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7 Things Marketers Should Know About Memes (The Ultimate Meme FAQ)

What is a meme?

These.

First World Problems

Conspiracy Keanu

Success Kid

 

But for a quick history lesson, here’s where it all came from:

Coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins, a meme is a “package of culture.” Pre-internet, this meant things like regional sayings, fashion, and architecture. These are styles, concepts, and behaviors that are infinitely replicable (so we’re not talking about trading physical items) and spread out to other cultures from the point of origin.

Greek Parthenon

Roman Forum

Lincoln Memorial

The Greek Parthenon looks an awful lot like the Roman Forum, and both of those match America’s very own Lincoln Memorial. The columns are an architectural meme that has transferred from culture to culture with adaptations to the climate, landscape, values, style, and function of its new environment.

Now that we have the internet, we have a whole new set of memes, many of which involve cats who can’t spell.

Silly kitty.

Oh, and it’s not pronounced like “Mimi.” “Meme” rhymes with “team.”

What are some popular memes I would know about?

 

This is Tebowing. I don’t understand the costume either.

Photo and video memes:

Photo memes include anything where a person is imitating a position or action that’s familiar, such as planking, Tebowing, and owling. A picture of oneself holding up a personal story about finances or healthcare added momentum to the “I am the 99%” and “I am Obamacare” movements. These have been very popular politically, because they put faces with the effects of passing (or not passing) certain legislation; they show individuals to accompany data points, which is much harder to dismiss.

Video memes include dubbing over (or otherwise changing the sound) the sound on familiar videos (such as Hitler Reacts and Auto-Tune the News) and imitating familiar stereotypes (such as Sh*t Girls Say and Sh*t Chicagoans Say).

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Image (macro) memes:

An image meme (also called a “macro”) is slightly different than a photo meme in that image memes are generally a familiar image (photo or cartoon) with different captions (or, in a slight variation, familiar text with a slightly different image) in contrast to photo memes, which are photos of different people in a familiar position or environment. For example, the Most Interesting Man in the World’s tagline is: “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis.” The taglines on the memes share a familiar format.

These include the Most Interesting Man in the World, Futurama Fry, and Condescending Wonka among countless others.

Word memes:

Strictly speaking, a Twitter hashtag is a meme. Popular words and phrases with a pound sign (#) in front of it become “trending topics,” (meaning lots of Tweets contain that word/phrase). People can add their own twist.

#20ThingsAboutMe I post passive aggressive Tweets instead of having a conversation with people who upset me. You know who you are.

I’d never been so excited to be undesirable.

Miscellaneous marketing memes:

These memes ask loyal fans (and potential new customers) to engage in an activity or take a picture of themselves doing something. The original behavior or posture is the same, but each person adds their own personal touch to it. Other marketing memes capitalize on existing memes and add their own caption (like SEOmoz announcing several big news items with popular memes).

Isn’t that the same thing as “viral”?

 

Viral describes how something (like a meme) spreads online. Viruses make tons of copies of themselves and transfer from person to person. Online media that “goes viral” starts with an original document that is streamed online or downloaded and spreads through word of mouth and direct transmission of the file. The original media is generally kept intact.

Memes, though they move “virally,” are slightly different in that they keep a basic component of the original culture packet but are altered slightly as they enter new subcultures. The core concept is imitated, but the details change.

 

Where do memes come from, and where can I find them?

 

Like viruses, the base images and videos for memes can come from anywhere from a personal photo uploaded to Flickr to a deliberate attempt from an advertising company to “go viral” to meme generators.

If you’re looking for the origin of a specific meme, Know Your Meme (part of the Cheezeburger network, which has been a long time home base for memes) has some solid research on where many were first spotted online.

Memes are shared on all social networks, with Tumblr and Reddit being hotspots. Facebook and Pinterest are also meme-friendly platforms, but links to images and videos aren’t quite as hot on text-based Twitter. Originally, they were created by those with some graphic design savvy, but meme generators (more on those under “How Do I Use Memes?“) have made it easy for ANYONE to participate in the cross-cultural communication.

Why are memes popular?

 

Memes are:

  • Easy to consume: the most popular ones are a simple image with a few words of text printed on them.
  • Shareable: Just make sure you’ve got social media buttons.
  • Familiar: Whether or not the reader is familiar with the specific context or reference, the best memes are easy to understand and identify with.
  • Funny: Nearly all successful memes have an element of humor, which people are eager to share with their connections online.
  • Make people feel “in” on something: create a community where people understand a particular reference or identify with a message and can share it with the like-minded.

What’s in it for me?

 

Easy Creation of Value-Added Content. Sharing funny or thought-provoking memes (not self-promos), you are following the number one rule of content marketing, which is providing value-added content to your past and potential clients. It’s a lot faster than writing a blog post (or even a Tweet!), and it’s quicker for your online followers to consume.

Stay Relevant on Social Networks. With Facebook’s new newsfeed algorithm, most of your posts aren’t showing up in your fans’ newsfeeds, especially if they’re not somehow interacting with your brand. An image or photo meme can give your company an edge by getting quick likes and shares that keep your company’s posts scrolling through your fans’ homepages.

Boost Employee Morale. While your marketing team is awesome, you probably have some creative types in other departments who would be thrilled to contribute to meme creation. For B2B brands, industry jokes can really draw some positive attention to your company.

How do I use memes?

 

Apparently, one does not simply use spell check, either.

Apparently, one does not simply use spell check, either.

First and foremost, consider your target audience.

  • Does my target audience share certain interests, environments, or knowledge that makes for good joke material? The What People Think I Do/What I Really Do meme is a great example of taking information (and misconceptions) about a particular subculture (e.g., profession, interest, location) and makes it funny.
  • Is my target audience internet savvy? Then they’re probably already familiar with memes, and using a familiar macro could give your company some geek cred. For image-based memes, try Meme Generator, Meme Crunch, or ZipMeme.
  • What kind of media does my target audience consume? If they’ve got time to watch videos, a “Sh*t [Target Audience] Says” could make for a fun share. But if they’re pressed for time, a quick image macro could boost your fan interaction and Facebook presence in a hurry.
  • Will my target audience participate in contests? A contest hosted over Twitter with a special hashtag (#likethis) makes it easy for people to enter and will attract the attention of all the entrants’ followers, which doesn’t happen in an email campaign. Try not to let it backfire, though.

Other resources:

  • SEOmoz has an excellent article on ways to create and promote a marketing meme.
  • Hubspot recently wrote about memejacking, which mostly focuses on taking advantage of the momentum of existing memes.

Humor is a wonderful way to bring people together, to encourage interaction among your users, and spread your content beyond your social media bubble. However, offensive humor is a fantastic way to get yourself swept into a public relations nightmare, so tread lightly.

So what do you think of memes in marketing? Are they too casual to be used in a professional setting? Can any kind of company use them or are they restricted for the ones with young, internet-savvy audiences? Sound off in the comments below!

Until next time, keep expanding your brand!

Image Credits
Tebowing by Dê Preferência à Vida


Jana Quinn

An old ‘G’ that’s been working for QLP since it was in Bret’s basement – Jana has been writing since she made up a story about a Jana-Tiger that liked rocky road ice cream and got straight A’s. She enjoys writing about marketing and pop culture, posting a ‘Die Hard’ article as often as she’s allowed. She is inspired by the articles at Cracked and frequently wears a Snuggie in the office. You can also connect with Jana on Google+.

Comments

  1. Jeff Porretto

    Well done Jana! When I first heard you were writing a meme post, I wasn’t sure how much you could say about what is really a collection of one-liners. But you really brought it together and have some great points!

    We had an extended department wide laugh fest with the “ermahgerd” meme, so I will testify to the effectiveness of the morale boost they can provide!

    • Jana Quinn

      Thanks, Jeff – and great analysis: a collection of one liners. That’s really what most memes are (with some pictures thrown in and prerequisite cultural knowledge), and that’s why they have to be crafted so carefully.

    • Eric

      Oh, man. It was Giggle Fest 2012 the day we all first saw the “Ermagerd” one. Part of what I enjoy about these aren’t necessarily the originals, but instead, the spin-offs that become even more outlandish, thus, more hilarious.

  2. zoidberg

    This is an interesting article, and I think you do a good job of talking about the “non-selling points of memes” but a word of warning to buisiness people…

    The one thing this article doesn’t truly go over are the negatives of using memes in advertising.

    1. memes are usually fleeting. Memes generally only appear for a brief few days then sail off into the sunset. This is because they are “forced memes”. This means that someone tried to make a meme and a bunch of people, usually on Reddit, tried to exploit that meme for “karma”. people get sick of it and it quickly goes by the wayside. I only mention this because in the article the author mentions “staying relevant”. It would be like putting an extremely photogenic guy meme on facebook for promotion. He was so last month.

    2. Meme’s are one of the greatest examples of community humor, and one of the best aspects of them are that they are free. exploitation of free content for profit, is a nono, though not as serious as say a corporate owned news site stealing a free sites written content, co-opting a meme to make money is a good way to turn off the crowd you want.

    3. Using a meme incorrectly is one of the worst things you can do. Part of what memes represent is an internet culture. if you do not belong to that culture and try to use one of their primary means of communication without understanding it is like being white and using the n-word, sometimes people will laugh at you for being “that” stupid, but most of the time you’ll get beat up. (maybe not physically in cases of meme abuse.

    4. Finally, memes do not represent the internet savvy consumer. People who find them funny represent usually the shallowest of consumer. Which is awesome because they are usually going to be the easiest to sell junk to. It is important to know this because you need to understand your audience.

    P.S. all of the great memes come from 4chan

    • Jana Quinn

      You’re absolutely right, Zoidberg. I only touched on negative aspects of using memes briefly when I talked about possibly offending people with using humor in memes, but there’s clearly a whole lot more traps to fall into. I think a lot of what you talked about goes back to the overall best strategy for content marketing: providing FREE media or written content that is VALUABLE for the customer. Whether it’s good for a laugh or a how-to video on something specific in the industry, it’s important that potential customers get some value out of it. Otherwise, why bother?

      1. The people you talk about in this section seem to be the ones who are highly involved in communities who use memes regularly, those who are going to be on the “front line,” so to speak. So while it may be old news to those folks, memes do take time to spread from the origin sites (4chan or reddit or wherever) out to other sites. So every company marketing with memes may not necessarily be on the cutting edge, but staying aware of timelines can definitely boost relevance.

      2. If exploitation of free content for profit is a no no, Creative Commons wouldn’t exist. Publishers put out new editions of public domain works all the time. That’s different from stealing copyrighted work. As long as the meme has value (e.g., humor, information), there’s not much social backlash. Now, if it’s overly self-promotional and doesn’t really provide information or humor (e.g., The Most Interesting Man QLP one in the article), I can definitely see people being apathetic or even annoyed.

      3. Absolutely agreed. Misusing jargon or making an error in a cultural reference is a really quick way to get dismissed as a credible source. I definitely don’t think it’s on par with hate speech, but it’s a good way to get an eyeroll.

      4. I didn’t say anything about internet savvy consumers finding memes funny; I said they would find them familiar. I’m not sure what you mean by “shallow,” but there are plenty of clever memes (that are invariably beaten into the ground, but then, what culturally popular piece of anything isn’t?) that get tons of social shares and get people interacting, which is a critical component of content marketing.

      Thanks so much for taking the time to talk about the different points I hadn’t considered in the article. I appreciate it!

      P.S. I don’t know where all the great memes come from, but the Zoidberg (Your X is bad, and you should feel bad.) is one of my faves.

  3. amy

    Kick ass post, Jana! If my afternoon gets too stressful I love searching for popular memes to kill some time.

    I love the meme you created with the Dos X ‘Most Interesting Man’ actor for QLP. I think that’s an awesome example of a company using a meme to further interact with customers. You’re not pushing anything on them, just giving them a chuckle and hopefully creating stronger bonds with them.

    Excellent job, Jana!! I really enjoyed this post!

    • Jana Quinn

      Haha, I was just saying that the Most Interesting Man QLP meme was a pretty weak effort. It would be better aimed at current customers (who know what QLP is) than drawing the attention of outsiders (who won’t know what it is and won’t feel like part of the community). There were some great ones I saw last week about t-shirt imprinting that were hilarious. I’m not sure where they came from, but it was more making “fun” of promotional products imprinting in general than promoting a certain brand. However, if I were looking for promotional products and stumbled across that on a brand’s Facebook page, it might get a like or a share from me. The QLP one out of the blue? Not so much.

  4. Kelsey

    This is a great post! It’s awesome you can take something simple, and turn it into something hilarious and something that could benefit your company! I have to say that the Conspiracy Keanu memes are my favorite, every one I read cracks me up. :)

    • Jana Quinn

      Thanks, Kelsey! The first world problems are my favorite, hands down.

  5. Mandy Kilinskis

    I don’t know if memes are limited to companies with younger, internet-savvy customers, but they certainly perform best. For example, I follow both The Hunger Games and The Sims 3 on Facebook; they both post memes all the time and get tons of likes and shares on them. It’s a great way for them to stay relevant (especially between movies and expansion packs) when they might not be getting much press.

    As for other audiences, it would depend on the meme. Customers that don’t live on the Internet probably wouldn’t understand the Y U NO memes, but if they watch football, they’d understand Tebowing.

    • Jana Quinn

      That’s a great point, Mandy; companies that put out entertainment on a staggered schedule (TV shows that take a break over the summer; movie franchises that take yearsfor the sequel to come out) can use memes to stay in their fans feeds. Thanks for the tip!

  6. Rachel

    Love this post, Jana. You do an excellent job describing what memes are and what makes them so much fun for many Internet-loving people. I used to have a LOLcat app on Facebook … good times, those were. Not sure why cats with horrific grammar are so endearing, but they are.

    It looks like there’s already been some good discussion here about how memes can be both good and bad for marketing purposes — I don’t have much else to add except to agree with everyone that, basically, “it depends.” :) For instance, I’m certainly more likely to enjoy a company that shares memes, but I don’t know if my parents would be impressed. Like Mandy said, it’s all about the audience that the company is appealing to.

    Great stuff, Jana!

    • Jana Quinn

      Thanks, Rachel! We’ve come quite a long way since the lolcats, haven’t we? :-)

  7. Jenna Markowski

    This is a great comprehensive resource on memes, Jana! I think you touched on a lot of ways that companies can benefit from memes, and some of the drawbacks as well. I haven’t decided how I feel about brands using memes yet, I suppose it depends on the execution. Because on one hand the use of a meme could just seem like a brand trying to jump on a bandwagon as a means to piggy-back off of already viral content, but on the other hand if the brand contributes a new, hilarious addition to the already existing meme, then I can get behind it. So I think I prefer brands creating their own memes, like Captain Morgan, but the use of an already popular meme can work if it’s thoughtfully executed.

    Fun post, Jana! I love the “Apparently, one does not simply use spell check, either” caption. :)

    PS. Speaking of the “Sh*t ____ Say” video meme, I know we have a lot of NCC memes, and they jumped on the bandwagon with this video, which is actually hilarious: http://youtu.be/XJABApvFgQo

    • Jenna Markowski

      By “I know we have a lot of NCC memes,” I meant “I know we have a lot of NCC alumni.”

      • Jana Quinn

        Thanks, Jenna! I definitely think the execution is critical. You could end up making someone laugh or end up at the butt of the joke. As Zoidberg said earlier, you have to understand the language before you try using it.

  8. Cybernetic SAM

    This was a great post! I always feel like I am way behind on memes. I usually hear about memes when people have already moved on by months! Don’t care though, I don’t go out of my way to see them, so the fact that they eventually reach me says something! I can really see how getting into this sense of humor can really benefit a company! I never thought I would see the day that there would be a Meme breakdown. Great job!

    • Jana Quinn

      Thanks, Sam. As a reddit user, I run across them fairly frequently, but I’d say I’ve seen an increase in their visibility in “mainstream” social media. They’re easy to do, but they’re also really easy to do poorly. Maybe we should get a QLP meme going…

  9. Jill Tooley

    I’ll never get tired of memes. And thanks to the revolving door of pop culture references, I’ll never have the chance to. :)

    I’m glad you pointed out that memes aren’t for everyone, especially in a marketing sense. Younger audiences are more likely to “get” them (depending on the reference), and people could be easily offended and associate that distaste with the company/brand that posted it. Lots of red tape!

    I had no idea that “meme” was coined back in the 70s. I appreciate the history lesson and the overall information (as well as the memes themselves, of course).

    • Jana Quinn

      Thanks, Jill! There was a lot of research (and conflicting information) on memes and what they started as and how they’ve evolved, but I took a general consensus (with a bit of personal bias where there were gaps) to create this FAQ. I hope most companies can find some way to get at least a few social shares out of a meme and perhaps others can build their content marketing around them. Either way, it’ll be interesting to see this develop.

  10. David

    Quick question here,

    Any potential copyright violation in regards of the memes ? who own the memes ? can you use them at work ? because that would be commercial uses, or on an Internet or TV Advertising Campaign, I would believe so due the satire use of it.

    • Jana Quinn

      That question is better suited for a lawyer, but my very uninformed guess is that you may be covered under satire.

  11. Adoga

    I totally agree with this, funny memes you got up there tho. One must also be careful about right infringement when using a picture.

  12. McCorrect

    You’re misusing the word meme. The word meme is an idea which is transmitted like a pathogen between people.

  13. Alexander Zeldin

    For building a buyer persona it’s a great point “Does my target audience share certain interests, environments, or knowledge that makes for good joke material?”

    • Jana Quinn

      That’s a great idea! You could probably track how successful the memes are based on likes/shares and possibly extrapolate data about your ideal client base from that.

      Very compelling ideas there, Alexander! :)

  14. Cam

    Love the article, I was wondering if memes make money, and how one would go about making money with their own memes?

    • Jana Quinn

      I’m not sure what you mean by using memes to make money (at least not directly, that is), but they can be powerful tools for building customer relationships and – as Alexander mentioned above – creating a buyer persona or ideal customer based on how well your memes are received.

  15. Tim Mundy

    Hi Jana,

    Great article. If I use/create a meme and use it in a blog, do you know if I need to cite my source? And if so, how I would go about wording that citation?

    Cheers,

    Tim

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