How To Use Memes to Promote Your Business

This is a guest post by Anita Brady.

A meme, according to Merriam Webster Dictionary, is “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.” Originally coined by evolutionary biologist and ethologist Richard Dawkins in the 1970s, a meme is something with which just about every member of a culture is familiar.

For example, the simple act of swinging a hammer to drive in a nail would be considered a meme, or the way Bostonians pronounce the word “car.” Even the “quick fix” method of getting your Nintendo cartridge to work by blowing dust out of it was a meme. It’s something that’s passed around and repeated throughout a culture and it doesn’t need the internet to spread, though the web is making memes more and more popular by the millisecond. And what comes to mind when one says “meme” is quickly changing in relation to social media.

Today, when one mentions a meme, they’re usually talking about a mimicked action spreading virally through social media. One of the pioneers of meme fame is the site ICanHasCheezburger, which includes all kinds of memes from comic strips to single images to videos. It received its first real notoriety, however, with the segment LOLCats. Featuring pictures of cats in all sorts of awkward or captured-on-camera positions, each image is framed with a phonetically spelled tag that typically elaborates on what the cat might be thinking in order to generate a laugh. For example, a little white kitten might be poking its head out of a pile of marshmallows and the caption could read “Did u think me was a ‘mallow’?” Or a cat hiding in a suitcase could read “I iz not cat, I iz sweater. Keep packing.”

Regardless of the caption or the picture, the act of taking silly cat photos and tagging them with a funny line quickly caught on and imitations began popping up all over social media.

A more recent example would be the Ridiculously Photogenic Guy. Using the LOLCats model, someone surfing through Flickr spotted a recently uploaded image of a runner in the 2012 Cooper River Bridge Run in Charleston, South Carolina. After copying the photo, they tagged it with a caption calling out how ridiculously handsome he appeared while running. The meme caught on like wildfire and within 11 days of the original image being posted Flickr, Good Morning America had him on as a guest along with the person who posted the original image.

From one in roughly 40,000 runners at a race to national notoriety in less than two weeks is practically mind-blowing. The popularity of memes is obviously a social force to be reckoned with, so how do you harness the meme monster and use it for your own purposes, such as business marketing?

Dissecting the meme

What makes a meme popular? There’s no real way to tell how, when, or why a meme will catch on. Something as silly as sticking a piece of bread on your cat’s head and taking a picture could be picked up by the national media within 24 hours, but images of leaving old tennis shoes in random places might never spread. It’s the will of the mob, the random inclination of a crowd. It also has to do with people of note picking up on the meme and spreading the word through their hundreds of thousands of contacts at once. For example, the bread-on-cats-heads, or “cat breading” pictures mentioned above was picked up by the popular cartoon South Park in a March 2012 episode, and ever since its popularity, has been running wild.

The safe bet, then, is to avoid starting a meme from scratch and jumping on board one of the popular meme veins for your marketing purposes. Don’t let this discourage you, however, from starting your own meme. If you think you have a great idea, run with it! You never know what might catch on.

Making Memes

Though memes seem remarkably simple in concept, you should do your research before making your first meme. You don’t want to make a meme that’s already outdated the second you post it. While LOLCats appears to be timeless, other memes such as doing the Tim Tebow pose, or Tebowing in random locations, is already outdated, and different ways of saying “all your base are belong to us” from the game Zero Wing has been out for years. So how do you know what’s popular and what’s not? Check out the top pages of social media and viral video sites such as eBaumsworld.com, Reddit.com, StumbleUpon.com, LiveLeak.com, 9gag.com, 4chan.org, ICanHasCheezeburger.com, and Facebook.

Marketing with Memes

Now for the fun part, creating a meme that can be used to market your company while still appealing to the masses. It might sound like a difficult task, but the great thing about memes — and internet marketing in general — is that subtlety typically wins the day.

This soft sell approach is even starting to bleed over into standard television advertising. What do Vikings have to do with credit cards? Or rowing guinea pigs have to do with insurance? The key is in getting people to pay attention first, and then adding your company almost as an afterthought at the end. Advertising online takes it even further by just allowing ads to blink across the bottom of a popular video either as pop ups or in the blank area below a letterbox-formatted film.

With this in mind, think of how you can approach advertising your business with memes. For example, if you have a music company, why not have a picture of a cat eating a chicken leg and write “I lovez the drumstikz at Bob’s Audio.” Or if you have a fabric company, why not use a picture of a cat tearing up someone’s knitting with the caption “Knitter, please” and tag the bottom with your company name.

These examples are with the standard LOLcat, but there are so many more alternatives out there. If you know someone who can draw reasonably well (one of the appeals of meme comics is that they are usually very poorly done), have them create a four-panel comic meme for your company. If you have a baking company, maybe you could create a story in which a little girl would give anything in the world for a piece of cake. Or if you have a coffee shop, you could create a panel in which your coffee gives people super powers.

The object is to be as creative as possible and appeal to that 35 and younger crowd that spends the majority of their time online. Post your meme on all of your social media sites, get friends to share it, and let the web do the rest. In the end, you’ll be sure to generate some laughs and hopefully a brand new and growing crowd of customers.

Anita Brady is the President of 123Print.com, where you can make your own business cards and customize other promotional materials. She is an industry veteran who has managed strategic marketing and other efforts for companies small and large.

15 Comments

  • reeha@inkjet says:

    Wow, interesting tip tip to share, thanks for this useful information and i will surely give it a try.

  • Jagar says:

    Can you do a follow up post with some case studies? Real life examples would help people understand the concept better.

  • vishy says:

    any ideas on how can this be used in case of smartphone application development?

  • EDIT says:

    I actually, used memes to promote my business in Facebook and it really works and effective for my business. Actually, my website gain a lot of traffic when I started using it..

    Editor’s note: Thanks for your comments. However, as stated in my blog policy, I have asked you to use your real name. I do not think your name is “aranzamendez seo cincinnati” and have edited your comment and URL as explained in the blog policy. Oh, and I stole your link.

    • Chris says:

      Most people don’t realize, but most major companies have marketing firms that are actively “memevertising” their products

  • Anita Brady says:

    Hi Jagar and Vishy -
    I allude to a few here. Just look up ‘Capitol One Vikings’ or ‘Geico Guinea Pigs’ and you’ll see what I mean. Perhaps the Geico lizard might have been a better example on an actual meme though. (Still, those guinea pigs just crack me up, and I can’t see one now without thinking of that Geico commercial – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0kXS37clsZw).

    Virgin Media’s use of the ‘Success Kid’ photo, a baby giving an arm pump, might be my favorite marketing meme of late, although I think they may be facing some copyright issues now for that.

    The bottom line is – don’t draw yourself into a box with your marketing. A funny photograph you took of a porcupine on vacation may be just the ticket to spreading the word about the new app you designed. Why not?

  • aranzamendez says:

    Sorry if i did not use my true name.. my true name is actually aranza mendez.. Thanks for the note.. :-)

  • Reel Weber says:

    Am I the only one who didn’t appreciate the “knitter please” reference. The play on words is too suggestive… offensively suggestive.

  • Dave Jensen says:

    Great article! I teach English Composition classes and I always reserve one lecture to discuss memes. Of course, I haven’t tried using them as a marketing piece yet, but your comments have inspired me to try it. Thanks!

  • vishy says:

    Thank you Anita, for the link.
    I have another query related to the Internet memes.
    I know, to predict the popularity of a meme is uncertain. You can not predict if any video will get popular or not. But can you explain the reason behind the popularity of Nyan Cat? or any other meme.

  • Interesting points you just shared here. I will give it a try one of these days, and hopefully I’ll be able to create something that will be a success.

  • Mallory Smith says:

    I think there is definitely something to be said for using your creativity to come up with your own meme, and not piggy back on other memes who have already been considered a success (read: weirdly popular). Vitamin Water’s ad where they just packed a bunch of memes in a commercial could be one of the least creative things I have seen in a while. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DRQFJF6OV4g

  • Unquestionably, the two biggest sites for incubating memes are 4chan and Reddit. The users on these sites are very tuned into when they are being marketed to, though. If you create a meme and have any hope of it being shared on a large scale, you will have to pass Reddit’s “sniff test”.

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