Collective online culture

Believe it or not, I was just rick rolled. Completely unsuspecting, I innocently clicked on a seemingly innocuous link, only to be greeted with this:

You may remember this phenomenon. A few years back you couldn’t visit a forum or Web page without seeing some link that begged to be click. On a hip hop forum, it might be “NEW TRACK – WU TANG ft 2PAC“, a sports page might have “LEBRON DUNKS FROM 3-POINT LINE“. Whatever it was, it was something lots of people would click. And when you did, who greeted you but Mr. Rick Astley, performing his biggest hit. (Be honest, you clicked one of those links didn’t you?:-) This was known as rick rolling, and it quickly became the biggest Internet meme of all time.

But what is a meme? British scientist Richard Dawkins is widely considered the originator of the term, having introduced it in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. He defined the term as “a cultural item that is transmitted by repetition in a manner analogous to the biological transmission of genes.” In other words, it’s a piece of shared culture that is passed from person to person, essentially an inside joke shared by millions.

Of course when Dawkins wrote this book, it was well before the advent of the Internet as we know it. He surely had no idea the twist that the Internet would add to this concept. Thanks to the rapid sharing of information allowed by the Web, these inside jokes, at least the successful ones, spread like wild fire.  Almost everyone by now has been exposed to some of these.

A few of the more memorable memes:

McDonald’s Rap

Dramatic Chipmunk

All Your Base are Belong to Us

Of course not every meme has to be a video. The LOLcats, Fail Blog and One Red Paper Clip were and are incredibly popular internet memes.

But now the question remains, how can a company harness the power of this phenomenon to raise awareness and generate revenue for themselves?

One way is through the use of viral videos, or other catchy commercials. A perfect example of this is the FreeCreditReport.com commercials, catchy and fun, they attract a lot of attention on both television and the Web. Anyone who owns a television by now knows all the words to these infectious and amusing jingles, making these commercials a highly effective meme.

According to Melo Villareal at Manila Freelancer:

“Memes allow a marketing company to actually control the informative content of a certain website. At the same time a company can use a casual, light approach of marketing in the form of writing. Also, memes allow marketing companies to swiftly get vital information out to the vast customers. And since memes are “contagious” in nature, it is very likely that information will spread like wild fire in no time.”

Additionally, the use of memes creates a sort of sub-conscious peer pressure. If many people are familiar with a particular meme, those not in the know will seek it out, ostensibly to see what the buzz is about. Thus, by utilizing memes, companies are taking full advantage of peer-to-peer marketing, a leftover from the junior high days, and a highly effective form of marketing.

Of course the real reason why memes are successful as marketing tools is likely the same reason why social media has caught on among marketers: it allows for a two-way conversation. By allowing feedback, marketers are allowed a glimpse into the minds of potential customers. By seeing what these customers do and do not like, they are better able to understand both them and their purchasing habits. And isn’t that really the ultimate goal?

For further examples of successful memes, check out Know Your Meme.

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