What is a meme?
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.
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.
Oh, and it’s not pronounced like “Mimi.” “Meme” rhymes with “team.”
What are some popular memes I would know about?
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).
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.
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.
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).
- doing a Irish jig with a McDonald’s Shamrock Shake (Shamrocking)
- posing as Captain Morgan
- Tosh.0’s surprise trust falls
- Harry Potter Undesirable Number One poster
- Success Kid on a Virgin Media billboard in London
- Lululemon Sh*t Yogis Say
- Jimmy Kimmel’s I Gave My Kids a Terrible Present
- Wonderful Pistachio’s Honey Badger commercial capitalizing on the original Crazy Nastyass Honey Badger
- Dan Savage’s It Gets Better project
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?
- 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?
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.
- 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.
- Blue Glass offers some case studies on memes used in marketing.
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!