Leveraging Memes For Your Own Viral Marketing

Richard Dawkins originally defined the word meme as “a package of culture.” In more recent history, Dr. Susan Blackmore, psychology scholar and TED lecturer on “memetics,” defines memes as “a copy-me instruction backed up by threats and/or promises.” An example of such a “threat” might be the last bit of an email chain letter that warns of “7 years of bad luck if you don’t forward this email in the next 10 minutes to 7 friends.”

But really, memes could relate to any type of fad. For example, look at bell bottoms. They became popular because one person saw the promise of a better social standing with the new pants and because suppliers saw the promise of increased profits. Memes mark the rise and fall of all of the fashions and trends in the history of the world.

The definition we’re familiar with, however, looks a little more like this:

Tard the grumpy catHipster kitty

Business catFuturama Fry (Source: Memegenerator.net)

Memes, in the way we recognize them, are a popular Internet trend in which an image is paired with a clever phrase to create a relatable or funny situation. For example, the last image, a meme commonly known as “Futurama Fry,” tackles the life situations when people are paired with a confusing dilemma. Or, in the example of the “Business Cat” meme, one meme makes fun of another meme, the popular YOLO (“you only live once”) hashtag made popular through Twitter.

In all cases, people enjoy the memes because they remind them of something familiar, whether it be the old saying that “cats have nine lives,” or that terrible situation in which you don’t know which tab of your computer is playing music.

Using Memes In Your Marketing Campaigns

Unfortunately, some marketers are overlooking memes as a great way to integrate popular Internet humor into their campaigns. Marketers should take advantage of them because:

  1. They are easy to create. With websites like memegenerator.net, you can simply create your own meme by filling in text boxes. You can upload your own image, or take advantage of the incredibly popular memes and get in on the fad.
  2. They are cheap — as in, completely free. (Though there may be copyright issues in certain cases — more on that later.)
  3. People feel in on a joke. The familiarity of the meme creates the blueprint of laughter; people know to expect a laugh.
  4. It is a great way for your brand to seem relevant and fresh.

Meme Marketing In Action

Consider the following websites that have taken advantage of the popular macro meme Foul Bachelor Frog, which depicts a frog that reveals all of the sketchy, unsanitary secrets of bachelor life.

Diamond retailer Diamond Envy aggregated some of funniest examples and used them as “advice” for young bachelors who relate to the single lifestyle but may someday want to tie the knot — see: “Great Advice… If You Want to Stay Single!

Canadian real estate site Zolo tailored the meme to its own uses with “The Foul Bachelor Frog Bachelor Pad,” pulling popular examples of “redneck home remodels” and pairing them with Foul Bachelor Frog to poke fun at some DIY upgrades to the prototypical bachelor pad.

Travel club World Ventures employed a variety of memes in addition to Foul Bachelor Frog, such as “Success Kid” and “Socially Awkward Penguin,” to tell a story in their article “Thank You, Internet Memes, for this Sage Travel Advice.”

All three found relevant, already-made examples — and, in the case of Zolo, made their own to complement existing ones.

Bear in mind that your meme-containing article is supposed to target (attract the interest of) the “linkerati,” the influencers online who command authority in Google’s view — not your traditional target audience which has no such pull with Google.

Other Types Of Memes

Memes don’t just come in the form of images — video memes are popular as well. Remember the “S*** People Say” video craze of late 2011/early 2012? Thousands of video parodies were created, each with their own specific punch line. The result was millions upon millions of collective views. Videos are easy to upload for free onto YouTube, which makes them incredibly shareable on social media sites. People send the linked videos to co-workers if there is one about their profession, or friends if it is about a shared hobby.

Twitter memes are among the easiest to get on board with and also among the easiest to benefit from. On a sociological level, each Twitter hashtag is a meme. The most popular hashtags of the day offer an easy opportunity to get exposure. Once people search for the hashtag and see your company’s response, they can either favorite it, retweet it (which means more free eyeballs on the promotional material with no effort), or — the prized action — they can subscribe to your company’s Twitter feed.

Physical memes usually are a certain body movement or gesture done in unique, impressive, or humorous locations. Physical memes include the current “twerking” phenomenon and are a cheap way to participate through photos or videos. Other examples include “planking” and “owling” from 2011.


Know Your Audience

Before creating your own meme-inspired marketing campaign, it is important to consider your audience. The McDonald’s Twitter fiasco of last year is a great example of a meme campaign gone in the wrong direction. McDonald’s encouraged its Twitter subscribers to share their McDonald’s experiences by using what Business Insider described as “a dangerously vague hashtag” #McDstories.

McD stories tweets

Instead of a series of heartwarming stories (no doubt their intention), people started playing promotion hardball. The campaign was pulled within hours. This, however, should not scare you from memes as promotion. Simply pay attention to what you are putting out there, spend a little time on the Internet, and creative things are bound to happen.

Memes In Advertising

Some companies are realizing that the popularity and familiarity of memes can be used for their benefit outside of the Internet. For instance, there have been a slew of companies recently using meme-related images in outdoor advertising, mainly highway billboards. In the example below, Hipchat, a private group chat service for companies, makes use of popular images of the reddit “rage comics” fad, with the famous Y-U-NO guy.

Y u no use hipchat?

(Source: Hipchat)

Or look at this other example, where Virgin media takes advantage of the popular “Success kid” to initiate a familiarity with their desired consumers. Memes like this work well in advertising because the viewers already feel like they are “in on the joke,” and it feels somehow inclusive to them, but perhaps exclusive to others.

Virgin media ad using Success Kid (Source: Memecenter)

Brands have also integrated the idea of memes into full-scale television spot campaigns. For example, the popular commercial for UK dairy brand Cravendale featured “Cats with Thumbs” — one week earlier, a short video of a cat giving a thumbs up had gone viral.

Cravendale's Cats with Thumbs commercialCat Gives Thumbs Up

Play It Safe

It’s important to consider intellectual property law before you embark on your meme mashups. Some works, like Futurama Fry, are owned by big Hollywood studios. Others, like Success Kid, are owned by a parent. Common sense would dictate that the former is riskier than the latter.

Also, commercial uses of a meme are, generally speaking, riskier than non-commercial uses. It’s possible that your use would qualify as “fair use” under copyright law — parodies, criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research are examples of potential “fair use” cases. Nonetheless, unless the work is Creative Commons licensed or in the public domain, it’s safest to seek the copyright owner’s permission to use the image. You can read more about this subject in ““I Can Haz Copyright Infringement? Internet Memes And Intellectual Property Risks.”

Let’s Go!

Ready to have a go at it yourself? Just jump onto memegenerator.net and look at some of the hottest and most popular examples, then with their tool simply overlay your own punch lines onto the images instead.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Content Marketing | Content Marketing | Content Marketing Column | Social Media Marketing


About The Author: is the author of Google Power Search, creator of the Science of SEO and co-author of The Art of SEO now in its second edition, both published by O'Reilly. Spencer is also the founder of Netconcepts and inventor of the SEO technology platform GravityStream. He also blogs on his own site, Stephan Spencer's Scatterings.

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