How seriously should communicators take memes?

By Jack Shaw, for PR Academy.

Despite the widespread use of memes over the last decade, corporate communicators remain polarised over whether they should employ them or not. They are either disregarded as unprofessional, meaningless or both, or they are in-demand, have the power to re-invent corporate brand, provide organisations with a human face and enable them to engage audiences they wouldn’t otherwise.

Yet there is a middle-ground. One that recognises the pitfalls of memes, the context in which they operate, their genealogy and the changing meaning ascribed to them across space, time and culture, all of which pose challenges for practitioners. Yet, at the same time accepts that they are a popular tool used by internet users to communicate and understand the world – particularly younger people.

Done well, memes enable organisations to engage with stakeholders in new ways. However, practitioners need to be able to identify the risks associated with memes to effectively incorporate them into marketing and communication strategies.

Understanding memes

In simple terms, memes are understood as photos overlayed with text. They reflect social and political commentary or are emotional expressions, with emotion mediated through satire, ridicule, anger or depression. The memes that go viral are often entertaining, relatable and insightful. They draw their power from their simplicity, anonymity and ability to evolve, but memes do not evolve randomly. Memes evolve in the discursive context in which they are created. They are coded with meaning and reflect digital culture. As a tool, memes share similarities with short animations, emojis and videos that are commonplace across image-laden social media platforms, but given their versatility they occupy a unique place in the practitioner’s toolkit.

Memes continue to grow in popularity too. 75% of 13-36-year-olds now share memes, with 55% sharing them weekly and 30% sharing them daily. The pandemic has since increased the length of time the public spend online and organisations have responded by increasing their social media presence and budgets.

To successfully make use of memes, practitioners need to conceptualise them not as threats, but as opportunities. The practitioner with ingenuity, a sense of humour, and content creation experience is best placed to take on this role, especially if their role requires them to engage in dialogic communication at speed, as is the case on social media.

Through meme generators such as Know My Meme, practitioners can trace the evolution of memes thereby mitigating reputational risk during the meme selection process prior to external use. This should be an integral and iterative element of communications planning.

What practitioners need to consider in meme creation

In a recent example, Ryanair published a meme mocking the Government’s coronavirus response following accusations that parties were held at Downing Street.

Ryanair’s meme went viral because of its discursive context. There had been recent rolling media coverage of the events in Downing Street. Ryanair’s memevertisements enabled it to create hype and publicity that put Ryanair at the centre of its own story, securing positive national coverage in the process. The #Ryanair hashtag also went viral on the Twittersphere, replacing those that used the hashtag to complain about Ryanair’s service with those who congratulated its social media team.

Though Ryanair’s approach to memevertisements was successful, there are three caveats that practitioners need to consider at part of the meme creation process.

First, memes need to be deployed strategically. If memes are used as gimmicks rather than value-based content, as Ryanair’s demonstrates, they alone will have little long-term impact. Memes cannot overcome Ryanair’s reputation as the worst airline for seven years running or that its Chief Executive once suggested charging passengers to use the toilet.

Second, there is a blurred line between corporate humour and bad taste, and organisations will need to draw on good practice to remain on the correct side of that line.

Third, if memes are deployed reactively, as in Ryanair’s case, organisations need to be agile. That may mean operating newsroom-style communications functions that empower practitioners to respond with humour and creativity at speed

Memes: Emotional, visual storytelling?

How we consume content has also changed over time. Empirical evidence alone, logoi, is no longer an adequate tool of persuasion and competition for finite attention is fierce. That is why emotionally charged storytelling, symbols and images are so powerful: it is quicker to de-code the meaning behind memes. As a result, it can lead to higher brand recall and may explain why 20% of 16-29-year-olds in the US already share visual content from brands on a daily basis, far higher than other forms of corporate content that are shared.

The challenges facing practitioners today cannot be met with yesterday’s tools

As a form of corporate communication, memetics is in its infancy. Yet the challenges facing practitioners today cannot be met with yesterday’s tools. If practitioners are to exploit memes, which by dint of their popularity suggests memevertisements will only increase, organisations will need to familiarise themselves with the history of memes and how they evolve.

Pursuing a marketing strategy that prioritises digital technologies as well as the power of emotion-led communications is a good start. Organisations will need to develop content creation and curation strategies which can organically build a community of influencers. In the process of dissemination and consumption, practitioners should also build relationships with the content creator community their organisations give rise to, who will engage, adapt and respond to their memes.

As content creation and meme-use evolves (and it is already evolving as more organisations make use of memes and as other forms of digital communication are created and embedded), organisations will need to bring together multi-disciplinary teams comprising social media experts, wordsmiths, data analysts, graphic designers and content creators. The speed at which memes are co-created, replicated and consumed demands communications teams without rigid hierarchies. Instead, practitioners will need to sit within agile teams that resemble newsroom structures and are positioned strategically within their organisation.

Practitioners are well placed not just to generate ideas and spot content creation and curation within their networks, but also act as guardians of corporate reputation and the front-line defence in issue and risk management. Only in understanding how memes operate can organisations do so successfully.


Image by InnaPoka on iStock


Adapted from a post ‘How seriously should communicators take memes?’ by Jack Shaw which appeared first on PR Academy.

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