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“Meme” is a word that gets thrown around a lot and I’ve run into a surprising number of people who don’t understand what a meme is.  According to the fine people editing Wikipedia, a meme is ‘an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.’  A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures.” Frankly, this definition sounds a lot more highbrow than the content of most memes would imply.  In most day-to-day life, internet memes are funny things you find on the internet that follow the same theme and aren’t necessarily cultural symbols worthy of anthropological study, but can become viral messaging tools and opportunities for brand engagement.

For example, the catchphrase “binders full of women” from the debate a few days ago has turned into its own meme, complete with amusing tumblr blog (bindersfullofwomen.tumblr.com), Facebook posts, Pinterest pins, Twitter posts, and mainstream news articles.  Other examples include, the “ermahgerd” girl with head gear and her Goosebumps books, the Dos Equis spokesman (the most interesting man in the world), Condescending Wonka, complete with condescending picture of Gene Wilder from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory; the list goes on and on.

If you hear about or see a particular meme, but you don’t quite understand it, check out http://knowyourmeme.com/.  This place is the encyclopedia of all things meme.  It’s a fantastic resource to boost your pop culture reference base.  Don’t get left out of a discussion anymore when friends are talking about amusing pictures found on Facebook or Pinterest.

When it comes to internet marketing, memes are frequently used or employed to capitalize on those who understand the memes and make themselves appear relevant, particularly when targeting younger audiences.  For example, in the last three days, I have seen two different advertisements that exploited the binders full of women concept.  Kiva.org posted an image to their Facebook page that said “We have binders full of (loans for) women” with an image of a woman farming.  Kiva.org is a microloan organization that provides very small loans to entrepreneurs in developing nations to help them help themselves (ie buy an ox to improve agricultural output) and their target audience is web-based and likely to respond to this meme.  Spirit Airlines also had binders, but in their binders were low-cost airline tickets.  As many memes can be, these do have a somewhat polarizing effect and can backfire.  However,  when used wisely, it can create a relevant, funny, engaging, and viral piece of messaging ideal for the web.

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