Are Memes Really Effective Marketing Tools?

Are Memes Really Effective Marketing Tools?

For years, memes stayed confined to social networking sites. But with their power to go viral as fast at the online collective can compose them, it was only a matter of time before they became integrated into marketing. Now you see memes on billboards, bus stop ads, and, of course, corporate Facebook accounts.

The question is: are memes really effective marketing tools?

Yes. And no. Like many marketing tools, a meme’s value comes from how you use it. Used correctly, memes create worldwide trends and enormous spikes in brand recognition. Used incorrectly, they can fall flat or result in audience derision rather than audience loyalty.

This polarized quality comes from three truths about the nature of memes, which we discuss in detail below.


1. Memes Aren’t Eternal

While some memes last for months or years, others vanish quickly (even ones that went viral initially). This lifespan disparity comes from two main factors: 1) memes often reflect fleeting social, political, or economic situations, and 2) an Internet audience has access to a constant stream of new information and ideas (including new memes).

Once a meme becomes irrelevant, either because the web climate changes or a more engaging meme takes over, it disappears. Think about this scenario. You log on to a social media account and see a single meme flooding your feed. You might find it funny for a while and you might put up with it for even longer, but eventually you just skim past it with a huff of irritation. Like the same jokes your dad tells at every family reunion, eventually memes get old and viewers will lose interest.

To counteract this when planning a meme-inclusive campaign, research which memes have the most staying power. Even if you plan to make your own meme from scratch, you should understand why memes that last stick around.

Take “The Most Interesting Man in the World,” which, incidentally, started with a Dos Equis television commercial. The first recorded instance of this meme came way back in 2010. The Most Interesting Man continues on because he remains adaptable.

The “I don’t always X but when I do, Y” format invites the audience to put the Most Interesting Man in their demographic and life situation. It also invites parodies, like Vitamin Water’s “Most Ridiculous Man in the World” commercial.

You don’t always create meme ad campaigns, but when you do, you hope they live as long as The Most Interesting Man in the World.


2. Memes Aren’t Universal

Some memes have the chameleon ability to appeal to a nearly infinite amount of demographics (see above), but most don’t. In fact, most memes only appeal to a very small subset of a larger audience.

Some reasons for this are obvious. For example, the chances that someone living below the poverty line will find a First World Problems meme about diamond earrings relatable are small. This sometimes leads to spinoffs with a broader or more tongue-in-cheek audience (like “Third World Success,” which combines elements of Success Kid with First World Problems). But even these derivatives may only appeal to a small audience. This is why you can’t just pick a random meme when you’re trying to turn it into a marketing tool.

When you use a meme, you risk the campaign completely missing your target audience. Even if you choose the right meme for your niche, your campaign may arrive in an inundated environment, which dulls its efficacy.


3. Memes Don’t Have Inherent Marketing Value

Memes weren’t developed for marketing purposes, which means they don’t carry any inherent selling value. Unfortunately, some organizations fail to understand this basic principle.

When a company chooses a random meme and simply fills in generic text, they’re more likely to end up with the next U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Doge crisis than a successful advertising campaign. Not only did the marketing team in question choose a meme intended to be completely sarcastic, they used it well after its expiration date (remember characteristic one—memes are not eternal). If the meme you use already has macros about how tired it is (which Doge definitely did), pick a different one.

If you decide to pursue a meme-based campaign, you must understand your audience. And your understanding of their needs, life situation, and interests must inform the way you structure your campaign. Conscientious design can result in effective and eye-catching campaigns (like Virgin Media’s Success Kid billboards), but they do take work.

Meme campaigns work best when your audience already wants what you sell and already feels like they have a relationship with your company. If you have a solid online presence, a meme campaign may help you reach a wider audience and improve your brand’s image.

If you don’t have that kind of relationship with your audience (or aren’t sure if you do), a meme campaign won’t fix it. It may, in fact, make the situation worse. Instead of reaching out through memes, try simpler proven methods first.

Whether you make your company’s memes today or at some future date, keep these characteristics in mind to ensure they serve as effective marketing tools.

Krystin Pipkin
[email protected]

Krystin is the social media coordinator at Boostability.