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When Richard Dawkins first coined the word ‘meme’ in his 1976 bestseller The Selfish Gene, there’s no way he could have predicted that, forty years later, the term would be hijacked and appropriated by legions of online content creators looking for quick laughs and internet stardom.

By any memes necessary

In the writings of Dawkins, a meme is an idea, behavior or practice that spreads from person to person within a culture. In content marketing terms, it’s something going viral, but in the real world.

In Dawkins’ definition, a meme mutates – or evolves – randomly, and only perseveres if it is beneficial or in some way advantageous to people. Examples could include anything from building techniques to types of fashion, religious interpretations to certain ways of speaking. Instead of something being passed on genetically, a meme is something that is picked up by the individual during their lifetime, imitated, and then strategically utilized.

In modern meme culture, however, the emphasis is not on something changing naturally, but on editing, refashioning or refining something – be it an image, a video or a phrase – deliberately. The goal is not to replicate or repeat, but to actively alter. The premise of the online meme is to find a core theme – generally a character or phrase – and then utilize it in a variety of scenarios.

Despite differing processes, the outcome of Dawkins’ meme and that of the online content marketer are the same; it spreads, and subsequently, can be said to have ‘gone viral’. We’ve spoken before about techniques that are used by companies and individuals alike to get their content in front of as many eyes as possible, but what, if anything, can organizations get out of meme culture? Is it something they should be getting involved in via their social channels, or is it important to refrain, and therefore retain a sense of professionalism?

The question is simple: should companies be using memes?

Speaking to the audience

As a content agency, we’ve spoken before about the importance of speaking to your audience in a way that will resonate. If you want to evoke an emotional response or encourage someone to take an action via content marketing, then you need to engage them. Understanding what appeals to them and what will pique their interest is key.

How to talk to your audience is something that should be settled early on in the formation of your company. Developing a distinctive culture and deciding upon a tone that reflects your values and culture is incredibly important. Of course, there is room for development and modification as you grow or diversify, but you want your content to, at all times, speak with the genuine voice of the company.

With that in mind, you must consider how your audience will react should you start to post memes. Is it something they’ll engage with? Would a meme fit with their perception of your company and what you’re trying to say, or would it stick out like a sore thumb on your feed?

Do you meme business?

So, why exactly would a business post a meme? What’s the benefit? Well, as with most forms of content, it’s all about grabbing attention.

The average person spends almost two hours a day on social media, so if you want to get in front of someone’s face in a way that is cost-effective and gives you the potential for massive reach, social media is the place to do it. Social channels such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat are all saturated with memes, but those posts that hit the spot can spread like wildfire.

The traditional route for business to advertise a product or service was to pay. Be it in a magazine, newspaper, on TV or on a billboard, the best way to reveal a brand to a wider audience was to spend some serious money.

Now however, social media allows small companies to build an audience without needing huge sums of cash and memes can be a great way to make potential consumers conscious of your brand’s existence. By posting something that goes viral, you’ll likely be able to increase your followers, and consequently influence the number of people your advertising efforts are targeted at. It sounds simple, and sometimes it really can be that easy.

But is it right for you? Do you really want to go viral? Is it in the best interest of your company to have people become aware of you because of something comical or frivolous posted on social media?

While it might be right for some, it’s definitely not for everyone.

Professionalism vs personality

Again, this is a topic we’ve covered before. Social media is a fantastic tool, but companies need to be very aware of how best to use it. Speaking to your desired audience is crucial, as is doing so in a way that is consistent and coherent. In the case of memes, there’s no point posting something if it goes completely against what you’ve published before.

There are companies that have posted out memes, though the response is not always positive. In fact, more often than not attempts by organisations to appear ‘cool’ or on trend are met with derision. Social media users are savvy, and tend not to react well when companies jump on a bandwagon; it can come across as insincere and disingenuous. In the end, it all links back to how you’ve positioned your company, and what message you’re trying to get across.

If your company culture is, and always has been, all about being fun and informal, and you haven’t taken your social feeds too seriously, then memes could be the perfect way to communicate with people who know what to expect from your content. If, however, you’ve never posted anything other than formal, informative or corporate posts, pushing out a meme is likely to irk receivers.

Think about the message you’re trying to give to your audience – both in the short- and long-term – and then consider how best to reach them. If a meme fits with your personality, it could well be something to try.

However, ponder carefully; the last thing you want to do is alienate your audience, or post something that reeks of a desperate attempt to garner retweets. Ill-judged social media posts can go viral for all the wrong reasons and that’s something to be avoided at all costs.

Always consider the end to justify the meme. Or something like that.