What Are Memes? (And How to Use Them as a Brand)

If you’ve heard anything about memes, it’s likely in reference to the internet and pop-culture uses. You might think of funny photos, gifs, moving e-stickers, or video clips. But what are memes, exactly?

A “meme” is more than just a funny image. It’s a term coined pre-internet, in 1976, by Richard Dawkins. He used it to describe an idea or a behavior that spread from one person to another within culture. Back then, it could have been an idea spread by word of mouth. Today, it’s a funny picture that gets shared on social media.

What are memes?

In popular culture, a meme is a piece of media (like a photo) that spreads via the internet, often to generate engagement, laughter, or both. And that’s one reason why today’s version of the meme has become so popular — it makes us laugh.

While anyone can share memes on social media, brands often use them to help convey feelings and emotions to their customers in a way that words alone can’t.

Why and when brands use memes

When it comes to rules for using memes, there’s no exact guidebook. The best rule of thumb is to follow the same content guidelines you have for your current content strategy. Stay away from memes that could be construed as offensive, as well as memes with brash language in them.

Images within your written content work well to convey the non-textual parts of communication. Remember how communication is 90 percent non-verbal?

These images can help convery the equivalent of body language or facial expressions in ways that plain words just can’t.

My Emotions meme

They also add visual variation to an otherwise text-heavy screen, so readers’ eyes keep moving on your page and continue to read your content.

Using memes: two basic examples

To get a better idea of how to use these internet memes in your branded copy, here are two simple examples.

Let’s say you’re writing copy about having a really bad day. The copy is great, but it’s missing something. It doesn’t quite have that little extra oomph to convey exactly how frustrating a bad day can be.

Putting a meme in the middle of this copy is a great move, and the “Bad Luck Brian” meme can be a great one. For example:

meme example

Or let’s say you’re writing an educational blog post for parents who want to raise bilingual children. A great way to do this is to just start speaking different languages to them right away. But maybe you have a list of 10 different pieces of advice, and this is just one. To help get this idea to stick in their minds, you can add a visual element to that tip with a meme, like this:

lucky child meme

Always changing, but easy to use

The cool thing about memes is that, like Richard Dawkins’ original definition, they’re ever-changing.

A decade ago, internet memes consisted mostly of images of the same characters, with different bits of text written over them.

Now, any image or gif can become a meme, especially with the right caption written over it. But no matter how they evolve in the future, their ability to communicate beyond words pretty much ensures that they’re here to stay as a part of online content for a long, long time.

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