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What Marketers Should Know About Memes

What Marketers Should Know About Memes

You’ve just logged on to Twitter and immediately are greeted with a poorly constructed tweet featuring Harambe. When you glance over to see who tweeted it, expecting to see your Uncle Earl, you see none other than your favorite fast food chain. Shudder.

If you’re in the marketing field, chances are you’re at least somewhat experienced with social media. Even those who have never had to create a Twitter ad or run Facebook Insights know the power social networks have on our day-to-day lives. In fact, we’re willing to bet you’ve logged onto Instagram or Facebook at least once already today!

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 for our own social platforms. But is it the right move for your brand?

What Is a Meme?

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.

 

The History of Memes

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:

Why Are Memes Popular?

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?

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.

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!



Kelsey Brown

Kelsey LOVES to write and she'll always make sure you're using the correct form of "your." But when she isn’t writing, she can usually be found chasing around her two rabbits, hanging at local wineries or watching an episode of Friends for the 574th time.

Comments

  1. Jeff Porretto

    Well done! 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! 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! 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. 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 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! 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! 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. 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! 🙂

  13. 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.

  14. Tim Mundy

    Hi,

    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

  15. Shannon

    Hi!

    Great post! As a lover of memes and a community manager for a company that would love to leverage them as part of our content calendar – I struggle to find accurate (or at least trustworthy) information on the legality of sharing memes commercially. Do you have any insight on whether or not it’s actually legal to repurpose meme’s on a behalf of a brand? Are there no copyright infringements to worry about?

    Thanks in advance,
    Shannon

    • Jana Quinn

      Thanks for reading, Sharon! Since a meme is, by definition, a “package of culture,” no one has a claim on the concept. However, many memes use copyrighted photographs, and that would be a legally gray area. Many, though, use public domain images and/or images under a Creative Commons license. All of that said, I’ve never heard of any company getting sued for using a picture of the Most Interesting Man and co-opting it for their own campaign. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen, though. In all likelihood, using the picture of Sean Bean from LotR isn’t going to get you an angry phone call from New Line Cinema, but again, not a lawyer. To be safe, create your own content but keep a familiar twist. Come back and share how it goes!!

  16. Lauren

    Hi,

    I’m a social media strategist and was coming up with ideas for an upcoming marketing campaign and was told to be careful where I get images because of copyright infringement. I wanted to use the most interesting man meme, we wouldn’t get in trouble for using it?

    Great post by the way!

  17. Naomi Nakashima

    Hi.

    I am wondering about the copyright aspects of using memes. Going through a meme generator usually imprints the meme with that site’s watermark. But what about the original artist of the meme? For example, Allie fromHyperbole and a Half and her “X all the Y!” character is a popular meme used to market a lot of companies and products.

    How do we know if we are using them within the aspects of their intended license for use?

  18. Tj Todd

    Hello,

    I didn’t see any mention of is it legal to use memes in your business social media? Are they public domain to use however you need?

    Thanks

  19. Sizzor

    Will there be any legal issues for usinf memes in blog post or any social media ?

    • Todd Heim

      I can’t give any actual legal advice, so don’t take this as any. BUT, considering how widespread the use is, it seems to me that you should be safe unless you’re directly stealing it from someone.

  20. Advanced SystemCare

    That’s a great point. 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! i am very impressed your work

  21. Advanced SystemCare

    i am very impressed your work your work is very innovative thanks for sharing a tips

  22. Rizwan

    Hi,

    This is a wonderful and a highly insightful blog post. For our business, meme has become an important marketing strategy to engage audience with funny content. In our case, the meme concept is showing up great result.

  23. Ellen

    Great blog post – exactly the info I’ve been looking for. Do you have any tips or advice on how to find the attributed source for a meme quote? I’m researching quotes for possible inclusion in a publication and I’m having a heck of a time trying to find out who originally said it and/or who owns the rights. I just keep finding the meme in various places with no info. Thanks!

    • Kelsey Brown

      Hey, Ellen! That’s a great question. It can be so difficult to track down the original source of something that has gone viral, especially if it’s been around for quite some time. Google Trends searches can often help with this by searching for the name of the meme or what it’s commonly referred to. From there, you can usually see when people started searching for it (not necessarily when it was created). But once you have that date-based information, you can then make more specific Google searches to try to track down the original source. You might even be able to track down the first person who posted it online, and reach out to them to see if they created it themselves or if they recall where they found it. I hope this helps and best of luck! 🙂

      • Ellen

        Thanks Kelsey – that’s a great road map to follow. I’m also wondering if you know if using the content (the quote) NOT in meme form but as a bubble in an article or book is any different – in terms of copyright infringement? thanks again

        • Kelsey Brown

          Hi again, Ellen! I truly think it depends on the quote. For example, quotes from movies or television shows are usually fair use in the United States, but more original works like Nyan Cat have a higher potential of being copyrighted. I stumbled across this resource that might be useful to you, but it’s always best to consult your legal team to be sure you’re not violating any copyrights.

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