The Marketer's Guide to Memes: A Crash Course in Internet Humor

Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” Learning the language of a culture you’re spending time in is a sign of respect towards that culture-- which is why it shocks me that so many digital marketers butcher the language of the internet, if they even know it.

I wouldn’t quite call myself a digital native, but the internet is my generational stomping grounds, which is why I’m here today to talk with you about the language of the casual internet, memes.

Simply put, a meme is like an inside joke that the entire internet is in on. Usually composed of some text over a funny image, an amusing video, or an animated gif displaying reactions towards certain situations, memes aren’t just stock images that are circulated. Certain meme template images signify certain things: a penguin will be awkward, grumpy cat will be grumpy, and so on. There is no catchall funny meme-- rather, modern memes are flexible, applied towards different situations, and allow people to appropriate and rebuild the content of the meme.

Memes are incredibly organic content. They begin when someone, somewhere, sees an image they find funny and shares it. It’s shared again and again, until it gets picked up by one of the larger sites like Reddit and explodes. Through the sharing process-- either by user zero or by another individual somewhere in the chain, text is often superimposed over the image, until it becomes a certain type and the image signifies a specific meaning-- for example, a picture of a “bro” character with a popped collar and backwards baseball cap might get sleazy captions about chicks, beer, weed, or working out.

The evolution of the meme was arguably inspired by demotivational posters, a satire of inspirational posters with sarcastic, amusing text. An entire movement of pictures with words on them began, and for this animals were especially popular, including advice animals like courage wolf, philosoraptor, and socially awkward penguin. At the same time, viral videos began to make the rounds as YouTube became a popular video sharing platform.

These morphed into contemporary memes. Animated gifs have combined videos and images: they are clips from TV, movies, or other YouTube uploads, generally with text superimposed over them. Animated gifs are  then applied as visual representations of responses to various situations in what is known as reaction gifs. Furthermore, viral videos have become memeified as people recreate their favorite videos-- for example, the million and one Gangnam Style parodies or the recent rash of Harlem Shake videos.  And of course, people still share pictures with words, but instead of having one picture with the same words on it circulated constantly, websites like quickmeme allow you to take a well-known meme template (e.g., grumpycat) and impose your own amusing text over it.

And in case you were wondering, this does apply to marketing: Dos Equis’ “Most Interesting Man In the World” campaign has become a meme in and of itself, demonstrating that memes are a great way to communicate with your customer base if you’re willing to look a little silly and show that your business doesn’t take itself too seriously.

If this is your first exposure to memes, let me give you the best possible meme-marking advice: DON’T. USE. MEMES. Meme spreaders are savvy internet users who don’t want to be sold to, and recognize when someone is trying to win them over for business reasons. Using memes runs the risks of alienating your followers and possibly making yourself a target of ridicule; either way it shows that you’re out of touch.

Instead, learn how and where your target audience is communicating and creating their content. For example, if you’re trying to hit a younger, tech-and-net savvy demographic, try checking out:

  • Tumblr, especially whatshouldwecallme.
  • Reddit, Mashable, and Know Your Meme
  • Buzzfeed

Continually listen. Ask your target demographic where they spend their time online-- that’s where they’re generating content.

If you do start using memes, I’ll say it again, DO NOT USE A MEME TO SELL SOMETHING. Unless you’re an incredibly savvy net user and you’ve been rolling your eyes through this whole blog post because you know more about memes than I do, don’t try to sell anything with memes.

Instead, use memes to show your users that you’re fun, relevant, friendly; that you understand what your users are saying, and you’re willing to communicate with them on their level. Instead of barging in on an inside joke or wrecking a punchline, earn the right to appropriate those jokes by treating your audience with respect. Learn to speak their language.