Every time you’re on the internet, you’re immediately ambushed by memes. Memes can say it all with just a picture and a few short words. They’re a fun, clever way to communicate to an audience.

If you’re in the marketing field, chances are you’re at least somewhat experienced with memes. Even those who have never had to create a Twitter ad or run Facebook Insights know the power memes have on our day-to-day lives. In fact, we’re willing to bet you’ve seen or sent at least one meme in the last 24 hours.

For marketing professionals, it can be tempting to jump on the latest meme bandwagon and brainstorm how it might be applicable to your company. When funny pictures are getting thousands of retweets and Instagram likes, it leaves us wondering how we can achieve that level of success. But is it the right move for your brand?

Here’s your go-to guide to marketing with memes.

What Is a Meme?

Source: techsmith.com

The word “meme” was first used way before the days of Facebook or Twitter. In 1976, Richard Dawkins wrote a book called The Selfish Gene, where he used the word to describe the way a cultural trend spreads. It may not have been referring to a humorous digital image, but the sentiment is still exactly the same.

Today, a meme usually features text overlaid over an existing image, whether it’s something from social media or a popular character. The message is used to highlight something either humorous or relatable about the image. It’s a way to provide some kind of social commentary on something, but in an easy-to-digest, visual way.

The History of Memes

Source: runt-of-the-web.com

It’s difficult to pinpoint where exactly the first meme came from and who created it, but we do know it was a gradual evolution. One of the earliest forms of memes was the dancing baby, which took the internet by storm in 1996. If you were a child of the 90s, you also likely remember the peanut butter jelly time gifs and videos. Either way, these images and videos spread like wildfire in the earliest days of the internet.

As the years went on and Facebook was introduced, the popularity of memes started to skyrocket. Soon enough, your Aunt Cheryl was even sharing memes about her work drama! Fast forward to the present day and you see memes everywhere from Twitter to your coworker’s cubicle. Younger generations can’t even remember a time when memes didn’t exist!

What Are the Most Popular Memes?

The most popular memes are classics that have been spotted in every corner of the internet. Whether they started on a message board or a social network, these favorites have a track record of making people laugh and helping them relate to their peers.

Some of the most popular memes of all time include:

These memes have been shared and reshared, posted and reposted. Everyone recognizes them and loves using them on social media or through text messages.

Source: sayingimages.com

At the end of the day, what most people want is to relate to those around them and feel accepted. Memes are popular because they’re another way for people to share relatable experiences, sometimes with people they’ve never even met. Not to mention, they usually make people laugh! Since laughter is scientifically proven to be contagious, it makes sense why memes are so popular.

Fast forward to 2018 and memes, gifs, and digital stickers are all part of the way we digitally communicate. There’s even an entire site that serves as a gif library for anyone to use. Plus, they’re now seamlessly integrated into the iPhone messaging system. If your friends ever need a good laugh, all you need to do is tap on a funny image to send it as a text message!

Are Memes Copyrighted?

Source: copytrack.com

As brands shift their marketing strategies to be more relevant, many have both successfully and unsuccessfully incorporated memes into their marketing. However, anyone who has ever been responsible for the communication strategy of a business knows to tread lightly when it comes to sharing images online. It’s important to be certain you have permission to share the content you’re creating.

Generally speaking, almost every popular meme is copyrighted. Unless the image is classified as a Creative Commons graphic or is generally public domain, it’s safe to assume you don’t truly have the rights to share it. It also isn’t uncommon for the owners of these images to seek damages for their misuse. In fact, Getty Images recently settled several infringement cases involving the “Socially Awkward Penguin.” Of course, the internet is a large place, which means tracking down every instance of a copyrighted image being used can sometimes be like searching for a needle in a haystack. Ultimately, if you’re gung-ho about including memes in your marketing, and your goal is to sell more products or services, it’s best to consult a lawyer or legal team to know for sure if it’s permissible.

Should You Use Memes in Your Marketing?

When memes and gifs started to take social media by storm, marketers across the globe immediately went to the drawing board to figure out how they could incorporate them into their branding. Around 2012, it seemed like every company was doing whatever they could to market to their audience using this new form of communication. Though some companies hit the nail on the head, many still get it completely wrong. The next thing they know, they’re trending on Twitter…but for all the wrong reasons. You don’t want to be like these guys.

Source: socialsamosa.com

Even if you’re not sharing inappropriate memes or copyrighted images, memes tend have a very short lifespan, unlike giveaway items. What’s funny to social media followers one week can be completely irrelevant the next. This makes planning marketing or email campaigns all the more complicated. Plus, when you’re not sticking to your core branding strategy and instead chasing after fleeting trends, it can really confuse your customers. The last thing you want is an audience who doesn’t understand your brand!

At the end of the day, incorporating memes into your marketing should be part of a well thought out process. Whether you see them in your Instagram feed or can’t help but send them to your friends, memes are everywhere. While we may all want to jump on the meme bandwagon, it may be best to think of an alternative for your brand. Err on the side of caution and think of all the other ways your brand can stay relevant!

About the author

Kelsey Skager

Kelsey is a master of promotional products with over five years of marketing and industry experience. She is proud to have been featured on ABC 7 Chicago News and NPR.