how to create memes for marketing and PR

Image source: Anheuser-Busch

Brands have learned that social media users love memes. Attention-grabbing images combined with a few brief humorous or clever words tend to garner high engagement and can spread widely on social media.

Memes can humanize a brand, concisely summarize a complex idea, and dramatically boost reach and brand awareness. They’re also relatively easy to create. PR and marketing professionals can create memes with basic graphic design skills and Photoshop or less expensive image-editing tools.

Bud Light, Dr. Squatch, and Bumble are among the many brands using more memes, reports Digiday. By regularly posting memes on social media and working with influencers to create them, Bud Light has helped increase positive brand sentiment, attract followers and increase engagement, Conor Mason, senior director of digital marketing for Bud Light, told Digiday. Organic social media marketing has become more valuable as customers increasingly ignore ads, he says.

The risk is that marketers won’t understand the jokes and references involved with memes. Marketers may try too hard to jump on the meme bandwagon, and post a poorly conceived meme that embarrasses the brand and offend viewers. It’s happened to many brands (who shall remain nameless in this post.)

How to Avoid Pitfalls of Marketing with Memes

PR pros and marketers can avoid that uncomfortable situation by following these recommendations.

Understand your audience. A deep understanding of the audience’s demographics can help determine what kinds of memes to create and if the strategy is appropriate. Edgy memes are widely popular among millennials, but may not be appropriate for some audiences, such as older folks. Older audiences prefer inspirational memes. Consider first testing a meme on a small segment of your audience, using the audience targeting capabilities of Facebook or another social media network.

Understand your brand. Snarky memes are inappropriate for many brands, especially brands that desire a more formal, high-brow image. Still, some high-end brands, such as Gucci, have created effective memes. The key is to post memes that align with your brand’s image. “Don’t get so caught up in trying to create a viral meme that you sacrifice your brand’s personality,” said Erika Montgomery at Three Girls Media. “Social media success is dependent on the consistency of your brand’s tone.”

Move quickly. Popular memes often capitalize on trending news and pop culture moves quickly. “A meme can complete its entire life cycle within 24 hours,” Montgomery says. “If you’re inspired by a current meme do not hesitate to create your own iteration. Tomorrow might be too late.”

Understand your purpose. Memes are best for creating a good feeling about the brand and fostering a connection. Memes that are thinly disguised ads fall flat and may prompt criticism. Soft-pedal overt product promotion. If you do promote a product, make it humorous.

Use eye-catching visuals (and check the image rights). Use images that immediately capture attention. If you use an image that you did not personally create, make sure it’s free to use. If necessary, obtain the license and pay the fee to use it. Even if the chance of a complaint is small, it’s essential to understand the risks you face. Be extra careful in using news photographs. News organizations such as Associated Press, Reuters, and Agence France have become aggressive in enforcing copyrights on news photos – and charge punitive fees for violations, even inadvertent violations where the photo may have appeared on a site claiming the photo is free to use.

Be careful. Avoid race, gender and controversial issues. Also beware of implying an endorsement. Brands sometimes include an image of their product in memes, but if the product is the main focus, the meme becomes an ad. Determine the brand’s risk level and desired tone and voice; create guidelines that all team members understand and follow.

Require reviews. Feedback from friends and colleagues can offer fresh perspectives and worthwhile suggestions. One person can easily make an error in judgment and create and distribute a distasteful meme. Careful proofreading techniques, a review by the social media team or a higher-up can prevent inadvertent miscues.

Be understandable. The strength of memes is their ability to succinctly communicate a common feeling. Obscure images and complex wording will likely fall flat. Irrelevant or unrelatable memes won’t garner engagement. A good meme often hits on a universal feeling or common experience.

Employ proven meme approaches. Successful memes fall into proven categories. Cute animals almost always work. Inspirational quotes attract wide attention. Well-known, but non-controversial, persons are popular. Humor always engages. Free offers often produce enormous response.

Have fun. Lightheartedness is the best approach. “The greatest aspect of meme marketing is that it allows most any company, no matter how staid its typical image, to create something memorable in a spirit of fun,” advises Cheryl Conner, founder of SnappConner PR.

Study other memes. Browse the internet and sample a sizeable number of the most popular memes — especially ones you want to emulate. This will give you an idea of what others have done that’s worked and also give you an idea of how to frame and deliver your humor, points out Matrix Public Relations.

Keep at it. “Don’t be discouraged if your first few memes flop,” Montgomery adds. “Take time to experiment and find out what works best for your brand. When used correctly, memes can be an incredible asset to your marketing strategy.”

Bottom Line: Some brands greatly increase engagement and reach by creating and distributing memes. But ill-conceived memes fall flat. Even worse, they can anger customers and tarnish the brand’s reputation.

This article was first published on Aug. 5, 2019, and updated on Sept. 4. 2020.