Making memes work in your online campaigns

These pieces of internet culture are pervasive across social media platforms, but it’s not just for bloggers or online fans. Here’s what you should know about jumping on the trend.

The currency of the social media world is influence.

Influence is our ability to drive others to take action, and a powerful tool to drive action is a meme.

When should you use them for your brand, and why are they so important in today’s media environment?

With the Olympic Games in Rio going on, we see prime examples created every day. Exhibit A: This week in preparation for a race, U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps got caught on camera with an aggressive look on his face. Thus, #PhelpsFace was born and has been shared hundreds of thousands of times.

Taking part in such episodic moments can display a brand’s relevance and drive engagement. Sometimes being on the bandwagon displays that your brand is engaged and in the know. Other times, as with #PhelpsFace, there can be some risk.

No one owns a meme

Although no one owns a meme, brand managers can fight to own the content used to create them. The #PhelpsFace image is content owned by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for exclusive use by paid media sponsors such as NBC. The IOC’s brand guidelines forbid brands that haven’t sponsored the games from sharing GIFs or images about this summer’s contests. That even extends to using hashtags such as #Rio2016 or #Olympics2016. Brand managers should be wary: Not knowing the ownership rights behind an image or trademarked hashtag could land you in copyright trouble.

At the same time, you can’t trademark a meme. No one trademarked the oft-mentioned cat video; we all share in the lolz. Even when people try to trademark elements of meme culture, they face immediate scorn, as online video creator Fine Bros discovered in January, when it attempted to trademark the format of a reaction video, in which people are recorded watching a video online for the first time to capture their immediate impressions.

The format is well known and began to be popularized in 2006.

Fullscreen, a company affiliated with Fine Bros, launched petitions with YouTube to force content creators to take down videos that featured the term “react” in the title. This led to an immediate backlash, and Fine Bros canceled plans to expand a service licensing the format of reaction videos through its brand.

If your brand has a problem with people stealing its content and using it elsewhere, starting in on meme creation can be like opening Pandora’s box.

Opportunities in virality

Once you get beyond the idea that you own the rights to your content, opportunities open up.

Rap stars such as Drake prepare their music videos and album covers with materials designed for social media virality. In production of his 2015 music video “Hotline Bling,” he even called out how well the video would play online. This video has been viewed more than 877 million times. A search on YouTube of “Hotline Bling Parody” generates 500,000 results, some videos with several million views.

For his 2016 album views, Drake released artwork from his new album in high resolution with the express purpose of its being used all over the internet. It worked.

Even President Barack Obama plays with these tactics. In his Democratic National Convention speech this summer, he referenced the hashtag #ThanksObama, which had originated as an insult against him. He’d used it previously in February 2015 in a video playing before his speech at the National Press Club. Thanks, Obama, for helping us make our point.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau isn’t beyond using memes as well; he posed for a series of faux-feminist memes with, playing on his popular self-image.

Why are memes so important to people?

Trending topics drive news cycles because the fact that thousands of people are engaging in an activity or using a term constitutes “news.” It is a turnkey cultural identity, and all you need to join in is a hashtag.

We had memes before social media, too. People played with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles toys because of the movies. We had “Ghostbusters” and Transformers, too. Today these are referential goldmines for the entertainment industry because of built-in knowledge and fan bases that can be mobilized with a theme song or a single character.

Memes carry a similar weight but for a shorter period of time. They are an avenue toward catharsis, and engaging online during peak periods of social interaction can amplify that feeling far and wide while aligning it with your brand.

RELATED: Join us at our Employee Communications, PR and Social Media Summit at Microsoft HQ!

Memes are not without risk

Memes feature a constant level of self-parody. By the time a single viral image makes the rounds from its originating source to another social media channel, to blogs and eventually to BuzzFeed, the joke is over. Each image created by the world’s community of content creators is open to constant ridicule and endless appropriation.

Remember that Star Wars kid video in which a teenage boy spun a rod around like a light saber on video? It went viral in 2002 and has been seen by hundreds of millions of people ever since. Great, right? Not so much.

The Star Wars kid’s name is Ghyslain Raza, and he told Maclean’s magazine in 2013 that he lost most of the friends and had to change schools as a result of the video.

“In the common room, students climbed onto tabletops to insult me.”—Ghyslain Raza

Raza has since grown up to be a lawyer and is the president of a heritage society in his native Trois-Rivières, but not before his parents sued the families of the boys who posted the video online and he underwent years of therapy.

When is it OK to join in on a meme?

The answer all depends on who could be hurt by the parody. In the case of a private citizen like Raza, brands should steer clear.

An image of an intense Michael Phelps probably boosts his image as a competitor. He’s already known worldwide and has faced more contentious issues in the media than a facial expression. Phelps is an OK target for a meme; Raza would not be.

If you don’t know who the person in the image is or the story behind it, tweet about something else. If you don’t know the context of a meme, you might be missing the joke and could bring unwanted negative PR to your brand—so avoid it unless you get it.

James Rubec is a content marketing manager for Cision Canada. A version of this article originally appeared on Cision’s blog.

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