The Custard Blog

Words of wisdom from our team of online marketing experts

Marketing and Memes (or Content: Y U No Go Viral?)

Unless you’ve been hiding under a digital rock for the past few years, you’ll have noticed the rise of so-called “viral” content. Whether this is videos, pictures, comics or social trends – these naturally-created and rapidly spreading forms of content have left marketers salivating in awe and furiously attempting to harness their power – with varying degrees of success.

A Brief History of Memes

While memes have impinged on the mainstream, with many receiving high-profile news coverage from bemused journalists, knowledge of what exactly they are isn’t common.

As is commonly stated, the concept of a meme was first described by Oxford biologist and professional atheist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. He used the term to describe the way cultural information is transmitted, but it’s more likely to be familiar to internet denizens as a definition of stuff like this:

Image used under Creative Commons 2.0 courtesy of boldmagicpizza on Flickr


Essentially, the term has come to describe any concept that spreads quickly through the internet. But why is the power of memes so hard for marketers to harness?

A Meme is Born

One of the most crucial aspects of an internet meme is its origins. While each meme’s birth is different, there are some common themes that run through their creation.

For instance, a video-based meme could spring from a well-spotted piece of news footage or amateur video. Picture-based memes spring from an eclectic variety of sources and then go on to be endlessly remixed by the dwellers of sites like 9gag and Memebase.

Image used under Creative Commons attribution license courtesy of David Silverman fraktala on

This is especially true of the sub-genre known as Rage Comics. These crudely-drawn shorts usually utilise a set of pre-made cartoon faces that express a simple human emotion (although new ones are adopted into general use every so often).

Their explosive popularity stems from their ability to put a humorous spin on shared experiences and custom comic creation applications ensure that new ones are churned out ad nauseam. Celebrities posing with apt expressions have been also mercilessly co-opted into the trend and used to great effect.

“A perfect example is the sad ‘Okay’ face. Just looking at that face gives you a pretty good understanding of how that person feels. Expressing that exact same feeling in words would take some creative writing,” Dan Awesome, webmaster of custom comic creation site Rage Maker told Ars Technica in a recent interview.

In the not-so-distant past, it would have been easy to say memes were the product of hip or edgy internet hubs like SomethingAwful, Reddit and 4Chan (and indeed many were), but as memes have been brought into the mainstream, so has their creation.

No matter where they originate, memes have a few key things in common:

They have spontaneity – While not all memes are spontaneous, all provide a snapshot of that ‘flash of brilliance’ or dare I say ‘random’ moment – or moments – that immortalise them (which in internet terms means they knock around for a few months then are occasionally looked upon fondly in the future).
They’re insightful – The old adage of a picture painting a thousand words really comes into play with image-based memes especially, although the added text tends to bring this up to 1,010 or so.
Or funny – While not always ‘laugh out loud’ funny, successful memes will usually at least generate a wry smile or nod of knowing humour in the recipient.
They’re ‘sticky’ – In his bestseller The Tipping Point, author Malcom Gladwell suggests ‘stickiness’ is one of the three rules governing whether a trend will become ‘epidemic’. He loosely defines this as a special quality that embeds a phenomenon in the minds of the general populace and memes seem to have this in spades.
They’re spreadable – A good meme lends itself to being copied and remixed. More on this later.

How a meme spreads

Replicating viral content’s ability to quickly spread has become a holy grail in the world of marketing and efforts in this area have seen both success and failure on an epic scale.

The cultural impact of memes is hard to ignore, but one of the key issues with using or hijacking memes for marketing is their short half-life. Jumping on news stories to generate publicity is a tried and tested marketing staple, but trying to do the same with memes presents difficulties.

As David Meerman Scott notes in his book Newsjacking: How to Inject Your Ideas into a Breaking News Story and Generate Tons of Media Coverage, the best time to capitalise on a news story is between when it breaks and when public interest in the occurrence grows.

The same is true of memes, but the main problem marketers face is that by the time they cotton on to a meme and work out a way to use it for their own purposes, it’s usually well past its sell-by date.

If we use the above diagram as a template, a meme ‘breaking’ is its creation or discovery. Unlike a news story, which is inherently discoverable – in their initial stages, memes are typically confined to their place or channel of their birth.

From this position, they are spread and remixed from person to person until they reach critical mass and hit the public domain or ‘peak’. At this point, bewildered journalists report on these bizarre new crazes (typically in the ‘also in the news’ section), the meme spreads outside of its usual channels and quickly begins to wither.


Different types of meme spread at different speeds and how popular they are seems to be proportional to how fast they die out. The ‘coolness’ factor arguably comes into play here as well, with memes losing social currency once they enter the mainstream and your mum starts sharing them on Facebook.

For instance, behavioural memes like planking last a veritable eternity when compared to niche, picture-based memes like Arrow to the Knee.

Video-based content is arguably the most shareable and quick-spreading type of meme. Our growing obsession with smart, hand-held gadgets has made it easier than ever to share clips both person-to-person and on social channels. Similarly, the ability to remix and respond to such content in the same format is extensive thanks to the near-ubiquitous spread of video capture technology.

Harnessing the power of Memes

As mentioned, many brands have made forays into using the power of memes for marketing purposes and despite a few cases of triumph, more often than not, this has been ineffective if not actively damaging.

Memes are more of an art than a science and there’s no guaranteed formula to ensure success. However, there are definitely a few dos and don’ts that can apply:

–          Do – Engage the public via Twitter at a live event.

–          Don’t – Do this if your shady dealings have been recently exposed by the mass media.

–          Do – Co-opt a popular word, phrase or image into your marketing campaign

–          Don’t – Do this if you don’t completely understand the word or phrased you’ve used.

–          Do – Encourage sharing, remixing and even creation of your meme by promoting it on social media channels and internet hotspots like Reddit.

–          Don’t – Appeal to the internet to help create your marketing campaign if there’s any risk this can backfire.

Most importantly, once your meme is in the public domain, be prepared to let it fly free and un-accosted – even though this will leave you with significantly less control than in a traditional campaign. There’s no guarantee your efforts will be successful and even popular (hundreds of newly-created memes never get off the ground) and the finished product may not look anything like the material you started with.

But while the risks associated with meme-marketing are certainly high, they’re proportional to the potential payoff. Successfully co-opting memes into a campaign can help spread your message at a pace that would put wildfire to shame.

So what’s your experience with memes and marketing? Give me a shout in the comments and if you found this worth a read, please give it a share on your social channel of choice.

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