The Real Keys To Brand Memes

The more consumers spark viral sensations on social media, the more marketers yearn to become the next meme. That’s getting harder to guarantee as social media expands and users move quickly to the next big thing. 

Your content is a drop in a social ocean bubbling from 3 billion Facebook users, 1 billion TikTokers, and 500 million tweets a day. And when Sysomos evaluated 1.2 billion tweets, it found only 6% were retweeted and just 1.5% spread beyond that. 

So, how do you become a meme? 

Understand what a meme really is. Memes are social movements, not cat videos. Richard Dawkins coined the phrase 46 years ago for ideas and habits that spread through human culture just as genes spread hereditary traits. Think handshakes and fist bumps -- behaviors that accrue social value as they’re shared. 

For example, Kotex ran a campaign in Russia that addressed taboos about menstruation with an “SOS button” women could tap on their phones if they didn’t have sanitary pads at hand. Other women, nearby, would be alerted someone needed help. The app spread quickly, and Kotex gained market share by creating a cause.



Give people a reason to adopt new behavior. Memes happen when people do something and share it madly, not just hit Like. The biggest marketing memes create behaviors that coalesce into tribes by giving a defined group of people something they’ll feel compelled to advance. There’s a reason Donald Trump gave his followers red hats: wearing one is a simple action that triggers a feeling of mobilization around a shared idea. 

Know the math. Behind a meme is a simple formula: Viral spread = (Message sharing rate – Absorption rate) * Cycle time. Your message will spread if more people share it than those who stop sharing or “absorb” it; and the faster the cycle time of message propagation, the more likely your message will scale. 

Test your cycle time. You can forecast what portion of your audience will share vs. suppress your message, and how fast they do so. Test this with focus groups to see if your concept truly is inspiring; use control-exposed digital surveys to measure propensity to share; and run small trials to quantify speed of sharing over time. You’ll uncover ways to refine your meme concept.

There’s no magic button for word of mouth. The key is using math and measurement to forecast whether consumers will want to share your message.

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