Memes are cultural units, such as ideas, values or patterns of behavior that are passed from one person to another. While the majority of memes are short-lived (examples include fads, viral videos, or even most news stories), other memes manage to snowball, living on indefinitely and frequently acting as precursors to cultural shifts or new trends. A couple recent examples of memes are rick rolling, Obama’s Hope Campaign and the puppy cam.
Product marketers can learn a lot about how messaging spreads simply by reverse engineering popular memes.
As a marketer, it’s rare to come across the opportunity to work on a project or campaign where the underlying memes are powerful enough to result in a cultural shift. However, startup marketers are in a unique position. Because we aim to solve specific pain points, our memes tend to elicit excitement in a way that the latest deodorant, for instance, does not. So how can we use this technique of reverse engineering to advance our own products and messaging?
Let’s take a look at the rise of Twitter, a fascinating phenomenon that has gone from anything but mainstream to become a featured technology in the latest Presidential race, help change the face of news and become a must-have at media events such as the Grammy’s.
The concept of limiting a message to 140 characters and then publishing it publicly is a complete departure from conventional communications (even more so than say use of Facebook). Nevertheless, Twitter’s penetration into the daily lives of the average American is truly extraordinary. How did this happen? How did such a bizarre technology with a funny name manage to be written about in the New York Times, used by the current President of the United States and featured nightly on CNN?
It all starts with building traction. Successful memes are able to build a foundation for buzz, create a snowball effect and spread virally across connected networks. Rather than trying to re-invent the wheel with new marketing campaigns and tactics, marketers can use the technique of reverse engineering to, for example, consider the attributes that allow for rapid uptake. Using this knowledge, we can then engineer products and business models better positioned for getting traction.
The following attributes are those I believe central to Twitter’s success as a meme:
-The Present. Twitter is a phenomenon occurring right now, not something theoretical or off in the future
-Tangibility. Anyone can try Twitter; it is a real, tangible product available to any person with web access
-Accessibility. Twitter is free and simple to use. It also inherently lends itself to a viral spread (by default tweets are public and indexed in Google)
-Uniqueness. Twitter is in fact “different.â€�Â It’s not the Zune following the iPhone. This uniqueness helps promote people’s talking about it
-Hierarchy of Need. For many people Twitter is a tool that appeals to the highest of the Maslow’s hierarchy: Self-Actualization
-Enablement. Twitter is a platform that enables other things; it is not simply an end solution. Twitter’s API allows for the creation of other niche applications, that appeal to the long tail and reinforce many of the other attributes
If you think of other attributes I am missing, please add them in the comments…