that's exactly what has been happening at several B2B technology giants, and the results of these content marketing programs have been nothing short of impressive, with some companies experiencing as much as a 400 percent increase in content marketing effectiveness. So what are they doing differently? They are using brilliant marketing cartoons.

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Last week I had the opportunity to catch up with my friend Tom Fishburne, whom I first met while he was working at Dreyer's. He went on to be a key player at Method
(home cleaning products) before launching his own company, Marketoonist, where he and his team have been taking the content marketing industry by storm.

The Power of cartoons in content marketing.

"We are at an interesting moment in content marketing" says Fishburne. "Companies are taking a fresh look at an old media. Even as newspapers are in decline, the cartoon medium is thriving". And the growth of marketing cartoons is happening for good reason. Effective content marketing today means capturing the essence of a great idea in a quick snackable way. I see the potential of marketing cartoons replacing the flood of infographics we've seen in the past.

"There is a serial nature of cartoons", explains Tom Fishburne. "There is a cadence of capturing and sustaining the attention of your audience. Daily, weekly, or whatever your frequency, each installment allows you to get several points across and chip away at the overall story."

One of the key elements of a cartoon has always been that the reader co-creates alongside the company publishing the cartoon. "When someone thinks to themselves, 'I've been there,' it makes the cartoon funny and evokes an emotional connection", says Tom Fishburne. "When done correctly, we're acknowledging a universal truth and this is where content marketing works best -- more about the reader and less about the brand. Cartoons lend themselves to this powerful approach."

The ROI of cartoons.

Measuring the ROI of cartoons may sound funny, but B2B technology companies are quite serious about the business impact. "One of our clients is Kronos, which provides workforce management software," Fishburne explains. "We've been producing a weekly cartoon for them for more than five years. And one of our clients in eDiscovery received a call from the Head of the Library of Congress requesting permission to outfit their walls with their cartoons."

Imagine a key influencer from your industry asking permission to print your content marketing to hang on office walls, or print out on T-Shirts that are given away at trade shows. That's when you know you've created relevant content that gets to the essence of what your audience cares about. After all, if you are looking to establish yourself as a thought leader, you want other leaders of your industry to reference your work.

Without revealing any names, one big company added one of Fishburne's cartoons and saw a 400 percent increase in content marketing effectiveness. Fishburne is quick to point out that this was a single campaign and not all of his clients share the results of their campaigns (nor do all clients rigorously A/B test the impact of his work), so each company's results will vary.

In Fishburne's own email newsletter, he gets a 40-50 percent open rate. And it makes sense, as his audience expects to see something fun and interesting. Contrast that to the industry average of roughly 20 percent, according to the data recently posted by Dave Chaffey, and you'll see why more businesses are looking to use marketing cartoons in their content marketing efforts.

And these results work for startups, too. "We worked with a technology startup called RealEyes on an email nurturing campaign," explained Fishburne. "We also encouraged sharing through signed print giveaways to influencers. The campaign exceeded open-rate benchmarks by 24-38 percent and click benchmarks by 121-189 percent." Examples of some of the cartoons from the campaign are available on the Marketoonist website.

Sharing the inside joke.

"I think one of the biggest issues with content marketing today is the fire hose approach" says Fishburne. "You can't break through the clutter by adding to it. Rather than looking for mass appeal, the trick is to find things that are directly meaningful to the audience you're going after." This speaks to the power of niche content marketing. When you know your audience well enough, you can find inside jokes that not everyone will get -- and that's the point.

"It's almost like a special handshake" Fishburne explains. "When you have a deep connection with a niche target audience, you can mine for some great humor. When you put yourself in the space of your audience, you can surface specific pain points and frustrations. It's a way of saying that we, as a brand, get you." And when you find those inside jokes that well represent the emotional feelings of your audience, they can't help but share via their social channels.

For example, Marketoonist and Kronos used cartoons with a green screen at a trade show so attendees could get pictures of themselves starring in cartoons. This generated a lot of interest at the show and even more activity via social channels. Here's a Facebook page with over 600 pictures of people posing in cartoons.

So while you really can't force something to go viral, when you discover specific universal truths and find humorous ways to express them, there is a high probability that your audience will take the time to share your clever insights with their peers.

And when you continue to deliver humorous insights on universal truths on a consistent basis, is it any wonder why? The next time you are thinking about ways to break through the content marketing clutter, consider the power of the marketing cartoon as well as the reasons they are doing so well.