The dos and don’ts of marketing with memes

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Meme (pronunciation: meem) noun

  1. A piece of media, usually a captioned image, spread around the internet with slight variations for comic effect.

Memes epitomise how today’s internet users like to consume media. They’re quick and easy to understand, sharable, funny, and create a sense of community with their ‘in-jokes’. They also integrate themes from popular culture, and share pithy commentary on modern life and current affairs.

Zoolander meme

All of these characteristics make them the perfect online marketing medium. But don’t head to a meme generator just yet. Internet users are savvy, and don’t appreciate brands’ thinly veiled attempts to get ‘down with the kids’. If you want to earn their respect and thus their custom, you need to learn meme etiquette.

DON’T: Miss the boat

In the digital age, yesterday’s news can be so last year. As people get instant updates on social media, memes are created and shared within seconds. Post something more than 24 hours later, and it’s probably been done before — and people are sick of seeing the same jokes on their feeds.

But it’s not just the topic that you need to ID for age: you’d better check the meme is still in fashion. Post a meme past its five minutes of fame, and people will think you’re out of touch; they might not even get the joke any more.

The Gotye meme, based on the hit song Somebody That I Used To Know, is a great example of this. This Google Trends graph shows how its popularity correlated with the song’s chart position.


And look at LOLcats. They were once the internet’s sweethearts, but kitties with poor spelling and grammar skills are no longer in vogue. Forget Happy Cat. We’re more into Grumpy Cat these days.

If you want to stay on top of trends, you need to keep an eye on the communities. Lurk on Reddit (especially r/funny and r/adviceanimals subreddits), or check out the most popular meme generators on Imgur.

DO: Use good English

My mantra that good English is good business extends to any meme you create for marketing. The comedic effect of purposefully poor grammar, as with LOLcats, has been and gone.

DON’T: Get the meme wrong

The cardinal sin of the internet: getting a meme wrong. The whole point in a meme is that a common theme is replicated, so if you don’t use the right phrase or image, people won’t be impressed. You’ll look like a marketer desperately trying to leech off a meme’s popularity, rather than someone who wants to join the community and contribute something entertaining.

You don’t want to see this Zoidberg meme response, so do your research on Know Your Meme before posting anything. That should help you avoid newbie mistakes like using the Malicious Advice Mallard rather than Actual Advice Mallard image.


DO: Be funny, but appropriate

Memes will go down like a lead balloon if they’re not funny or clever, but you have to keep your audience and brand image in mind. That’s another reason you need to thoroughly research the underlying context of memes — to prevent inadvertently associating your brand with something inappropriate.

DO: Promote sharing

When memes are part of a blog post or similar, attach social buttons to make sharing easy. This should generate links that drive traffic and deliver SEO value. As stand-alone content, memes have huge social benefit. Share them properly on the right platforms, and you should see engagement rocket. Then who’s da real MVP?

Facebook is the best place to start, as viral memes often pick up their pace here. ‘Likes’ and ‘shares’ will spread your content, brand name and potentially a link beyond your fan base. They also, along with comments, create positive social signals that are good for SEO.

Tumblr and Pinterest are great if you don’t have many followers, as proper tagging/categorisation gives your posts exposure in the wider community. Instagram and Twitter #hashtags work in a similar way, showing your content to audiences who haven’t specifically signed up to hear from you.

I’d recommend staying away from Reddit, as the community is famously critical of marketing. Just look at subreddit r/HailCorporate, where users criticise posts that act like adverts — even when they weren’t paid for or submitted by marketers.

DON’T: Stop believing

Just remember, even when you follow the etiquette, not every meme will go down a storm. Be patient and experiment to see what your target audiences respond well to.

Has your brand ever marketed with memes? What were the results? Leave a comment below!


Meme image origins: Screencap from 2001 movie Zoolander; Slowpoke character from Pokémon; screencap from Gotye’s Somebody That I Used To Know music video; Happy Cat picture thought to be first posted to Something Awful forums by user FancyCat; Grumpy Cat pictures first posted to Reddit by Bryan Bundesen; screencap from Bjork’s Triumph of the Heart music video; screencap from Futurama TV show; Associated Press; Associated Press image edited by Reddit user TEmpTom; image thought to be first posted to Reddit by user walrusmeats; Success Kid photograph taken and shared by Laney Griner; screencap from Toy Story 2 movie; screencap from South Park; screencap from Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.


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