Even if you’ve never heard the word meme, chances are, you’re already pretty familiar with several of the Internet’s recent sensations: Planking, the Harlem Shake, The Most Interesting Man in the World, or this author’s favorite: Grumpy Cat. So you may be asking yourself, ‘What are these kitschy, cute and/or annoying little things and why are they infiltrating my inbox and social feeds? And more importantly, how do I get in on the action?!’

Read on to learn all you ever needed to know about memes.

What is a Meme?

According to our friends at Merriam Webster, a meme is “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.” The term was reportedly derived from the ancient Greek word mimeme meaning “imitated thing” and was made popular in the 70s by Richard Dawkins in his writings on how cultural ideas and phenomena are spread.

In today’s digital world, the application has changed slightly; memes are found most often in the form of an image, hashtag, website or link that is spread virally through email, social channel or even text message. Internet memes are usually humorous in nature and often related to various subcultures represented across the internet (cat lovers, sci-fi fans, new parents, college students, etc.)

Why are Memes so Popular?

Unlike memes before the Internet age (think jingles or story boards of the 50s and 60s), today’s memes are often consumer-generated. Anyone with a computer, tablet or smartphone can take visual elements from pop culture and pair them with witty sayings and descriptions. The fact that memes so often employ humor makes them highly infectious, relatable and ripe for sharing with others within a social network.

The always-connected nature of digital makes these fads and sensations easy to share with the click of a button, further igniting the distribution of these trendy cultural visuals. In general, the best memes are those which resonate with a specific audience or subculture, as these are most likely to gain momentum and go viral.

How Can Marketers use Memes?

As memes are relatively inexpensive to create and share (pending there are no copy write or licensing considerations), they have increasingly become part of a marketer’s repertoire in what is called memetic advertising. Marketers most often use memes to create awareness or insert their brand within social conversations already occurring online. PR and advertising firms also use memes as part of a viral or guerrilla marketing strategy to create buzz or word-of-mouth around a product or service.

See one of our favorite blogs on memetic advertising for a list of the 10 best memes used within marketing campaigns.

When used as part of a larger content strategy, memes allow marketers to strategically share branded content by leveraging the infectious nature of the pop culture element featured within the meme itself. As with any social or content strategy, the key is to ensure the content resonates with the target audience you are trying to engage and must be timely to avoid burnout or aversion by the audience. Lastly, don’t forget to have a measurement of success so you can evaluate how the use of memes within your social content compares to other forms of messaging.

Check out Mashable’s list of the 6 best tools for creating memes.