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How to Effectively Market with Memes (Without Forcing It)

How to Effectively Market with Memes (Without Forcing It)

Whether you love or hate these clever creations we share on the Internet, they’ve invaded our consciousness and are here to stay.  What makes memes so addictive?  Better yet, can we analyze how memes work to learn more about viral marketing?

I will highlight how a meme comes to be, grows up, and then eventually fizzles out, all the while showing how they can be used by marketers.

C’mon, you know I really just want an excuse to post funny pictures.  Here’s a bunny with a pancake on its head…


What are Memes?

The concept behind memes isn’t actually a new one. They have been written about in some capacity since the 1970s. That’s right… these crazy social phenomena weren’t actually born on the Internet at all. We only have ourselves to blame for every dancing baby, rickroll, or double rainbow we’ve cultivated and shared with the masses.

Distilled to their simplest definition…

Memes are popular ideas that are shared collectively with others.

They’re the inside joke that spreads like a virus and yet somehow manages to stubbornly attach itself to our subconscious. Internet memes are identical, except that they spread and are shared through the Web.

Where Do Memes Come From?

Memes have evolved on the Internet since the early days of message boards and chat rooms. They’re created when users interact and share information. Remember that MySpace quiz or online survey you took that said you were “most like X from that popular movie?” You were contributing to an early form of an Internet meme. (Somehow I always got Voldemort as my answer.)

Today, memes are more defined and topic-specific. We’ve discussed before that user-driven communities like Reddit, 4chan,  and Tumblr, among others, are extremely influential on the Internet. They are massive idea generators that encourage sharing and discussion. Naturally, they are a perfect breeding ground for memes.

Over time, ideas created by these communities are shared and trickle their way down to other social media site. They gain popularity, grow and spread until they’ve reached well beyond their original audience. Some memes are born away from the Internet completely. Niche memes like those from colleges are an example of this, where students start an inside joke on their campus that quickly explodes into popularity.

What Causes a Meme to Resonate with People?

Internet memes have certain characteristics that make them successful. These examples often apply to other Internet content as well.

1. Memes are Social

Memes are incredibly contagious. They’re relatable, encourage discussion, and yield strong emotional reactions. People feel important by being a part of them. Entire communities have been built around memes.

2. Memes are Shareable

When you ““pin” your favorite burger on Pinterest you’re contributing to the very mentality that leads to memes. Today, it’s incredibly simple to share information. Making your own version of a meme and sharing it with the masses takes seconds. There are even sites that’ll do the hard part for you.

3. Memes are Current

Memes take shape from what’s going on around us. It’s not uncommon for an older idea to be made immensely popular again by leveraging a new social trend. Older memes are driven out by new ones and their popularity renews.

What Kills a Meme?

Time is a meme’s worst enemy. Due to their very nature, every meme is eventually replaced by something more popular. Memes that are negative, controversial or that target certain niches or pop culture can have an extremely short lifecycle. Video game, movie, and celebrity memes often fall into this category. (Except for you Mr. Reeves, you’re on your own plateau.)

Some memes will never really take off of the ground, targeting too small of a niche or changing much too quickly to gain traction. Many of these are born every day and fade just as quickly.


How Companies Leverage Memes

Companies have really started to explore the massive potential of leveraging Internet memes, and as we spend more and more of our time on the Internet this will only heighten. Here are examples showing how companies have found their niche with Internet memes and how sometimes it doesn’t work quite as planned.


Blendtec is a great example of a business seeking to craft their own Internet meme that was highly successful. Their viral marketing campaign ““Will it Blend?” took the Internet by storm and redefined the company’s entire marketing philosophy. A blog about blending? Totally.

According to the company’s CEO (who participates in most of their campaigns), Blendtec has seen ““amazing success” from their campaign, far beyond what they ever expected. It shows, too, with many “Will it Blend?” YouTube videos averaging millions of views. But what makes it so successful?

Pros: Blendtec stepped away from traditional product marketing and made their content much more about human interest. They turned a seemingly normal product (a blender) into something sharable that is fun for users to discuss and relate to. Who doesn’t want to see an iPhone or a glowstick blended? They capitalized on the buzz behind their meme and have successfully turned it into a profitable Internet brand.

Cons: The ““Will it Blend?” series has lead to the rest of the brand being completely overshadowed by their meme. In this example, it works to their benefit and helps to demonstrate the power a meme can have on a brand’s success. But if ““Will it Blend?” had received a more negative reaction, the results could have been much different.

Virgin Media

Virgin Media opted to use an existing meme for their marketing and advertising campaigns. Recently, ““Success Kid” has been spotted on their advertisements and website. This adorable, fist-pumping boy is a variant of a meme born on Flickr in 2007.

Pros: Using ““Success Kid”, Virgin Media can tap into a new audience without alienating any of their other customers. If their users don’t know about “Success Kid,” they will simply see a cute mascot. If they do know about the meme, they could associate him with the brand and generate potentially risk-free traffic. Such a campaign requires significant research about your customers.

Cons: Without actively engaging in the meme’s community and encouraging the growth of it, it could shorten the meme’s lifespan and the source of free traffic. Eventually, the meme could lose popularity and leave Virgin Media looking for a new one.

Also, if the buzz behind the meme is not being properly tracked, things could take a turn for the worst if the meme were to change. Without seeing Virgin Media’s results, it’s impossible to tell whether or not this strategy will bring them long-term success. It is still an interesting take on leveraging memes for marketing and paves the way for future companies.

But not every company looks to leverage an Internet meme. Sometimes the memes come to you…


FreeCreditReport.com’s foray into the world of Internet memes came to an abrupt halt. In 2007, after being targeted by two major lawsuits, the company attempted to rebuild its brand by releasing online videos and commercials depicting people with poor credit being helped by its services.

Internet communities soon caught wind of the company’s history, however, and began creating their own parody videos poking fun at the company’s services (even the FTC joined in). These spread virally across the Internet, further damaging the brand. Since then, the company has had to refocus its efforts in other campaigns.

The moral of the story is that Internet memes can work both ways – for you or against you. It’s very important to properly research any marketing campaign before starting it to minimize your chances of being labeled something you may not be able to hide from.


7 Steps to Marketing With Memes

Seeing companies leverage and create their own memes for marketing is extremely valuable, but ultimately you’ll want to start the process yourself. These examples show how to use the functionality of memes to better your own viral marketing.

1. Relate the meme to your audience.

This will ultimately make it more engaging and socially friendly, but sometimes simply targeting a particular demographic isn’t enough. You must learn your audience and discover what they find useful. Why do they want to share your content? Consider targeting smaller audiences that have the potential for mass appeal. Memes begin with individuals, so aim for them.

2. Be there first.

Remember that with a meme your main goal isn’t to have tons of people look at your content, it’s to perpetuate your idea. Follow your content as it changes and be there as it shifts. Pay attention to your audience’s reactions to your content through feedback. This feedback could be anything from comments on your blog, to likes on YouTube or notes on Tumblr. Either way, let your audience decide.

3. Optimize your media to make your meme more shareable.

A solid idea isn’t enough. Ensure that where you place your content is easy to find and built for sharing. Consider using resources to optimize your blog or website. Place your content on smaller niche sites, like Reddit, in addition to major social media outlets. This can lead to a larger, more dynamic audience.

4. Follow the buzz.

Your original meme may have been branded a certain way or could even be a completely different piece of content now. Now that it has changed and is being shared by the masses, you can begin to establish your brand. Embrace your fans and follow their passion for your meme. Learn who most actively shares your meme and amplify their efforts.

5. Add value to your meme to help it survive the test of time.

Eventually your exposure will die down and your audience will rely on you to keep the hype going. You don’t necessarily need additional traffic. Instead, consider what makes your content popular. Build a brand on your buzz. Freshen up or tweak your content to make it more appealing. Offer ways to re-engage your audience so that they will return to your idea again and again.

6. Use a meme that’s already established.

If you aren’t up to the task of crafting your own meme,  look for an existing one. Be sure that you cultivate your relationships with the meme’s communities properly or else you risk backlash.

7. Accept your fate.

Memes are fickle. Understand that and make them work for you to the best of your ability. It’s impossible to always build a successful campaign around a meme, so just own it and embrace the ride, good or bad. No matter how far your meme strays from your original goal, accept it. Otherwise, you may end up harming or curbing your campaign.


Memes have become an integral part of our culture and are here to stay. They show how quickly content can fade into existence and how going viral can be both a blessing and a curse.

Ultimately, Internet memes reinforce what we already know – that users will engage with the content they truly want. But with properly targeted, sharaeble, and useful content, memes can be leveraged and make a great addition to your marketing tool set.

Have memes taught you a thing or two about viral marketing? What’s your favorite?

We share a lot of memes on our Facebook page, like us here!

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  1. take it from Old Spice’s (The man your man could smell like) campaign designed not only to appeal Youtube generation, but was compelling enough to have been praised by popular news blogs. It was robust enough that it thrives as its audience get a feel for making a version of their own. Apparently, a meme teaches us that hard-selling isn’t always the last resort to marketing, but there are lighter and more enticing way to get it done.

    • Thanks for your comment!
      You’re exactly right. The recent campaign by Old Spice is another great example of how light-hearted, yet perfectly executed content can seamlessly travel between different media. I look forward to what’s in store for the future. :)

  2. MerryWhy says:

    Great overview Matthew!
    Does you definition of memes include video’s (will it blend) and gifs?
    If so, what do you think they will have the same impact as traditional memes?

    • Thanks Mary!

      Absolutely, both videos and .gifs can be memes. I think the whole idea of any meme being “traditional” is crumbling away. It’s in a meme’s nature to change, so over time you’ll see more nonstandard content come into play (as it already has in some ways).

  3. Dan says:

    Nice post about memes. I do find it funny the one that you said which happens to target a small niche is probably my favorite one because I actually get the reference/am a big fan of the game (Skyrim) which it’s taken from.

  4. julie says:

    Why ideas spread, or don’t, is a fascinating subject to me. You’re discussion of marketing with memes has given me much to think about. I’ve always just used memes as fun, and I haven’t expected much of an increase in business from them. Thanks for enlightening me.

    • Thanks for your comments, Julie.

      I think we’re at the tip of the iceberg with companies leveraging memes for marketing. Expect to see more polished, targeted, and creative campaigns in the future.

  5. Jen says:

    I have a love/hate relationship with memes. In my early blogging days I did every meme sent my way because I loved being included in that community. The problem with blog memes was that you usually had to choose other bloggers to pass on to. A great linking tool but so time consuming and eventually a meme was a chore and the fun was gone. I realize these aren’t the memes you are discussing here. Still, I love reading memes, I just don’t want to participate in creating one.

    • Hi Jen, thanks for your insight.

      That’s the nature of memes – most are here today and gone tomorrow. Thankfully though, they have intertwined with Internet culture so well that there’s always a new one rising to the top. If you don’t want to create your own memes then find ones with communities you can get behind. The possibilities are endless. :)

  6. Joel Wong says:

    Certainly even the largest brands are meme marketing . Perhaps the only thing is that we see them as being too ‘mainstream’ .
    However from Apple’s Mac vs Pc series, to Big G(oogle)’s easter eggs like ‘do a barrel roll’ or ‘askew’ Or perhaps even Diablo’s ‘Secret cow level’ the concept has been around for ages, it’s just the proliferation of social sharing. Channels that. Has brought the ‘meme’ to prominence and allowed the ‘little guys’ to get in the act.

    • Hi Joel, thanks for your comments.

      Precisely. Internet memes conceptually represent a process that has existed as long as human communication. Only now we are able to better understand it and use it to its fullest potential in marketing. (Also, bonus points for referencing Diablo’s “Cow Level”.)

  7. Romy Singh says:

    Hello Matthew,

    Thanks For such a nice post about Meme’s, it really teaches me lots of new things about meme’ s and how to use it for my business growth and getting viral.

    Frankly telling you truth, before this post i don’t know the M of Meme’s , what it really means and what actually it does. but after reading your insightful post i got some knowledge about memes. and i will do more research to know more about it.

    So again a big thanks Matthew……

  8. Katie says:

    Terrific article — Memes seem to be the logical outgrowth of the crazes of the 1920s (pole-sitting, for example). And time is the enemy of all humor — once the unexpected becomes expected, it’s no longer funny.

  9. Tim Soulo says:

    Thanks a lot for the post.
    I do believe that marketing with memes it quite a smart idea.
    We’ve tried to incorporate memes in our marketing as well which resulted in a funny banner campaign – http://www.motocms.com/blog/marketing/5-tips-that-increased-our-buysellads-ctr-by-500/

    Can’t say that this was overly effective.. but at leas our marketing department had fun :)


  10. Great post! There is nothing better than sitting back and reading a billion funny memes haha. Thanks again!