The Ingredients of a Successful Meme


When war came to Ukraine,Kate-Yeonjae Jeong found out the same way most young people discover what’s happening in the world. The 17-year-old high school student from Houston learned about the Russian invasion on TikTok. In an essay published by The New York Times, she explained that in late February she was going about her usual routine—“homework, short respite on TikTok, repeat”—when between dance memes and make-up tutorials came shaky footage of soldiers marching with their weapons drawn.

“For today’s adolescents,” writes Jeong, “consuming news via social media is second nature; memes, in particular, are used to keep up with ever-evolving world affairs. With fast-paced production, easy-to-understand lingo, and laugh-out-loud humor, memes have connected an entire generation through a common language.”

It’s a language that marketers have learned how to speak, and for good reason. A study in 2019 found that paid memes generated engagement rates of about 30 percent on Facebook and Instagram, far higher than the rates of 1-15 percent generated by branded content and influencer posts. For marketing firms and influencers, inserting brand messages into images and content that are re-created and shared across the Web can pay handsomely.

The Minion Meme

When the new Minions movie, Minions: The Rise of Gru  came out over the July 4th holiday, for example, it was memes that powered the spectacled yellow things to a record-breaking $125 million holiday weekend box office record.

The memeing started with Cole Bennett of Lyrical Lemonade tweeting that he had received permission to use Yeat’s music for a version of the movie’s trailer. Mashable describes how the tweet was promoted by the Minions official Twitter account and was then picked up by bill.hirst, a TikTok user. He used the music in a video of him and his friends wearing suits to watch the movie together. The video started a trend of Gentleminions, a mixture of “gentlemen” and “Minion,” who film themselves dressed in suits as they watch the children’s movie.

Soon, others were weighing in, sharing any image of people in suits, from anime characters to members of One Direction, with a line requesting tickets to Minions: The Rise of Gru.

For the movie’s promoters, the creation and sharing of the meme couldn’t have been better. What had started as a tweet about the movie’s soundtrack had morphed into user-generated content that turned watching the movie into an entirely new experience.

But as anyone who has ever tried to design a meme knows, their success rates can be unpredictable. Trying to forecast which jokes will strike a chord and spread around the Web, and which will be ignored as though they never existed, can feel more like guesswork than careful market analysis.

That hasn’t stopped one group of researchers from trying to analyze the key ingredients of a successful meme. Suresh Malodia of MICA, a business school in India, and colleagues in Norway, South Africa, and the United States, separated the various elements that a meme has to include, and the conditions under which the meme has to operate, in order to identify what a meme needs in order to succeed, spread virally, and increase brand awareness and engagement.

The aim of the study, the researchers state, was to identify the key antecedents that drive meme virality; understand the virality of memes; and examine what moderates their outcomes.

They started with interviews, spending up to an hour-and-a-half talking to meme users, meme-makers (or “memers,”)  influencers, and  brand managers. The influencers each had more than 500,000 Instagram followers, while the memers had produced pages which had gathered over two million followers. The researchers structured their questions on content, consumption, and media. They asked the marketing professionals how they selected the humor, genre, and format of a meme, and how they predicted the meme’s “spreadability.” They also talked about the factors that affect users’ consumption and sharing of memes, how memes are seeded across various media vehicles, and how the professionals measure a meme’s success.

They also asked meme users which meme pages and influencers they follow; how they used social media; which memes they liked, forwarded, and received; and why they changed and forwarded memes.

“Our goal was to understand the virality of memes and the dimensions underlying that virality,” they explain.

Content, Customers, Media

Analyzing the conversations allowed the researchers to identify nine factors that influence the success of a meme: relevance, iconicity, humor, spreadability, process, social and content gratifications, seeding strategy, and distribution strategy. Those factors were spread across content, customers, and media.

That allowed the researchers to drill down even further. The factors that make up the content in a successful meme include relevance,  language structure, humor, and spreadability.

Advertisers, the researchers argue, have to shape the content of their memes so that they’re “topical and popular” among target consumers. Those consumers have to be familiar with the content and be able to relate to it. The content has to be contemporary and, the researchers argue, it also has to be uncontroversial.

Describing how they create memes from television shows, for example, one memer told the researchers that they always take images from the trailer rather than from the show itself. “A trailer,” the memer said, “is far more relatable to the audience than the show.”

Those factors go a long way towards explaining the success of the memes that drove audiences towards Minions: The Rise of Gru. The meme spread as the movie launched, so it was topical, familiar, and contemporary. Audiences could relate to the idea of dressing up to see a movie and the concept was fun without being controversial. It was a harmless idea that was also easy to implement and share.

The language used in the meme—what the researchers called “iconicity”—matters too. Memes need to use common words, with simple, complete sentences. One brand manager told the researchers that the aim is to use as few words as possible and to keep the emphasis on gestures and emotions. “That’s the millennial mind strategy.”

Both while topicality and writing are clear and easy to get right, humor is both essential and much harder to pin down. One brand manager interviewed by the researchers estimated that 90 percent of memes have an element of humor but that its interpretation varies from users. Another argued that different generations have different preferences. “Millennials love dark humor, but boomers just do not understand dark humor; they are, instead, amused with husband-wife jokes.”

The marketing team chooses the type of humor in a meme based on an analysis of the target audience.

Finally, a meme also needs content with a large amount of “spreadability,” which the researchers define as the speed and ease with which a meme template—such as people wearing suits to see a children’s movie—can flow across communities on different platforms.

That spreadability is the sum of the topicality, the writing, and the humor. When those three elements are all in place, the result is a meme that can be adapted and shared easily.

The researchers go on to discuss the various kinds of gratification that customers feel when they share a meme. That gratification can be social and take the form of validation and a deeper connection with others that comes from sharing. But it can also derive from the process of consuming memes, even as a break between homework assignments, while content gratification comes from the satisfaction of creating new memes.

“The opportunity to contribute content by modifying meme templates or writing commentary on existing memes is the key motivator behind people’s engagement with memes,” say the researchers.

Finally, the researchers argue that seeding and distribution strategies also play a role in the success of a meme, as do the guidelines within which the content has to operate and the rewards that users can obtain by interacting with the meme.

Creating a Viral Meme

Putting all these elements together, the researchers produce a framework for meme virality. Combine content that’s topical and humorous with the right influencers and publishing strategy, and add the dopamine rush that comes with sharing, and a brand should get the recall and engagement that it’s aiming for.

They even tested the framework to make sure it works. They used a video of a dog barking at a cheetah to create a series of memes to promote a fictional food delivery app, then brought together 200 subjects and asked them what they thought and whether they’d share the memes. The researchers found that content-related factors do have an impact on the virality of meme-based posts, and even discovered that dark humor is more viral than self-deprecating humor and amusement.

But a framework only goes so far. The researchers have outlined the main elements on which a successful meme is built. But they don’t—and can’t—predict which particular content is likely to be received as humorous and shareable. Nor can they say which influencers are best for seeding a particular piece of content.

Brand managers hoping to use memes to build recall and engagement will still need to understand what makes their audiences laugh and share. A framework can provide a structure for building but they’ll still need to know how to talk to a generation that watches a war in shareable memes.

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