What's Behind Viral Success? Great Meme Marketing

Plus, a Few Memes Just Waiting for a Marketer to Adopt Them

By Published on .

Eric Swayne
Eric Swayne
Some marketers have a real problem with social networks. They're almost offended when an audience takes their commercials, or ideas, and begin to pass them around without permission. Others are enamored of the power of network effects and have become obsessed with becoming YouTube stars, building and blasting microsites (with varying success) on what seems like a weekly basis. And still others try to cheat at the "game" of consumer conversation by inserting seemingly "natural" or "amateur" ideas into this ecosystem, tricking unwitting consumers into passing on an idea that has a hidden trap door: a dotted-line connection back to a brand or a purchase.

But what marketers today really need to do is take a step back to understand how these new communities of consumers share and select ideas. Viruses of any sort are built with one goal in mind: to reproduce. Every marketing campaign designed to "go viral" has to do the same things as your favorite illness and turn an ROI by connecting those people reached to a purchase. It's not impossible, but it's not nearly as accidental as it once was. In fact, the great work in this space isn't viral marketing, it's meme marketing.

Memes are the ideas, symbols or practices that naturally spread throughout a culture. These thoughts are the things that just seem to "catch on," whether it's coffee houses, doing "The Wave" at a sports event, or tight-rolling your jeans back in the '80s. The concept of measuring these "units of thought" is nothing new. The term "meme" was created in 1976 by Richard Dawkins in his book "The Selfish Gene." The new opportunity marketers have now is to apply this study of memes (or, memetics) to how they create messages for their clients.

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Great memes are absorbed by a community. It's not just about being the loudest car commercial on TV or the most offensive idea imagined. These things can grab attention but they're ignored just as quickly. Great memes are noticeable, memorable and actionable. A great meme invites customers to do something that solves their problems, connects them to others or lets them express themselves.


  • The LIVESTRONG campaign has grown to be much more than just a yellow wristband, and it's because this idea has been adopted by a community. More than just fighting cancer, it has become a rallying point for communities to dare to take any action to get healthy or improve their lives
  • YouTube isn't the No. 1 source of streaming media because it's technologically advanced. In fact, many other sites use a more advanced codec or provide more features. YouTube's fulcrum is in that little box of code labeled "embed." I can take a video clip and replicate the entire viewing experience on my blog or Facebook or MySpace. And in doing so, I've validated that meme, because the people watching it on my blog know ME. If they want to pass on the meme in the same way, all they have to do is copy-paste. Simply put, great memes are easy for consumers to reproduce.
  • When "The Simpsons Movie" needed a web site, it would have been easy to do the usual things you see for a movie: trailers, wallpaper downloads, games. But through the Simpsons Avatar creator, fans were able to connect with the movie and spread their excitement through a personal, custom-built version of themselves. Fans could use these avatars in social networks, online profiles or on their desktop -- and every time they did, more fans were drawn to this experience.

So how do you build a meme?

Learn the socialnomics of your audience. This isn't about how to make money from a social network; it's about what the network itself values. What are the things that this audience finds truly useful? When they pass something along to a friend, what is it about that idea that made them want to share it? And does passing that "something" along elevate them within the group?

Seek first to be shared. Out of the gate, your top goal is not just to get a bunch of views or impressions. Any traditional media campaign can gather a bunch of eyeballs in one place, but meme marketing looks to perpetuate itself first, not just gain exposure. Your KPIs should focus on embeds, pass-alongs, mentions, comments, remixes, and other measures of community interaction. Based on your audience, you may not even choose to use something digital, like the oft-standard "viral video." If your audience shares concepts and ideas offline more than online, get your meme in the real world instead of cyberspace.

Build the brand on the buzz. Your original meme may have a branded logo or tagline, but once it's spreading, you can start to truly own it as a brand. Find out who your most radical fans are and learn how they got there. Join them in their passion for your meme and fan the flames of their sharing actions. Once you've reached that tipping point within a community, you need to pour your resources into amplifying this effect, not necessarily still trying to attract new exposure.

Attach yourself to a meme "in the wild." I've seen a few memes float around that seem to cry for brand interaction. If you engage with an already established meme you have the chance to tap into an existing community built around it. Just be careful to treat its meme with the same care and genuine passion as the community has, or you could be open to backlash. Here are a few good examples of memes in the wild:

  • LED Throwies: Think of this as the new digital graffiti. LEDs, button batteries and rare-earth magnets have become so cheap, the average person can buy them by the hundreds. Strap them together and you have a portable light display that attaches itself to any magnetic surface. Imagine a brand building to build their logo out of these on the side of a building -- even if it lasted for just a couple of days, you'd have a beautiful display and a great viral video opportunity.
  • What's in Your Bag: The "What's in Your Bag" pool on Flickr is one of the larger groups on the photo sharing social network, considering each member really posts just one picture -- the bag and contents that they carry around every day. Does your company make or sell bags? Give me a chance to search through this group for other people that use the same bag as the one I'm looking at on your site. Or, let me tell you what stuff I want to carry and have your site recommend the kind of bag I should look for, based on other people carrying similar stuff. Does your company sell gadgets? Recommend accessories for me based on what other people carry with their hot smartphone or media player.
  • Mommy Blog Templates: This trend has become all the rage, because big companies are starting to realize how much influence and purchasing power these women can have with their blogs. However, I've yet to see a big brand step in to create some free templates for a mommy blog -- one that could have pictures of your product built in! What if that fabulous diaper bag fabric pattern inspired a Blogspot or Wordpress template that you gave away for free? Great exposure with your exact target audience, and easy to pass around.

Meme marketing is an engineered idea infection. It's difficult, rare and powerful. But most importantly, it's deliberate. The next generation of successful marketers will be able to craft these memes, seed them into a receptive community, and they'll watch them spread like... a virus.

Eric Swayne is a digital strategist for RAPP. An award-winning web designer, developer and writer, he has worked with clients across verticals, including SUPERVALU, Best Buy, Bank of America, American Airlines and Texas Instruments.
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