The internet is a weird and wonderful place. It connects people all around the world, people with niche and sometimes bizarre interests, people that would never meet in everyday life. I once saw a couple on a forum – I was doing that creepy thing where you read everything but don’t join in - who claimed to have been in a long distance relationship for a number of years, they had formidable ‘rep’ and were ‘respected members’ of the forum but it then emerged that they had never actually met. Through these relationships, and others, the internet gives rise to hundreds of new ideas, fads and crazes daily. An internet sub culture has formed and given birth to the internet meme:
What is a meme? Memes are spontaneous, amusing ideas which reflect some aspect of society or culture and can become very popular very quickly. Recent popular internet phenomena are the Harlem Shake, before that Gangnam style and in the past we’ve seen planking, Rick rolling, lolcats and the list goes on and on and on and on. They can be anything from images, catchphrases, videos, words or themes, in fact here is a list that Wikipedia has complied and it’s all pretty random.
Yet these seemingly pointless phenomena have much wider implications, particularly on marketing. The aim of marketing is to promote a brand; you want to spread your brand image far and wide. This can be done by brute force - pushing your message in the consumer’s face through relentless adverts in magazines, on buses, on billboards, on TV, on the radio and on websites. But the holy grail of the marketer is known as ‘word of mouth’ - make the customer do the work for you and spread your message on their own. No only is this much less work intensive, but it also is more effective since consumers believe other consumers more than they believe billboards. The internet is busy changing everybody’s lives as usual and has the potential to revolutionise word of mouth marketing through memetic marketing – using memes, as concepts that spread from person to person via the internet, to encourage consumers to share a brand message.
Such phenomena are born and live on the internet, like a shameful secret they were once confined to the shady corners of chatrooms or forums but now they are plastered all over Facebook walls and taped to tweet decks. They are even slowly clambering out of our screens and into the ‘real’ world. (The real world is a place where two individuals in a relationship have had actual face to face physical contact.)
These are ideas and messages that go viral with lightening speed, reaching hundreds of thousands, even millions of people will little to no effort on the part of their creators. It certainly sounds ideal if you’re trying hard to get a certain message across - enter memetic marketing. Memetic marketing, is a term that seems overly technical for something which essentially started just for a bit of a laugh, and it means using memes in marketing campaigns. Simples. Only it’s not quite as simples as it seems.
As we know from the story behind key board cat, these phenomena tend to be things that somebody does messing around in their bedroom late at night that at the time they think is kind of funny, then the internet swallows it up and vomits it out everywhere, so they wake up in the morning and suddenly everyone is doing it. So these things tend to arise fairly organically and happen by chance. Nobody knows what will go viral and what won’t. Satire and political parodies tend to be popular, such as Mitt Romney’s ‘binders full of women’ but ultimately circulation and uptake are decided by the ‘internet community’ on forums, chat rooms, social networking sites and all other areas of web 2.0.
It is important to remember that memes are at heart humorous and simple which renders them not relevant to all marketing campaigns, but if memetic markerting is what you want then you have several options. The first is to piggy back on an existing meme and use this for the basis of your campaign. This is what Virgin Media have done with ‘success kid/victory baby’.The ‘Y U NO guy’ has been used on hipchat adverts and keyboard cat has been used to advertise pistachios. However, choosing the right meme can be tricky. The choice of meme and its meaning must be selected carefully to avoid any mis-interpretations. Memes have a shelf life and die out so using an existing one means that people could already be tired of it. Most importantly, stealing memes could initiate a back lash from an internet community unimpressed by your lack of creativity and willingness to free ride on others.
The second option is to create your own meme and this is obviously a lot harder but can be more rewarding. Old spice created a meme with their campaign ‘the man your man could smell like’ and Compare the Market have created one with their meerkat campaign http://www.comparethemeerkat.com/. You need to come up with something that is genuinely appealing or funny yet is still relevant to your company or product. There is no point generating a hugely popular meme that nobody associates back to you. In this way the meme replaces the traditional marketing ‘catch phrase’ and it needs to be very cleverly designed so that people want to share it of their own volition.
Memetic marketing can be very dangerous, once you’ve released your meme out into the internet wilderness anything could happen and many end up subject to vicious parody http://arcticready.com/arctic-ready. The advice when this happens seems to be ‘just go with it’ - no publicity is bad publicity right? In fact, another way to stir up some meme attention is to create the inspiration for a meme rather than a meme itself – is this the purpose of some campaigns which are so bad they’re good? These campaigns can get a vast amount of attention, although they tend to be more popular if the attention is negative. I cannot believe that the instigators do not foresee the way some campaigns are going to go, like the #IShopAtWaitrose or #susanalbumparty – the latter must be deliberate, how could it not be? If it was it definitely worked - who cared about Susan Boyle’s new album before that and then suddenly, with that hashtag, everyone was interested.
Conclusion – is memetic marketing the future? I’m not so sure, it seems a bit gimmicky to me. Using memes in traditional marketing campaigns seems a bit odd, like taking a fish out of water and then expecting it to leap back into the water to tell all its friends. In digital marketing, however, it is more natural – using memes on social media is like speaking the local language. I suggest we turn to the King of social media for advice - Barack Obama. The subject of many a meme, Obama, during an AMA session on reddit referenced ‘his meme’ and the crowd went wild. He’s following the age old rule of talking to your audience in their own language. He looks cool and people love it. I think this highlights that there are two different ways to use memes – you can acknowledge them and use them to relate to an audience or take advantage of them. Obama does the former, aggressive traditional campaigns do the latter and speaking on behalf of ‘the internet community’ I think we’d all prefer Obama, I mean, the former.