ESSAY: Meme Marketing

Just finished the piece below - not for any writing contest this time, just wanted to write this up. Let me know if you enjoy it or show it to others! -E


The Marketer is caught in a unique paradox: we want to give our clients the benefit of our years of experience; countless research studies; blood-with-sweat late-night wordsmithing; messages honed with scalpel-fine sharpness. We want our clients to tangibly feel the incredible effects of our work as near as a heart palpitation with a Memorex-like impact. We want them to squeeze every positive adjective (even the made-up ones) into that glowing email to us the day after the campaign launches - we want them to believe that we are capable of nothing less than MAGIC.

Just one problem: we don't want them to see the Man Behind The Curtain. Marketers NEED that level of mystery in their work, because it's the element that keeps Clients coming back time and time again. We don't always want to show them how to fish, we just want to keep them happy with lots of halibut and looking to us for more. And somewhere between the Words and the Wizardry, we came up with this new spell that would keep the Client enraptured for the new Millennium: Viral Marketing.

It all started when somewhere between a YouTube video and a PowerPoint slide we saw something happening. Something we'd never seen before. Consumers - our audience - were taking our commercials, our ideas, our concepts and passing them around in these new "social networks." It was almost unfair. Here we had just produced a :30 special effects product placement explosion, or had just gotten our client on the most watched morning show in the country, and now some person named DrPepperLvr156 was passing out our Moment in an "unauthorized" channel. Friends and acquaintances and cool-mongers were commenting by the hundreds, all without us seeing a dime of commission or even a tiny trophy. Then the remixes and mash-ups started appearing, and our beautiful flower of a concept had officially left the walled garden we'd created for it: now it was fighting for its life in the social equivalent of the Amazon rainforest.

Some Marketers, seeing this disaster of diversity sought to game the system, to insert a seemingly “natural” or “amateur” idea into this ecosystem, hoping to entice unwitting consumers into passing on an idea that has a hidden trap door: a dotted-line connection back to a brand and back to a purchase. After all, if a low-budget film gets millions of views, the ROI is motivation enough - even if the purchase-to-conversion rate is microscopic. They thought these “great” ideas would be passed on almost involuntarily, with the same uncontrollable network effects of… a virus.

It worked the first few times – successfully, even. Network effects were leveraged, and marketers got to sample the intoxicating drug of media impressions that nobody paid for. But soon, these gifts from the Community came fewer and further between as the consumer evolved a new level of brand-detection skill. This formerly fertile soil had become effectively inoculated against our efforts, and would only let the “genuine article” take root and thrive. The spread and growth potential were still there, but it seemed like we’d lost the chance to do anything in this space that still met a Client’s bottom line. Marketers today really have to unpack what we thought was viral marketing to reach down to its true potential and see that self-sustaining campaign effect once again. Our first strategies for leveraging this concept were really based on the symptoms of the Idea Virus, crafted without understanding how it works – its true DNA.

Viruses (of any sort) are built with one goal in mind: to reproduce. When the virus is a cold, all we notice is how bad we feel and how the tissue boxes stack up. But for the virus, your misery is the result of successfully finding a fertile environment, gaining a foothold, and reproducing like crazy. Every marketing campaign designed to “go viral” has to do the same things as your favorite illness AND turn an ROI – connecting those people reached to a purchase. It’s not impossible, but it’s not near as accidental anymore. In fact, great work in this space isn’t just Viral Marketing. It’s Meme Marketing.

Memes are the ideas, symbols or practices that naturally spread throughout a culture. From the Greek word for “mimic,” these thoughts are the things that just seem to “catch on” – whether it’s coffee houses, doing “The Wave” at a sports event, or tightrolling your jeans back in the ‘80s. In a 2007 interview with Spike Jones, hip-hop sensation Kanye West said “What the hula hoop was to America, I want my music, my pieces of art to be that.” This is the new ground an idea competes on – whether a song, a toy, or a marketing campaign.

Memes that make it resonate for a specific audience. If the new currency of social media is recognition, your concept – metaphorically – needs to be money. Something that members of this Community you’re targeting will want to pass around, because it elevates their own status within that Community. When one member can unearth or create something that others within the Community want to copy, they’ve expanded their influence. If that idea belongs to your Client, then you’ve successfully meshed their brand with that Community.

Memes that make it create a connection. 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. Some of the best solve a problem – whether practical or just a cognitive dissonance. The arch, for example, spread across the world as an engineering meme because it solved the problem of how to span long distances efficiently. But it was also something easy to see, remember, and put into practice when you got back home.

Memes that make it are easy to reproduce. YouTube isn’t the #1 source of streaming media because they’re technologically advanced. In fact, many other sites use a more advanced codec or provide more features. Their 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.

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.