An Introduction to: Memes and Memetics for Marketers

Understanding the Science of Memes


If I say the word “meme” around a group of web savvy people, the first thing that will come to most minds is an image macro–a photograph overlayed with funny text. A sort of meta inside joke that gets passed around the internet. Things like Good Guy Greg, Success Baby or Grumpy Cat. And while it’s true those are examples of what the word “meme” really means, they’re a very small subset of the greater definition.

An understand of the larger context of memetics–the science of memes–is useful for marketers interesting in creating content in a socially connected environment. So I’ll aim here to present to you an introduction to the field that you can use to make more contagious content.

First coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, the word meme is a neologism derived from the Greek mimeme, meaning “to imitate.” The book was a study on a biological evolution from the point of view that genes succeed at replicating not because they are good for their carriers, but because they are good at replicating, hence “selfish.” He postulates that ideas can also spread and evolve in this same way, describing memes as “units of cultural inheritance.”

A meme is defined as an idea that can be spread from person to person. From simple examples like songs, jokes, recipes, urban legends, fairy tales to complex examples like religions and languages. A meme is a mind virus. It enters your brain through exposure from communication, is retained there and eventually begins to replicate by transmitting to other people through you.

The first important distinction that must be made about memes is that they do not spread because they’re “good” or “funny” or “helpful.” They spread because they’re adept at spreading. There are plenty of examples of good ideas that go nowhere and bad ideas that spread like wildfire. A favorite example of mine is Rebecca Black’s Friday video. A terrible, terrible song that was very good at being contagious.

Perhaps the most notable book-length work on the topic is Susan Blackmore’s Meme Machine. In it, she attempts to standardize the vocabulary by which researchers can discuss memes, including terms like memeplex for a complex co-evolving system of memes (like a religion). The titular argument however is that humans are evolved to be memetic replication machines. Our large brains are extremely costly from a developmental point of view and developed in response to our use of language to spread ideas.

The world around you is built from memes. Everything you see, touch or do is a contagious idea. The chair you sit in, the computer you’re reading this on and the job that pays your bills all would not exist if someone did not have the idea to create it and that idea caught on and spread. This is true for the good things, as well as the bad things. The history of mankind is the history of contagious ideas.

Blackmore also enumerates three traits that determine the success of a meme: fidelity, fecundity and longevity.

Fidelity is a measurement of how accurate each new copy of a meme is to it’s original version. On the web, with the ability to copy and paste links and send exact duplicates of content, fidelity is typically very high for most memes.

Fecundity is the number of new copies each version of a meme typically makes. Memes that include some sort of “pass this along” instruction are often the most fecund. An easy example are social media contests that require retweeting or sharing a piece of content as the entry price. As marketers, we can measure the fecundity of our content simply by using social metrics, such as the aforementioned retweets and shares.

Longevity is the length of time each person typically interacts with a given meme. Ephemeral content like simple jokes and image macros generally only stay with a given user for a short period of time. More complex memes like social group identities including religions and various fandoms, often score higher on the longevity scale. Building in a reason to return to your content can help boost it’s longevity.

Applied Memetics

A specific branch of memetics, applied memetics, further reverse engineers the ingredients of a successful meme. Francis Heylighen’s work asserts four stages of a meme’s lifecycle: assimilation, retention, expression and transmission. At each stage he cites a variety of characteristics that determine success.

Objective Subjective Inter-Subjective Meme-Centered
Assimilation Distinctiveness Novelty, Simplicity, Coherence Authority, Formality Self-Justification
Retention Invariance, Controllability Coherence, Utility Conformity Self-Reinforcement, Intolerance
Expression Expressivity Proselytism
Transmission Publicity Proselytism

A handful of of Heylighen’s criteria are particularly useful to marketers:

Authority: Ideas that come from people or groups considered trusted experts are more likely to be contagious as people are more apt to believe them. As marketers it is valuable to position ourselves and our brands as uniquely qualified experts in our given niche. If you cannot be the most authoritative source on a wide topic, pick a distinct and narrow focus and own that.

Distinctiveness and Novelty: If we want our idea to be contagious it must be unlike others that already exist. Again it is useful if our content comes from a unique point of view. If our messages are the same as everyone else in our space, they will not spread.

Simplicity, Coherence and Conformity: Contagious ideas must have an internal logic that makes sense, and they should be easy to understand. They should also “fit” with ideas already present in the mind of the audience. While you should be presenting novel content, be sure to draw context around it that makes it easy to understand and situate in the existing landscape of your space.

Proselytism: Ideas that include instructions to spread them are more likely to be contagious. Social calls-to-action like this can increase the fecundity of a meme. I’ve researched and written extensively about them and I believe they are the easiest way to increase your social success almost immediately.

A final element from the field of applied memetics that is useful to communications professionals it the concept of a vaccime–a memetic vaccine. A vaccime is a meme or memeplex that is designed to confer resistance or immunity to other memes. An example would be conservatism or orthodoxy, which traditionally mean a rejection of all new memes.

Brands dealing with negative news or rumors would do well to experiment with this. In the case of a false rumor, the easiest vaccime is simply the truth, released from an authoritative source as soon as possible. A more complex example would be Apple computer’s diehard fans and their resistance to lower cost, and higher performance non-Mac options.

Memetic Math

A great deal of metaphor and model for memetics is taken from epidemiology, the study of infectious diseases. As marketers, there is one element that is particularly useful to us: R0 (pronounced: R Naught). R0 is the reproduction rate of a pathogen (or in our case a meme). It is the number of new cases each individual instance of the idea will create. It is the epidemiological metric for fecundity.

If I have a cold and I give that cold to two people and each of them give it to two more people, the R0 of that cold is two (or 200%). The R0 of most biological pathogens is above one, but I’ve never found a meme with a sustained R0 above one. Given a large enough population and a long enough time, the R0 of every idea falls below one and the idea stops spreading.

To match the pattern I’ve seen with most memes (and borrowing from Heylighen’s stages) I’ve studied I came up with a model I call Zarrella’s Hierarchy of Contagiousness. The hierarchy represents the three things that must happen before an individual can spread a given piece of content or idea. First, they have to be exposed to it (following you on Twitter or a fan of your page on Facebook). Second, they have to actually become aware of that content (I follow thousands of people on Twitter and don’t see anywhere near everything they Tweet). Third, and finally, they must be motivated by something in that content to share it.

We can use this model and apply some back-of-the-napkin style conversion percentages to see how an idea can spread. If you have 10,000 followers on Twitter and you Tweet to all of them, you are exposing 100% of them to your content. (The exposure rate is 100% for most platforms, but for some, like email, you can segment your audience and only send to a small percentage). Let us assume 1% of them actually read your Tweet (an educated guess at an awareness rate based on observed click through, ReTweet and reply rates). That means your Tweet has the chance to motivate 100 people to ReTweet it. Assuming it succeeds with 1% of those users (another educated guess), your content will get one ReTweet.

My third book details this model and reviews ways to optimize for success at each level, to increase the R0 of the content we’re creating.

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