It doesn’t matter if you’re an avid tweeter, a Tumblr addict, a Redditor or a BuzzFeed junkie, there’s one thing you can’t avoid on the Web: memes. Memes are everywhere, and just about anything or anyone can become one. Grumpy Cat, Alex from Target, Overly Attached Girlfriend, Success Kid — all of them started out as normal, everyday people (or animals), but were somehow catapulted into the Internet spotlight seemingly overnight.
So what exactly is a meme? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a meme is “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.” The term was actually coined in 1982 by writer and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.
But while the term itself has a much broader history, you most likely know memes as those funny pictures with puns and jokes overlaid on top in bold, white lettering. Other examples of memes are viral videos like the series of “Harlem Shake” videos that took over the Internet in early 2013. [The Secret to Going Viral: 5 Social Media Tips]
Memes may not seem like much to most people, but to marketing professionals, memes have all of the potential in the world. Why? Here are four major reasons:
They’re already viral. Whatever you’re trying to market, you want people talking about it. Since memes already saturate the Web, latching on to such content can be a great way to get your brand noticed online. They’re easy to make. Anyone with an Internet-connected device can make and upload a meme in just a few minutes. Whether you use an existing meme or create your own, it doesn’t matter. The end result is a free or cheap way to increase your chances of going viral.
They’re incredibly shareable. Since most memes are images or videos, they’re ideal for sharing on social media. Every major social network from Facebook to Pinterest supports image and video files, so using memes increases the chances that your content will be shared across many platforms and channels.
They make campaigns more relatable, especially to young people. Marketers and advertisers are constantly looking for ways to interest young people, and memes are a great way to do just that. Additionally, memes are generally funny, and incorporating them into your campaign can show your potential audience and customers that you know how to have fun, making your brand much more relatable.
For these reasons, it can be tempting to use already-created memes to your advantage in your marketing strategy. This is often referred to as “memejacking,” and if it’s done right, it can really push your social marketing over the edge. But memes can be tricky, and if you mess up, it can be pretty embarrassing.
Here are three important steps to memejack the correct way:
Understand the meme, first. If you’re unsure of the correct way to use a meme, don’t just try it anyway. Go toKnowYourMeme.com, search for the particular meme you’re interested in and read up on it before you even get started. If you use a meme incorrectly, it can seriously backfire and make your brand look out of touch.
Don’t waste time. Some memes stay popular for years, and others fall flat after a few months or even days. If you’re going to memejack, do it as soon as possible. Otherwise, you could end up using it too late. Make sure it’s appropriate. If your business has a very serious reputation, and therefore a very serious audience, using memes could actually offend people — the exact opposite of what you want.
There’s also a big distinction between using a meme that already exists and creating your own memes. So how do you know which path is the right one for your business? It all depends on your existing clout on the Web.
If you’re a new company looking to go viral, using existing memes is probably the way to go. They’re already popular, and if you use them correctly, it’s a great way to get noticed, especially on social media. Having a great sense of humor on the Internet can earn you more followers, who will in turn share your content with their friends.
If you’re an existing brand with a lot of followers, creating your own memes (so long as you have a great concept for them) could help you outshine your competition. You already have a lot of influence thanks to your follower count, so you have a better chance of making your memes go viral. Plus, your followers already see you as a brand they can trust, and creating your own memes will show that you’re funny and relatable, too.
No matter how popular your brand is already, if you use memejacking the right way, it can seriously boost your business.
Need some examples? These three companies have all taken memes to the next level:
• Denny’s: One of the few brands that does Tumblr marketing well, Denny’s succeeds mostly because it embraces the use of memes wholeheartedly. The restaurant chain regularly shares hilarious images. A notable example? Denny’s made a parody of advertisements for the gold iPhone 5 by sharing a picture of pancakes with the text “Pancakes” stylized like the iPhone advertisement, with smaller text reading, “Always available in golden.” (You can see more of the company’s memes here.)
• Wonderful Pistachios: The snack food brand has created several commercials that are based on viral videos, including one with “Keyboard Cat,” a viral video and meme that dates all the way back to 2007. The company’s Super Bowl spot featured South Korean singer-songwriter Psy and played off his hit 2012 music video for “Gangnam Style” (which now has over 2 billion views on YouTube).
• Seamless: You’ve probably used the Seamless website to order takeout before, but if you’re not following Seamless on Twitter, you’re missing out on some great laughs. The account regularly makes food jokes and puns, but Seamless really shone during this year’s Academy Awards season when it shared its own “#OscarNomNoms” memes, which turned Oscar-nominated movie posters into food puns like “The Wolf of Waffle Street.”
But not every business has had such good luck with memes. If you really want to try memejacking for your next marketing campaign, make sure you don’t make the same mistakes these marketers did:
• FAFSA: This summer, the Federal College Financial Aid Twitter account posted a tweet that read, “If this is you, then you better, fill out your FAFSA” with a still from the movie “Bridesmaids” that read “Help me, I’m poor.” However, given how many people struggle with student debt, the tweet was very poorly received. FAFSA later deleted the tweet and shared an apology. “We apologize for the insensitivity of our previous tweet. Our goal is to make college a reality for all. We’re very sorry,” the organization wrote.
• Kia/Cheezburger, Inc.: This memejacking fail is particularly disappointing because the Cheezburger Network is a collection of meme websites — as in, the organization should’ve known better. The company teamed up with Kia (yes, the car company) in 2012 for a campaign, it called “Season’s Memeing,” which encouraged users to create Kia-themed memes in an effort to win a gift card. Many of the memes that were created didn’t make sense, and the Internet was none too pleased.
• U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: The organization made a huge meme mistake when it borrowed the “dog” meme (you might recognize it as a picture of a Shiba Inu doge with colorful text overlaid that says things like “wow” and “such doge”). In its attempt to promote Obamacare, the organization not only used the meme inappropriately, but also posted the wrong picture. The overlaid text said, “So health insurance,” “Very benefits,” “Wow,” “Many coverage,” “Much affordable” and “Such Healthcare. Gov.” It’s no wonder it fell flat.
If these memejacking horror stories didn’t scare you away, there’s some good news: Thanks to the overabundance of memes on the Internet, no matter what your company does, there’s probably one out there that’s perfect for your marketing campaign. And whether you create your own or you jump on another meme’s bandwagon, just make sure that the rest of the Internet is laughing with you, not at you.
George Athan, CEO
MindStorm Strategic Consulting