It’s so 2008 to use words alone to talk to teens. Today, teens are increasingly communicating with emoji (small digital icons used to express an idea or emotion, such as a smiley face expressing happiness) and memes (pronounced “meems,” humorous images, videos or pieces of text that are copied and spread rapidly by Internet users).
These modes of communication claim numerous advantages vs. words alone. They can cross language barriers; while cultural differences do exist, a smiley emoji or poop emoji has a fairly universal meaning. They’re short; when time and brevity are of the essence, one image can express many words. They can create a stronger emotional response. They’re “stickier” and more memorable. They have the ability to go viral. And sociologists can (and do) have a field day with what they say about in-jokes, subcultures, enforcing cultural norms and the like.
Emoji and memes helped Trump win the presidency, with “Make America Great Again,” #MAGA, #DrainTheSwamp, #CrookedHillary, #LyingTed and (perhaps most controversially) Pepe the Frog. You can order a pizza from Domino’s by sending them a pizza emoji (after setting up an account and a standing order). The Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year in 2015 was the emoji “Face with Tears of Joy.” And meme culture is constantly creating unlikely celebrities, like Red Sweater Guy at the Clinton-Trump town hall debate, and the “Cash Me Ousside” woman on “Dr. Phil.”
How can brands communicate more effectively with teens using emoji, memes and the principles behind them?
*Start with an arresting image. It doesn’t have to be a perfect photo, and in fact, most meme art is pretty rough (think screen caps and second-generation copies). But something about it needs to be funny, shocking, unexpected, multilayered, and/or counterintuitive. Animals, iconic actors, reality-show stars, and politicians are often favorites, since they’re recognizable, and often use outsized expressions. The GIF (Graphics Interchange Format, which supports still and animated images) is becoming increasingly popular, showing a video on a short loop (frequently an over-the-top expression or reaction from a politician or reality TV star). So find a still or moving image that you can’t stop looking at, which expresses a deeply-held brand truth, and then GIF it.
*Next, add a couple short lines of text. Memes typically feature a line of text at the top and another on the bottom, in giant, white all-caps type in the Impact font. The big, block letters force the writer to be succinct, and they also make the entire image very easy to read and understand, even on a mobile device. The line at the top typically sets up the joke, and the line at the bottom is generally the payoff or punchline. Words are often misspelled and grammar is often mangled for comedic effect. There’s a certain haiku-like sensibility about the best meme writing, so aim for two short lines with good “flow,” good setup/payoff, and some type of twist or surprise.
*Publish, and encourage customers to make it their own. Distribute memes on your social media channels, but realize that for them to go viral, users have to publish them with changes. They won’t forward them as is but instead will make replies, spoofs, sequels, extensions and other modifications. If customers respond en masse with a Willy Wonka smirk, or a Captain Picard facepalm, those might be signs that you missed the mark. But if they read and reproduce them with slightly different text and/or images, it could be a sign that you have a viral hit and something that’s captured the collective imagination.n
By communicating in a highly graphical way incorporating the best of emoji and memes, marketers can engage in much richer conversations with their teen customers, inspiring everyone to have a Smiling Face with Tears of Joy.