On the first Saturday of 2017, Turkish-born chef Nusret Gökçe posted a video of his unique steak preparation on Instagram.
Later that day, a Twitter user in Houston shared the video along with her a nickname for Gökçe: "Salt Bae."
Before January was over, "Salt Bae" was as culturally relevant as one of the world's biggest movie stars.
This is the power of memes. A meme can break through the noise of the internet and into the world's consciousness in a matter of days. It's the type of reach usually limited to Super Bowl ads. Unsurprisingly, marketers are trying to harness memes for their brands.
To succeed, they'll need a deep understanding of meme culture, and of their audience.
What Is A Meme?
Scientist Richard Dawkins coined the term "meme" as an analogue to the word "gene." Dawkins defines a meme as "an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” It’s similar to the way a gene spreads through organisms.
Internet memes are highly visual. The Salt Bae meme spread as people made their own comments and visual mashups of Gökçe's dramatic method of salting the steak.
While memes sometimes go viral, not all viral content is a meme. An incredible performance by a musician that millions of people watch is viral, but it's not a meme. People simply watch it. They don't add to it.
But the bizarre reaction of an audience member that people comment on and create their own stories around—that's a meme. A meme in its purest form is an idea, rather than standalone content.
The Life of a Meme
Most successful memes have a predictable, brief lifecycle. Often, a meme starts as original content that someone discovers, deems meme-able, and puts into a template for others to share.
Typically this process starts on meme-centric community sites like Reddit or 4Chan. Those sites feature mostly user-generated content. When members of the community upvote or comment on a post, it automatically gets more visibility to other members. Memes also start on more mainstream social networks like Twitter and Instagram, where they spread through likes, comments, and shares.
Once a meme catches on, the whole internet gets in on it with takes, remixes, and mashups. The meme migrates to mainstream social forms. Suddenly, it's is as talked-about as Chris Pratt.
Eventually, a successful meme leaks into the real world.
Entrepreneurs will try to make money off of it, and the mainstream media will catch on. You know a meme is dying when you see it on a t-shirt or on Good Morning America.
Where Memes Live
The most popular platforms where memes spread are the internet community Reddit and its associated photo platform, Imgur. Both sites have covetable audiences.
On Reddit, 87% of the audience is younger than 35; 63% is 24 or younger.
On Imgur, 74% of the audience is younger than 35, and the audience is 84% male. Advertisers view the site as a male-centric alternative to Pinterest, where the audience is 81% female.
Meme audiences are engaged: Imgur says that 83% of their audience spend at least three hours per week on the platform.
Brands constantly look for ways to engage with audiences on these platforms. Since 2015, Imgur has allowed brands to create promoted posts.
eBay was one of the first adopters, creating a series of posts based on Internet memes with links to products for sale on eBay. Home Decor That Brings Out Your Inner Geek alludes to cat photo memes and meme-derived slang.
"We started tracking the amount of time people are spending on these promoted posts, and it's 25 seconds a post," Imgur VP of Marketing and Sales Steve Patrizi told AdWeek. "That's getting pretty close to the gold standard of TV advertising."
Why Memes Are Important
Memes are a visual reference guide to the trends of the wider culture. As a meme spreads, creators mash it up with aspects of culture that matter to them in that moment—what's in the news, their favorite shows, how they are feeling about the world.
The way people remix the meme reflects what's important to them. Taken together, they are a time-stamped snapshot of internet culture.
Often, memes reflect the creator's identity. memes contribute to slang by spreading new terms like "fam," "on fleek," and "af." They become default reactions and celebrations. They're a means of expressing emotion.
Meme creators use the form to bring underground phenomenons to the attention of new audiences. "Juju On That Beat" started as a novelty song that went viral. This low-budget video of two guys dressed as clowns doing that dance has 40 million views.
That's a level of engagement that even huge brands can't manufacture. At time of writing, Chevrolet's official YouTube account only had 35 million views.
Memes also serve as safe space where people can express themselves about difficult or controversial topics. Creators can imply something they're afraid to say explicitly through the medium.
Anxiety and depression
Race in the U.S.
Politics (Note: the Pokémon cards are photoshopped in!)
Who Makes Memes Big?
The people who create and spread memes form a community. They take pride in seeing a meme that they've worked on spread across the internet. They even track meme history with encyclopedic precision.
This community can launch a meme into the national consciousness in a matter of days. Brands who want their memes to succeed need to win them over. Here are our suggestions:
1) Always stay in the loop
Memes come and go at lightning speeds. If your content isn't fresh, it will be ridiculed on places like the #FellowKids subreddit.
2) Deploy memes in ephemeral media that you can take back
Because the Internet changes so fast, you don't want your memes in any format you can't easily take back if it hits the wrong note. A billboard is a bad place for a meme, and a meticulously-planned rollout is a bad strategy. Move quick. Fail fast.
3) Understand the line between cutting-edge and pandering
The meme community is savvy—they know brands exist to make sales, not mirth. Content that adopts meme styling for baldly commercial purposes won't succeed.
Instead, be honest: “Look, I am a company that’s advertising, but this post/meme is interesting even when removed from my marketing campaign.” Wendy's brutally honest Twitter persona inspired fans to create their own meme: Smug Wendy.
4) Meet your target audience where they are—don’t advertise to the “general audience”
Memes aren't meant to appeal to everyone. Or at least a single take on a meme isn't. Target meme-based content to the group you're advertising to, and in the subreddits and message boards where they hang out.
How Research Can Help Memes Succeed
Successful memes start at a grassroots level, bubbling up from a specific subreddit or other online community. To succeed with this community, you need to understand it on a deep level.
A pre-meme research project would include:
- Identifying the segment of your target audience that shares memes
- Learning what memes they share and why
- Finding the specific message boards / subreddits where they spend their time
Like every meme, "Salt Bae" died down. But the surrounding publicity was so substantial that Gökçe is now planning a restaurant in Midtown Manhattan. As a marketing opportunity, memes are too popular to ignore.