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Adam Burt
Adam Burt

If you’ve been on the internet, then chances are, you’ve encountered a meme.

Memes are small pieces of content, usually humorous videos or images with text over them, that can be easily (and frequently) shared. When things “go viral”, they’re usually memes. Often, people posting memes edit them mildly to add their own twist and additional layers of humour, creating a longer shelf-life that sees some memes live for years on the internet, while others are quickly exhausted and discarded, like so many pieces of content in our modern culture of relatively instant gratification.

Given their low barrier to entry and the undeniable allure of online virality, memes dominate online discourse on a lot of forums. Every social network hosts them to varying degrees. And this attraction isn’t limited to Reddit users making gifs when they should be working, or the latest Tiktok creation sweeping the playground. Memes have influential power, and where there is influence, savvy marketers follow.

It’s tempting to see memes as a childish endeavour. And many of them undoubtedly are. But to discard memes entirely is to ignore an increasingly obvious truth: Memes are more than just funny pictures. They are an effective, streamlined way of sharing thoughts – one that we know has the might to influence our lifestyle choices, what we vote for, who we vote for, who we hate, which charities we support and, yes, what we buy.

So how can this be used for games? Should it be? And what do you do if you’re made into a meme against your will?

A screenshot from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

A screenshot from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, often used as the punchline to a meme.

A shared history

Game culture and meme culture have lots of fans in common, so it's no surprise that some of the oldest and most enduring internet memes include game related content.

From amusing old localisations like "All your base are belong to us" and "A winner is you", through to more recent memes like ones based around how incredibly often the guards in Skyrim refer to taking an arrow to the knee, memes have always found a home on gaming forums and in gaming communities in general.

 

Memes therefore, aren't just significant in the traditional sense, but they're particularly relevant to games and to gamers, particularly those mega fans who voraciously consume videogame content online.

That is to say, there's a lot of potential in this space. Gamers are primed and ready to consume, share, and create memes.

 

With great power...

Marketers always have a responsibility to behave ethically when it comes to influencing people, but meme culture provides extra reasons to be careful.

A meme featuring Steve Buscemi

"It's an older meme sir, but it checks out."

One reason to be wary is the possibility of backfire. Assuming your campaign takes off at all, you quickly surrender it to the whims of the internet hive-mind when dealing with memes. “Viral” implies something that cannot be controlled, and this holds to be true for any campaign involving memetic material.

If your content isn’t perceived as genuine, or tries too hard, or – heaven forbid – uses a meme format incorrectly, then online fans can turn against you quickly. Any use, or engagement with memes, needs to be thoroughly considered.

Another critical aspect of engaging in online discourse is confidence in your own product. The days of marketers being able to control the message in full are long since dead, and nowadays, you can speak about your product… But the public will too.

Meme culture, particularly within the games space, can be devastating in this regard. Sometimes, whether you like it or not, your product can become the subject of ire. It has happened to large studios, it has happened to small studios, and it could happen to you.

A gif from Mass Effect: Andromeda

A gif from Mass Effect: Andromeda, which received a less-than-kind meme reaction upon release

To attempt to avoid this scenario, the best approach is to focus on your product and the clarity of your message. Simply put: 1. Focus on what your game does well, and 2. Be honest about what it is.

It would be remiss of me to ignore the power that memes can have for bad, as well as for good. I mentioned their political power in the introduction, but it’s important to note that what that really means is they have cultural power. Memes are the tinderbox upon which roaring fires like Gamergate could be allowed to burn.

 

In a recent article, VICE looked at how toxicity in the world of online games wasn’t necessarily an accident. It was encouraged, by marketers, and that cultural impact is still with us today. We unfortunately live in a world where punching down in humour is still popular, where a lot of historic gamers feel defensive about the increasing openness of games, and where the cultural impact of that toxicity is still unfortunately felt on all sides of the industry.

As marketers, it could be tempting to jump on one of those bandwagons for an easy win in terms of traffic and engagement. It is undoubtedly tempting to bow to a baying mob when they turn on you. Neither of these are good situations to be in. Practice your company values at all times. If you believe that gaming should be an inclusive space for players of all kinds and abilities, let that be reflected in the content you create.

But memes can be a lot of things. The internet itself has tremendous power for both good and evil, and memes are a fraction of that made manifest. They can be used for scathing satire that speaks to the unspoken. They can make us feel connected and together. And yes, they can make us want to buy things… But sometimes those are things we actually genuinely want.

So how do we begin to interact with this? How can we attempt to harness this power for good?

Content is king

It’s been said before (by smarter people than me) that content is king, and this is especially true when trying to engage with the fast-paced, sometimes impenetrable world of online culture. There are several unique challenges when dealing with memes.

Being funny is difficult. For starters, you may think you’re funny, but your co-workers might just be being polite. What’s more, being funny to your immediate acquaintances is not the same as tapping into something larger, possibly even universal, which is the level of zeitgeist it requires to launch a truly successful meme.

Memes are also uniquely timely compared to most content. While some stick around for months or even years, most fade in a matter of days. Remember the possible backlash I was talking about earlier? Trying to launch a meme that is ancient by the standards of your fans is one sure-fire way of earning one. In that sense, latching onto memes is akin to newsjacking, and requires the same level of finesse (if not more).

To produce good online content in this space, you need an exceptional content team. The critical mission is to react quickly, and humorously, while also staying well within the lines of acceptable risk. The skills required are somewhat like the ones used on topical television shows, where writers behind the scenes write timely quips that the host can pepper into a monologue or throughout the show. The skills to do this effectively, and consistently, are rare. 

There are legal concerns too. While the internet isn’t completely lawless, it is safe to say that there are certain laws that become relatively unenforceable on the internet and for most users, one of those is copyright. A person who takes an image has the right to demand you license an image from them before using it, legally speaking. This fact does little to dissuade the internet at large from re-purposing other people’s content for fun, but the obligation upon you as a marketer is far greater.

For example, a photographer is unlikely to spend time launching legal action against every single person creating and sharing memes based on their work, but they are likely to consider it against a company using it for direct commercial gain – one that should have sound legal advice and presumably has the budget to license images and videos properly.

There have been instances of companies losing or settling these types of legal cases, and it should go without saying that if you’re considering using copyrighted material for your company marketing, then appropriate licensing should be budgeted for and baked into your plan.

So what's a brand to do?

For some brands, the best outcome is not to engage directly with the creation of memes at all, but to maintain an online presence that feels at ease with internet culture.

Most prominently, this comes in the form of ‘human’, ‘friendly’ social media accounts. While these do carry the risk of not coming across as genuine, a successful one can benefit from online behaviour in lots of small interactions, and with the right tone of content, some of those interactions can resonate in memetic ways.

A webcomic about businesses on social media

A webcomic by @dorrismccomics on Twitter

But if that's not enough for you, then let's take a closer look at the world of brand new memes.

Whole new memes

As discussed, memes can spread like wildfire, reaching audiences you hadn’t anticipated in the process. Sometimes, these memes become so abstracted from the original that people might not even realise the meme is about your game at all.

In that sense, you ultimately have very little control over memes about your game once they’ve begun. As we’ve discussed, the best way to avoid disastrous effects is to be consistent in your messaging, but when it comes to memes, nothing is guaranteed.

A recent example of memes working in a game's favour, is Detroit: Become Human, a game which has become the subject of several online jokes.

connor-meme-1connor-meme-2

A couple of Detroit: Become Human memes

What’s good about these memes, for Quantic Dream and the team, is that every time these are shared, even if they’re not directly about the game, they do a pretty good job of explaining what the game is about. They convey that the game is about choices. The stress mechanic is also an actual mechanic in the game. While I’m sure there are a number of memes they would rather not have associated with their brand (for example, a number of Detroit memes reference the increasing suicidality among millennials), overall the memes are having a positive effect on brand awareness.

Now, although Know Your Meme will try, popular memes can be tricky to trace to the source. They may spring from an ephemeral platform like Snapchat, spread through encrypted platforms like WhatsApp, or the original creations may be buried underneath huge volumes of similar content. But what we tend to not see, at least not as a matter of public record, is many memes being originally generated by a company that stands to benefit. For all the reasons I mentioned earlier.

That isn’t to say that it hasn’t happened. But creating a popular meme is as potentially futile as telling your marketing team to “make it go viral”. It’s not always up to you, and there is a certain element of lightning in a bottle about harnessing this kind of virality.

For most marketers, even those who want to generate memes, the best bet is to encourage and foster a community, and contribute to it positively with your own content without having any specific expectations of any individual piece of content reaching meme status. Your goal is simply to create things that resonate, and encourage your fans to make things too.

Netflix run several accounts which share memetic content about their content

Help, my product is a meme

Sometimes, our products can be memed against our will. Strangely enough, the advice we would provide is similar to the thinking we provide to people thinking about getting into memes: Focus and honesty.

Many memes are harmless fun, and if you end up being part of that, then it's probably best just to enjoy the ride as best you can and remain grounded: Keep your focus on your good work, and be honest with yourself about whether the meme is really all that bad in the grand scheme of things. But not all memes are harmless. Some are direct criticism and can impact sales, as we've discussed. At their worst, they can be deeply hateful.

No amount of counterarguments (or copyright takedowns) can quell a meme-powered PR fire, but two things can help. The first is simply to focus on your game itself. Focus on the great product you've been building, and want to continue building. If you feel the criticism being leveled at you is fair in some respect, you can dedicate some work to fixing it. Don't feel the need to announce it unless you have to, because at those early stages, people likely won't listen anyway. But in the long term, people will appreciate what you have accomplished for them. If you don't think it's fair, then stick to your guns and maintain your course as best you can.

At some point (usually long, long after the worst has died down), you will probably need to speak to the media again, and start posting on social media again. A deft approach which is honest but does not dwell, and avoids any direct kowtowing to the worst elements of society is the best approach. Speak positively about the work you've done and the future for your game. Having a professional PR team help you navigate this tightrope can be helpful.

Spread the word

What about the opposite? What can you do to boost the reach of your positive memetic content? You have options here.

One option is astroturfing, the dubious practice of masquerading (or paying others to masquerade) as legitimate fans of your ideas or products. This happens on Reddit a lot, where visibility is usually a matter of luck and timing, dependent mostly on a critical surge of “upvotes” to stand any chance of popularity. By astroturfing, you effectively game the system into achieving greater visibility for your posts, and if done successfully, they seem authentic and have a better chance of really taking off.

That said, it is at best, a liberal interpretation of the rules of fair play, and carries major risks. Many companies take this route. Many of them are extremely successful. But they are against the rules of most major communities, and if discovered, can cause an extreme backlash against your brand.

The simplest and safest way to increase your reach is to invest in a paid social media strategy, which helps put your content in front of more people. That isn't to say that paid posts are a substitute for good content, because they aren't. Always start with the production of great copy, fantastic images and engaging videos, and then use paid media to increase momentum on what works.

Quite simply, if something works for the people you’ve shown it to so far, showing it to more people (within reason!) is probably a good idea. Getting started with paid social can be done with relatively small investments of money, and can provide excellent returns – it should be part of your marketing strategy, regardless of whether you want to get into the world of memes. But when you have a functioning social media presence, the time may be right to strike with content that is a little bit more weird, a bit silly, and dare I say: A little more human than what you’ve shared before.

An example meme advertising God of War's release

One of several memes created by the team behind God of War. This particular one is inspired by Brent Rambo and celebrates the launch of the game

In conclusion

Memes have become one of the most influential tools of the information age, and for marketers, the opportunities are huge. But riding the waves of online culture is undoubtedly hard work. To succeed in this space, yes, you should pay heed to the mistakes others have made. But with the right strategy, your fans will thank you.

1. Invest heavily in the planning and creation of content. Be authentic, and if you can, be entertaining. 

2. Always support your content with a measured approach to organic searches and paid media.

3. Your community is your biggest asset, so facilitate and encourage them as best you can.

4. Profit!

Thanks for your time! That post was nearly as long as this cat. At Etch Play, we help games businesses think about, plan and execute on their extended experience. That means delivering value to players beyond the traditional boundaries of a game. You can find out more about our offering at etchplay.com/work.

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