How managers can make the most of internet memes

26 April 2013 -


It is hard to predict where the next wave of internet humour will come from – but business leaders have much to learn from the viral power of the internet meme

You could be forgiven for not being aware of it, but every 28 April is, in fact, Ed Balls Day. And for those wondering why the shadow chancellor has suddenly been honoured with his very own celebration, it is not the result of any wildly popular Labour policy moves.

On 28 April 2011, Ed – then a new recruit to Twitter – mistakenly sent a tweet that simply contained the words “Ed Balls”. Cue a snowball of retweets, parodies and cultural artefacts all related to this two-word statement. It is a classic example of an internet “meme” – something that quickly spreads, takes on a life of its own and becomes hugely popular and well known. The “Harlem Shake” video craze is another example. Which begs the question: is it possible for business leaders and entrepreneurs to use internet memes to their own advantage? Helpfully, the answer is yes – but tread very carefully indeed.

The key components of interacting, or piggybacking on, memes are:




For example, the first “office” version of the Harlem Shake gained millions of views, and would have made that company look fun, current and aware of social media crazes. Make one too late, though, and it looks a little desperate and try-hard. For the second component, it is worth considering who your audience is. If a key aspect of your brand is that you want to be seen as cool and cutting-edge, then by all means try and interact with memes: it's what your customers would want you to be doing. However, if your product is irrelevant to an internet-savvy crowd, then why waste time on something that will not benefit you?

Finally, context, as ever, is everything. What is the meme really based on? is it a harmless bit of fun – like “Ed Balls” – or do its roots lie in something more sinister, such as bullying or stereotyping? The last thing you want to do is try to interact with something that could damage the image of your brand. A great example of a company getting it right is World of Warcraft using the famous (and funny) “Chuck Norris” meme in one of their advertisements: it was still current, hugely relevant to their target audience, and funny.

If your business is in a particularly bullish mood, you could try starting your own meme – although doing so successfully is incredibly hard. Like most viral internet crazes, or “novelty” singles like Gangnam Style, it is almost impossible to predict what will be embraced and be driven to Grade-A “craze” level, especially since many of them are generated at grassroots level by everyday people. If memes are not organic, they lose their impact.

However, we did say almost impossible. One extraordinary recent success story is the “dancing pony” used by mobile provider Three – expertly done and perfectly pitched by a trend-setting company, which also invested heavily in TV advertising to get it off the ground. So even though its popularity ticked all the right “meme” boxes, the use of traditional marketing makes it an exception rather than the rule.

As ever in the choppy waters of social media, you can gain an advantage, but always exercise caution and be aware of the risks involved – the internet can be an unforgiving place.

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