Digital Marketing Lessons from 2011’s Top Memes

QR code all the things

I love memes. They’re simple. They get one point across. They tend to be amusing.

I also like being “in the know” and there’s typically some backstory to the meme that you need to understand for it to make sense. It’s kind of like an exclusive club for the Internet set of us out there.

What I really like about memes is how you can use them to express a really simple concept.

For those of you who don’t really know what a meme is, here’s the official definition (thanks to Google’s handy “define” feature):

An element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, esp. imitation

So, the key feature of a meme is really it’s ability to be passed along from one person to another. Sometimes it’s a joke and sometimes it’s a movement and something far more serious. However, when I look at a meme, I do something different than most people. I try to look for a lesson. I look for the one thing that I can learn from it. I also look at memes and figure out how I can use them to explain something else and to try to better understand human nature.

I’m weird like that.

This is what I’m doing today. I’m going to use the top memes of 2011 to review everything I witnessed as far as digital marketing trends in 2011. There will be plenty of lessons mixed in along the way. Chances are that you haven’t seen or heard of all of these memes (maybe none of them). You might not get some of the jokes, but I’ll do my best to explain them and I’ll point you to the good folks at Know Your Meme to give you even more detail if you want it.

The list of the top 10 memes for 2011 comes from Know Your Meme. They just announced the “winners” based on a survey of its users. The nominees were drawn from the most discussed and mentioned memes of the year. I’ll review them (and tie them to a little lesson about digital marketing) in no particular order (though I saved my personal favorite for last).

Before doing that, you might want to watch Know Your Meme’s 3 minute review and explanation of the “winners”. That might help some of you for a little background on these memes, as some defy simple explanations. I did include a little, written explanation of each meme as well.

So, without further delay…let’s jump right in:

1. “Nope! Chuck Testa.”

Quick explanation:

Nope! Chuck Testa is a catchphrase coined by Californian taxidermist Chuck Testa and filmmakers Rhett and Link. The one-liner became immensely popular after the ad made for his business received massive attention through social news sites like Reddit in mid-September. The commercial features several family members of Testa being fooled into thinking taxidermied animals were alive before being told by the man himself who proclaims “Nope! Chuck Testa.” (source)

For those of you who are a little uneasy about taxidermied (is that a word?) animals, this isn’t going to be a big hit with you. Here’s the commercial created by taxidermist Chuck Testa that started it all:

This video was shared all over the place after appearing on Reddit in September.

The Lesson:

So, what does this have to do with digital marketing? Not a ton except for one line from the commercial:

“I specialize in the most lifelike, dead animals anywhere.”

Chances are that the content you’re creating for all of your digital marketing efforts including what you distribute via social media could best be described by this line. You are doing what you think makes sense to add a little sizzle. You’re trying to make your brand or company seem way more interesting than it really is by following some formula you’ve read about. That is, you’re taking marketing that’s dead and trying to make it lifelike. In the end, you’re really just pretending. This might fool some people from afar, but when they get up close, they’re not happy with what they find.

If you want to make content that isn’t dead, you probably have to do things a bit different. Yes, this means actually investing in content development. It means hiring someone who knows how to produce quality video content (and not necessarily James Cameron). It means that you have to go beyond your “core messages” and tell other stories that people might actually find compelling. Until then, you’re just making content that’s lifeLIKE and not actually alive. Big difference.

There was way too much lackluster content out there in 2011 (and in every year before that) coming from companies. 2012 ought to be the year you vow to change that for your brand.

2. Planking

Quick explanation:

Planking, often referred to as the “planking craze”, refers to the act of lying face down with arms to the sides in unusual public spaces and photographing it to share online. (source)

Rather than describe planking in more detail than this, this is a case where a picture is worth a thousand words:

You’re probably asking “Why?” right now. I don’t know. It’s just one of those things that people do. Sometimes human behavior doesn’t make that much sense.

The Lesson:

But there is a lesson in here for us and it’s a trend in digital marketing that I’ve noticed. There are a lot of hot fads that come and go. Some last for years and others for days. Brands that capitalize on them quickly can be very successful. However, there’s one thing for certain about these fads. They will all disappear. So, while you’re busy planning how to take advantage of one, know that you’re probably too late. You need to be able to react instantly if you plan on playing in the fad arena. You don’t want to be the brand who is talking about planking now any more than you want to be the brand showing off the new branded vuvuzelas you just made (how about that for a 2010 throwback?).

Be prepared to act instantly and not after 3 weeks of legal reviews if you want to capitalize on what’s hot. The other lesson in here is that capitalizing on what’s hot doesn’t always make sense for every brand. Use your head.

3. Occupy Wall Street

Quick explanation:

Occupy Wall Street is an ongoing series of protests in New York City and elsewhere across North America and Europe that seek to resolve socioeconomic inequality and curb the influence of corporate lobbying on Washington politics. Mostly coordinated via social networking services like Twitter and Facebook without a central organizer, the flash-mob demonstration began on September 17th, 2011 and the spirit of protests have since spread across dozens of cities and campus areas in the United States. (source)

You probably have been living under a rock if you haven’t heard about the “Occupy” movement. Usually a cultural movement like this wouldn’t really qualify as a meme, but based on the way it really spread via social media at first probably qualifies it as a meme.

The Lesson:

The lesson here is really simple. More and more brands are embracing social media and using it as one of their key marketing tactics. It pretty much became accepted, standard practice in 2011. However, at the same time, many brands still aren’t doing it right. They refuse to accept the notion that you can’t completely control what happens to your brand once you open yourself up to the world of social media. People aren’t going to do things exactly the way you want. They are going to want to ask questions that make your legal team uncomfortable. They are going to protest when you mess up. They are going to expect that you listen to them. You know…just like real life.

There were plenty of social media screw ups in 2011 (find a bunch of them here) and you probably nervously laughed at the poor companies that tried to recover from mistakes while you secretly hoped that you’d never find yourself in the same position. Knowing that you can’t always be completely in control and having a plan to deal with the unexpected is critical. You never know when a movement like Occupy is going to show up at your front door. You just have to be ready to handle it. I’m still amazed how many companies that use social media regularly aren’t prepared for controversy. Head into 2012 with something different.

4. First World Problems

Quick explanation:

The frustrations of privileged citizens around the world has been a consistently trending topic on Twitter with#FirstWorldProblems, a hashtag used to make light of minor inconveniences that people of advanced societies often complain about, like having too many tabs open or still being hungry after brushing teeth. (source)

Here’s a great example:

The Lesson:

Yep…we’ve all got problems. That includes marketers. However, many of the problems marketers profess about the challenges of selling their brands out in the world come off to many people about as serious at First World Problems. To put it another way, people don’t care about the regulations or your company rules that make it hard for you to, for example, answer their questions on Twitter or cause you to take a month to respond to their email. People don’t want to hear your excuses. They want results.

To compound your troubles, people see other brands in other industries doing innovative things and they wonder why you won’t do the same thing. For example, Starbucks has My Starbucks Idea and solicits ideas to improve people’s experience with their morning coffee. What people then think is this: “If the company that makes my coffee is listening to me and implementing ideas to improve its product, how come the company that makes my HIV drug doesn’t do the same?” Point is, one is much more important than the other and yet you don’t see the latter. You can apply this to many situations and different industries. The takeaway message is that if people see one brand do it, then it becomes an expectation that you do it as well.

Your task for 2012 is to stop complaining and giving excuses and figure out how to do the things that your customers expect you to do.

5. Nyan Cat

Quick explanation:

Nyan Cat is an 8-bit animation depicting a cat with the body of a cherry pop tart flying through outer space. While dada-influenced images like Cat on a Keyboard in Space and Cat Bread have been around for some time, this particular combination of Pop Tart Cat and the Japanese Vocaloid song Nyanyanyanyanyanyanya! has captivated YouTubers and online art communities, spawning dozens of fan illustrations, video remixes and even musical tributes.(source)

Got it?

I’ve got to admit that this one really confounds me as well. You really need to see it in action to “appreciate” it. A bit of warning, after about 10 seconds of this video you’ll either start smiling and laughing or you’ll smash the device you’re watching it on just to stop the noise. Turn up your speakers now.

There you have it. Nyan Cat. I probably should have closed with this one.

The Lesson:

The lesson here is very simple and one that I wish more marketers would learn. Unfortunately, 2011 helped to ensure that this lesson will continue to be ignored by many marketers for the foreseeable future. 2011 brought us viral videos sensations from brands that included the “Darth Vader Volkswagon” commercial, “Doug, Ford’s Sockpuppet”, and the epically annoying (IMHO) “Kia Hamsters”.

When marketers see these along with hearing about the Old Spice Guy for yet another year, they think they can do the same. So, what happens? They go into a room and hatch a plan to create a “viral video.”

I’ll say it again, though I’ve said it about a million times before, you don’t create a “viral video,” if you’re exceptionally lucky your video could become a “viral video.” You don’t decide if it “goes viral,” we do. That’s right…we the people. If we don’t like it and find it shareable, then it’s not going to be a viral video. Sure, you can dump millions into paid media to promote your video and millions more to air it during the Superbowl, but that’s cheating just a bit. You paid for all those impressions. A true viral video is spread on its own just like Nyan Cat. It’s spread because people want to share it with others.

Please resolve that 2011 was the last year you’ll write down “create viral video” as a marketing tactic. Create video content for sure, but don’t expect it to be viral. Make it really good, seed it in the right places, and hope for the best.

6. 60s Spider Man

Quick explanation:

60’s Spider-Man is an image macro series based on still shots from the original Spider-Man cartoon series, typically featuring an absurd internal monologue that correspond with the actions depicted in the images. (source)

Once again, it’s hard to explain why the Internet does what it does. A picture might help a bit.

You’ve got to admit that this is a little funny.

The Lesson:

What makes the 60s Spider-Man memes amusing is the fact that they are typically depict an awkward situation and the intent of the original illustrators doesn’t remotely match what people have added on their own (here are a bunch more).

This is what a lot your digital marketing is like.

It’s a bit awkward. It might not fit exactly what makes sense for your brand and it confuses people. This is especially true when you factor in your social media efforts. The main reason for this is because many marketers don’t take the time to really integrate their digital marketing efforts with all of their other marketing. Again, this comes out with social media, as teams create a “social media strategy” completely in a vacuum while they forget all about the actual brand strategy.

What ends up happening is that you have a brand with multiple personalities disorder. Your brand has a happy-go-lucky, irreverent tone in social media, but a stern and serious personality in your TV commercials. Or your brand is known for fun, but your videos put people to sleep.

It’s all got to match to make sense to people. Your brand needs to have one personality and one voice. Your efforts across all the different marketing channels need to work together. This may mean getting together people that don’t normally review their plans together, but it’s essential to avoid what poor Spidey has to endure. Start out 2012 by really understanding how your brand is represented in every one of your marketing efforts and make it uniform.

7. Rebecca Black

Quick explanation:

The Californian teenage girl Rebecca Black‘s rise to national fame with her autotuned pop single “Friday” was a moment of realization for many aspiring singers and producers: you don’t necessarily have to be the best at what you do to be famous. Originally uploaded in early February, the video began receiving massive exposure on hubsites like YouTube, Twitter and Tumblr after coverage by The Daily What on March 11th, 2011. Within a week, the video gained over 10 million views and the digital single entered the top 100 on iTunes. (source)

This very well might be one of the biggest viral videos of 2011. If the Nyan Cat video didn’t make you laugh or smash something, this will. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you “Friday” from Rebecca Black:

Bob Dyan she ain’t. But that’s okay, we can still learn something.

The Lesson:

This one is going to be hard for many marketers to understand. That’s okay, it’s hard for everyone to understand. Here’s the lesson:

Sometimes bad is actually good.

I think we can all agree that this song is awful. As the top YouTube comment on this video summed up: “This song kills babies in Africa.”

A bit harsh to be sure, but how does Rebecca take all the criticism?

To the bank.

That’s right. By now, she’s basically accepted the criticism and just goes with it (or ignores it). It turns out that it doesn’t matter if people really love your music or think you’re Mozart, it matters if they buy your records. And people did buy Rebecca’s song and made it a top 100 song on iTunes. That’s a lot of 99 cent purchases. The lesson for you, Mr. and Mrs. Marketer is simple: don’t take yourself so damn seriously. If people come to brand because they want to see more of a video you made that they find horrible, don’t immediately pull the plug on your site and take down the video. Figure out if you can, well, turn lemons into lemonade. Have a little sense of humor and people will respond to that. If it moves cases of your product and doesn’t do permanent damage to your brand, then you probably should just go with it.

Lighten up in 2012.

8. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic

Quick explanation:

The epidemic sensation of My Little Pony in 2011 has been both formidable and persistent. Developed by the Powerpuff Girls illustrator Lauren Faust, the largely for-girls show has become an omnipresent fixture in the internet culture, triggering an epic internet fight between pro-bronies and anti-bronies, not to mention the moderates who think ponies are appropriate for only certain situations. Since its on-air debut in October 2010, the series became a popular source material for threadjacking, reaction images, and macro images on 4chan, YouTube and elsewhere online. (source)

On the surface, this meme seems to defy explanation…

Okay, it’s not just on the surface. No logical explanation can make sense of this.

The Lesson:

And, that’s the lesson. Human’s are, for the most part, completely unpredictable. We do our best to predict what a certain person or group of people (our “target audience”) will do or how they will react and we’re usually wrong. On top of this, we are really good at making excuses for why we were wrong, so we quickly forget that we aren’t really good at predicting the future or human behavior. It’s selective memory at its finest.

Yet we’ve built an entire industry around trying to predict human behavior. We call it “research.” We conduct focus groups and commission surveys. We pour over “behavioral trends” and create “personas.” All of this is designed to do one thing: predict the future behavior of a group of people. However, it’s always a group of people that we really can’t understand, that’s still very heterogeneous despite our attempts to lump them together, and that have far less in common than not in common.

And while we might be able to predict how one person might behave, we often fall down when there starts to be more factors. That is, we usually can understand one person, but we can’t ever hope to understand the millions of different interactions experienced by that person in a given day that impact his behavior. We can’t predict the interactions between people. That means we can’t hope to really predict the behavior of a large group. The reason for this is simple. We can’t understand every possible motivation of every individual in the group. We may understand a few motivations of a few people (or even all the people), but we don’t know them all. More importantly, we don’t know which motivations will actually impact their behavior.

When two groups that to all of our research techniques appear identical behave differently from one another, we try to explain this by providing group-level explanations. We might argue that we didn’t realize that one group was richer than the other or less educated or something else. In reality, these are convenient explanations, but probably aren’t right. The two groups could be exactly identical in every way except for one different person in one group. That one person could be one person in a thousand, so it would be impossible to observe him in the crowd. But if that person wanted to incite one group to riot, he might be able to do it. If that same person isn’t in the second group, there’s no riot. Our research would try to explain this after the fact by looking at macro factors when the real explanation is the presence or absence of one person. (For more about this, read up on Granovetter’s Riot Model [PDF]. Also, get the book Everything is Obvious: *Once You Know the Answer, which talks about this concept and our inability to predict the future and explain away our mistakes.)

Okay, so what does that have to do with My Little Pony?


There was no way to predict precisely who this show would appeal to. It was designed and marketed to young girls and yet it found a place with a huge and disperate set of people. How’d this happen and why didn’t “research” predict it? It happened because a few people wanted it to happen. These were people who you couldn’t have identified in research. Their behavior and interactions with others couldn’t be quantified and yet they were the key factor in explaining this phenomenon. Remember that predicting behavior and being able explain why the behavior happened after the fact are very different things. A great quote from Everything is Obvious explains this well: “…our impressive ability to make sense of behavior that we have observed does not imply a corresponding ability to predict it…”

So, when you’re conducting research in 2012, be realistic about what is possible to know. Expect to be wrong. This is okay. Don’t use this an excuse not to do good research. I’m not saying that. Research is stil critical, but be realistic about what it can tell you. To ensure that your plans and product aren’t a failure, you need to recognize the limitations of your research and plan differently. You need to create marketing plans that are flexible and can quickly be adjusted as new information comes in. Take this new information and construct a new hypothesis and then act on this. If your plans are completely inflexible, they have a much higher chance of failing or at least missing big opportunities. Will 2012 be the year of your own “My Little Pony” and will you be ready for it?

9. Scumbag Steve

Quick explanation:

Scumbag Steve is an image macro series featuring a young man with a sideways fitted cap standing in a hallway. As the name suggests, the joke illustrates a wide array of “d-bag” stereotypes from high school and college years, like that guy who borrows your lighter and never returns it. (source)

And the image…

The Lesson:

Okay marketers, this one’s going to hurt, so get ready.

You’re all Scumbag Steve.

All right, not ALL of you, but many of you. I’ve created my own version of the meme to describe the problem:

That’s right. You make these hugely elaborate websites with flashy (literally and figuratively) designs and videos playing and all sort of other bells and whistles. Then you add in a million of your “core messages” and soon enough you’ve created a site that looks great, but is impossible to navigate. It might make sense to you and that’s because you worked on it since day one, but it doesn’t make sense to everyone else and that’s all that matters.

Or you create a great looking site that has a search box, but it doesn’t actually work. It doesn’t actually search the content of your site because you didn’t build it right (the search function or the site). That annoys the hell out of people. Or maybe you have a great looking site with a ton of broken links that lead to uninformative 404 error pages. There’s no reason you should have any broken links on your site. Spend a little less on adding one more flashy element and index your content the right way first. It’s not sexy, but it’s what people need.

There’s a little analytics stat that you can track to measure some of this. It’s perhaps the most misunderstood and, in my opinion, wildly overrated measurement of website performance: time on site. I’ve read goals for major sites from huge brands that have the stated objective of improving “time on site” or increasing it to X number of minutes. Well, here’s some news for you: increasing time on site might not be a good thing. If I come to your site looking for one piece of information, but your site is so poorly organized and difficult to navigate that it takes me 10 minutes to find the answer, don’t pat yourself on the back. Sure, your time on site is really high, but so is your customers’ blood pressure. The reverse is true too. If you make a site that enables people to quickly find what they need and then get on with their lives, your time on site might be really low. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

So, bottom line, fix your site so that it’s easy for people to use. Concentrate on user experience before you worry about design. It’s got to work and make sense for people to navigate first before you make it look great. That’s your mission in 2012…and fix your broken links.

10. X All the Y!

Quick explanation:

“X all the Y” is a snowclone and exploitable cartoon used to make a hyperbolic statement about performing an action. First published in the comic “This is Why I’ll Never be an Adult” (shown above) by illustrator Allie Brosh, she apparently sought to convey frustration with her inability to maintain a consistent enthusiasm for her daily responsibilities. (source)

Here’s the original version of this meme:

I love this one. It allows for so many different uses. People have created thousands of these to reflect all sorts of exaggerated expressions about certain topics.

The Lesson:

I’ve actually created two of these just for the purposes of this lesson. Can you tell what the theme of the lesson is?

And this one…

Figure out the lesson yet?

There was a lot of enthusiasm this year around two things: building mobile apps and putting QR codes on EVERYTHING.

Let’s deal with the mobile apps thing first. If you want to build an app (and chances are you’re only talking about making an iPhone app), that’s fine. But, before you do that, how about taking care of some other things first? Item number one, since we’re talking about mobile, build a mobile version of your website. Forget about making an app, make a mobile site first. That’ll be used far more often by people than your app (more on that in a minute). Building a mobile site might not be the sexy thing to do, but it’s the most practical one that will actually be a benefit to people. And it doesn’t need to cost a fortune either. There are plenty of companies and services that can get you up and running fast with a quality mobile (and tablet) marketing platform. While I’m at this rant, make sure you add a link to the mobile version that lets me view the full version if I so desire. There’s nothing that frustrates me more than being automatically redirected to a mobile site, finding out that I can’t access the info I need, and then not being able to get back to the full version. Don’t do that.

So, you’ve got a mobile site already, eh? Congratulations. Now you want to build an app for your brand. Chances are you this app to prominently feature your brand. That’ll likely guarantee that people won’t download it or use it. People don’t want an app that amounts to a non-stop commercial for your brand. Okay, maybe your app isn’t a commercial. That’s great. However, it does the same thing that a million other apps that people already use do. Again, you’ve just wasted your money. Don’t go down the path of creating an app unless you’re going to create something unique that people really want. That’s hard for many brands to do and won’t work for many. That’s okay. Spend your money elsewhere, there’s plenty of other opportunities out there.

And QR Codes.

It seems like everyone wants to put a QR code on everything. You’ll even put them on billboards. Yes, billboards…alongside a highway. I’m not sure I could devise a more dangerous premise for a billboard than asking someone to slow down in their car, take out their phone, open the QR code reader app,  line up and focus the camera, and snap a picture all while not crashing. Perhaps a billboard that shot high power lasers directly into drivers’ eyes in an attempt to burn the URLs onto drivers’ retinas would be slightly  more dangerous. Here’s a great post from my colleague Bob Gilbreath on this disturbing trend (including photographic evidence in case you don’t think any marketer would be this foolish).

QR codes aren’t the saving grace or marketing holy grail that they have been billed as by some people. It’s a transitional technology that will soon disappear as NFC (near field communications) become more widespread. For all the reasons outlined in this great BI post, I agree that QR Codes are (or should) be on their way out. Here’s a relevant snippet from their post about why these things are terrible:

“Most people, before scanning their first barcode, have to download scanning apps manually and figure out how to use them. Then, each time there’s a barcode to scan, they have to make sure they’re using the right scanning app for the right barcode. That’s because different types of barcodes, like Microsoft’s “Tag” codes, don’t always work in all the same apps. And then there are the inevitable delays in finding the barcode app in your phone, waiting for the camera to prepare itself to shoot photos, getting the right distance and focus on the barcode, and hoping the mobile data network responds to your query quickly enough to be worthwhile.”

Only a tiny minority of people (5%) have ever used a QR code according to Forrester. To put it another way, 95% of people who look at your QR code have no idea or no interest in doing anything with it besides wonder why marketers keep sticking them on things.

Again, don’t expect QR codes to perform some sort of magic for you. If for some reason you still feel compelled to use one, then have it do something that makes sense. My “favorite” is when a QR code points to a website that is made entirely out of Flash and isn’t mobile-ready. I can’t see a thing on my iPhone and you look ridiculous. Also, don’t put QR codes in places like subways where there is no mobile service. I need to be able to access the Internet for your QR code to work. And yet, I find myself on the New York subway and every ad has a QR code on it and I have zero bars of service. Common sense, people.

So, for 2012, use your head and don’t get overly excited about anyone technology or trend. This includes mobile apps and QR codes. I’d also appreciate if you stopped putting QR codes on billboards. My drive home is already dicey enough without the added risk of drivers attempting to actually use these codes.


And there you have it. The year in memes for 2011 all tied to some important lessons for digital marketers.

Did I miss any meme that you think would teach a valuable lesson? Feel free to add it to the comments.


Related posts

One thought on “Digital Marketing Lessons from 2011’s Top Memes

  1. Matt Barry

    Here’s hoping “Tebowing” isn’t the new “Planking” heading into 2012…  Great post Jon.

Comments are closed.