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What every PR and marketing professional should know about Internet memes

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The Internet is truly an almost infinite source of knowledge, connections, news and more. But, with so much useful information available, what do I find myself looking at on a daily basis? Internet memes.

Memes are everywhere and, if you’re after a meme involving something or someone, you’re almost guaranteed to find it online with a simple Google image search. Their reach can be enormous and their spread rapid – making them a potential dream or nightmare for us PR professionals.

Some classic memes include: Ridiculously Photogenic Guy, a wide variety of Rage Faces, Game of Thrones, the dreaded Harlem Shake and of course Psy’s Gangnam Style! For the uninitiated, this Wikipedia entry provides some useful background information on memes.

The internet is fast-moving and often provides a harsh environment, so being on the wrong end of a meme can be fairly brutal. Poor old Keanu Reeves could tell you that – after being snapped looking a little lonely and eating a sandwich on a park bench, this photo has gone massive with a number of cutting phrases accompanying it.

So, if you’re a PR, marketing or advertising professional thinking about employing a meme to take your campaign viral, be careful, as social campaigns can be quickly hijacked, twisted, chewed up and spat out. An example of this is McDonald’s attempt to create its own meme through Twitter.

McDonald was hoping that their hashtag #McDStories would inspire heart-warming stories about Happy Meals but it quickly turned against it when people started using it to tell their bad experiences with the fast food giant.

It’s not all doom and gloom though, so don’t let that put you off. Brands have successful adopted the use of memes, often playing it safe by using existing images for their own campaigns. Virgin Media, for example, used the Success Kid in a national advertising push, while E-Lites used a Gangnam Styling baby in its TV ads.

The Success Kid meme worked particularly well because the expression of the child in the photo is amusing but also extremely versatile and it’s exactly this versatility that allowed the meme to be repurposed several times and become an Internet phenomenon.

Subsequently, Virgin Media saw its potential and built on its existing popularity to create a successful advertising campaign.

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The industry is still getting to grips with how to successfully and safely employ memes in campaigns, so keep an eye out for best and worst practice. Have you seen any good uses recently? Or just some amazingly funny ones? Currently topping the charts here: the NASA frog.

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