Just over one week ago, online magazine Digiday published an article with the following headline: ‘Better ROI than Influencers’: Meme accounts attract growing interest on Instagram’. Say what? We all know what a meme is, we follow the accounts built on providing our daily dose of humour and of course, share what we find funny with our friends. However, truth be told we had never paid them much more attention than a like and a laugh, giving our respectful nod to their apt and humorous portrayal of some *tragic* life event that we somewhat could relate to. 

 After a bit of research into the popularity of memes (you may remember that their online popularity surpassed that of Jesus Christ in 2016), we’re intrigued, but not convinced, that they’re truly going to challenge the status of Influencers. In fact, we think this article paints a rather unforgiving picture of marketeers clutching at straws (paper ones at that) to invent new content strategies, claiming the necessity to disrupt brand identities in order to make them more in tune (namely, more funny) with digital audience interaction. With an overarching theme of humour, considering meme-orientated content for a brand is niche and will, in many cases, simply not suit the overall company image. As Influencer Marketing strides into its third year, is something new in the online advertising world necessary? Most probably. Are memes the answer? No. Here’s why. 

Vanity Metrics

If Influencer Marketing was the buzzword in 2017, vanity metrics takes the lead for 2018, with agencies, brands and Influencers forced to look past surface figures and analyse more meaningful statistics both pre- and post-campaign. Gone is the era of big followings dictating talent choice and impressive reach and engagement sufficient enough to denote success. Influencer Marketing is, and should be, data-driven: it requires a comprehensive understanding of where the Influencer’s audience lies and what percentage of that is relevant to your brand; it demands impactful content which ignites initial exploration and drives traffic to site; it needs to be considered a much more long-term strategy sitting alongside several departments, feeding into each of these to support and lead when necessary. 

 So meme accounts, with their mass following and high levels of engagement are much a case of vanity metrics, delivering high followings but of an incredibly broad audience with no overall majority for a brand to truly target. Great for overall reach, but terrible for any business requiring more specific demographics. What’s more, consider the type of engagement they trigger: a like, a laugh and a share, albeit viral ones. Lauren Smeets, talent strategist at Cult LDN, says that “It’s hard for a brand to create the kind of wit that comes naturally to the content creators behind these meme accounts. They are relatable, so they get amazing engagement.” Yes, they’re relatable, but only to one facet of life: the funny side. And we all know that life’s not a continuous stand-up comedy show. If we examine the depth of this engagement, we find that it’s in fact pretty shallow; the content demands very little processing power, with reaction based on a simple yes/no answer to “Do I find it funny?”. And it doesn’t go much further than that. 

How Deep is you Love?

At the end of 2017, sociologist Nicki Lisa Cole explained that “memes that capture the popular zeitgeist are those that are most successful because they are the ones that will capture our attention, inspire a sense of belonging and connectedness with the person who shared it with us, and encourage us to share with others the meme and the collective experience of viewing it and relating to it.” The engagement we commit to with a meme isn’t about the meme itself, but rather the relationship between those with whom we share it. In short, the content is a vessel for the collective experience and our reaction to it is far less about what we see in front of us, and more about from whom it’s come and with whom we can share it next. What that means is there’s no real attachment to the content, but rather it’s to the relationship it represents from its sharers and the memory it recalls. For a brand, this is much more an experiment in association, with a somewhat large degree of luck for viewers to connect the dots and link the meme to the brand presented to them. Effective if achieved, but risky at best.

Keep it General & Subliminal

Successful campaigns using meme accounts have shown a real consideration and understanding of the type of product they can logically partner with. They’re general, less physical and more conceptual, where the product needs to be subtly and subliminally featured, without detracting from the humour of the meme used to portray it.Take Hayu, the online streaming service which partnered with @scousebarbiex to boost brand awareness of the network to be able to view the latest series of KUWTK. The meme wasn’t remotely about Hayu, but it showed part of the video streamed off it to form its content. Why did it work? Because it was extremely subtle, logical and the content didn’t stray too far from organic pieces already on the feed. In essence, it’s the same rules as we preach for Influencer marketing: authentic, relevant content that doesn’t look out of place. Only with meme accounts, do bear in mind that while you’ve got a wider audience, you’ve actually got a narrower theme: humour. And being funny is hard. 

 Where Influencers triumph is through thematic diversity, representing multiple disciplines and humour not being a prerequisite for success. Advice and authority on their chosen content is their USP and therefore your options as a brand are broader for potential partnerships. Don’t get us wrong, Influencers can be hilarious and many have gone down the route of puntastic captions and a good bit of self-mockery. However, opposite to memes, humour isn’t the overarching theme, it’s just a bonus as and when it appears. 

Where Memes Hold Their Value

For all the criticism we fire towards the potential of meme account partnerships, we are conscious that there is value in accounts that command a mass audience and have the engagement to support. A meme is defined, according to evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, by the following three characteristics: copy-fidelity, fecundity and longevity (read ability to be copied accurately, ability to be exponentially diffused and ability to last a long time). In theory, all of these aspects are of huge benefit to a brand if your purpose is reach and engagement and no doubt you will see a solid ROI based on those indicators. However, for sales and traffic, we simply don’t see the possibility of conversion, not least because memes come with no call-to-action other than sharing. 

 If there is a new method of advertising coming, we don’t think it’s going to be memes (sorry Justin), primarily because vanity metrics won’t keep businesses afloat and certainly won’t be sufficient enough to win over the views of the CEO. Yet far from KPIs, we think that the principal message here is that placing an ad on these accounts isn’t necessarily a lesson in awareness or traffic, but one about being ahead of the curve. Meme accounts produce content that a large and broad audience willingly sees on a regular basis, mainly because it’s culturally relevant. Due to its popularity, it’s naturally some of the first content these mass audiences view each day and that’s where accounts such as these hold their value. Regardless of engagement, ads on these will be seen before an alternative source of media, be that a brand account or even an Influencer account. Due to the nature of memes, this content should then be consequentially shared and the viral chain begins, boosting your brand awareness through breadth and repetition to what, in theory, will eventually result in some form of customer engagement. 

Daniela Rogers