What is a meme? Definition, impact, uses

Memes are one of the most popular forms of what’s known as snackable content – that deluge of joke photos, GIFs, and videos that floods your social media feeds every day. The primary goal of this type of content is to convey a clear, immediately understandable message that consumers feel is so entertaining they just have to pass it on. The best memes are recycled and repurposed to make new creations.

Where does the word “meme” come from and what does it mean?

The word “meme”, pronounced “meem” [miːm], was coined by British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in the 1970s. He used the term to describe how information – and, by extension, ideas, and behaviors – spread from one person to another. Meme theory is a controversial topic and is only related to today’s internet phenomenon in that the term “meme” is perfect for describing the viral spread of online content.

So, that’s the historical background. But how is the word “meme” used in everyday language today? Basically, it describes a captioned image that conveys a surprising and/or funny message. The more original the message, the faster the meme spreads because more users share it via social media, messaging apps, and email. Because memes are easy to share and have punchlines that are simple yet funny, many go viral, making them very useful tools for viral and guerrilla marketing strategies.

Types of meme

A meme generally consists of a picture juxtaposed with a short caption. All kinds of images are used. Some of the most popular choices are scenes from famous films, photos of celebrities, and personal snapshots. The caption completes the meme and often puts the image in a completely unexpected context. Sometimes the text is a well-known quote. Other times it’s the poster’s own creation. Either way, the point is to create incongruity between the image and the text. This can be achieved in different ways, but memes usually fall into one of two categories:

  • Humorous: Here the sole purpose of the meme is to entertain. Memes of this kind often make fun of certain people or events or are meant as an ironic comment on the poster’s own life.
  • Satirical: Satirical memes are used to highlight and criticize social, political, or economic grievances.

What are the ingredients for a successful meme?

Like all internet phenomena, memes evolve very fast – hilarious one day, yawn-worthy the next. Successful memes are those that make a place for themselves in pop culture (albeit only for a brief interlude) because they are re-used and repurposed to create new content.

There’s no secret recipe for the perfect meme, but the most successful ones do have a few things in common. Using images from popular films and TV series is one example. If enough people are familiar with the scene or characters depicted, the image will convey a specific emotion or situation. Think of Leonardo DiCaprio raising his champagne glass in a toast as patronizing megalomaniac Jay Gatsby, or Bart Simpson yet again writing lines on the blackboard.

The caption on a meme can either echo the image or stand in contrast to it, but in both cases, it has to be original and surprise people. The greater the response a meme elicits, the more likely people are to remember it and forward it to their friends and family.


If you want to get a feel for what makes a good meme or how humorous or political messages can be successfully conveyed via memes, look at the Reddit or 9GAG sites. You’ll be amazed at how many types of meme you find!

Create your own meme

If you want to get straight to work and create your own memes, you can of course use any image editing program. But to make things even easier, you can use an app to convert familiar images or your own photos into memes. There are countless options out there, both for Android and iOS. Here’s a Top 5 to help you choose:

  1. GATM Meme Generator: This popular app is updated with new templates every day and has lots of image editing features and a helpful live preview mode that you can use while editing. In the paid version you can save memes without a watermark.
  2. 9GAG: 9GAG is one of the most popular meme websites and, as you might expect, it also has an app. The advantage of 9GAG is its huge community where you can share your latest creations. You’re sure to find plenty of inspiration!
  3. Meme Generator: This app has a library of memes and templates divided into clear categories with helpful filters. There are lots of editing options, color schemes and fonts so you can give your memes a personal touch. What’s more, you can save all your memes without a watermark!
  4. Mematic: The free version of this app comes with lots of popular templates and the app is simple and user-friendly. However, if you want a larger choice of fonts and colors, you’ll have to get the paid version.
  5. Meme Factory: With this app you can use videos as well as images to create memes and GIFs, either by uploading your own content or using templates.

All the apps listed above work on the same principle. You choose a template (or upload your own image) and then edit it and add your caption. Once you’ve saved your meme you can post it on your social media accounts directly from the app.

How are memes used in marketing?

Given their potential to go viral, it’s not surprising that memes make great online marketing tools, first and foremost for social media marketing. Of course, no marketing team relies entirely on memes as it’s much too difficult to gauge their success. Nonetheless, memes can be very helpful in storytelling campaigns.

Brands should be cautious however, as the online world is very critical, and companies that try too hard to create viral content will be mercilessly mocked and ridiculed. For marketing memes to work, brands should stay true to their values and principles and always aim to appeal to the emotions of their target audience rather than blindly following the latest internet trend.


When done well and used correctly, memes can significantly boost a brand’s visibility and extend the reach of marketing campaigns. However, it’s important that the picture and message are in line with the rest of the company’s content and image, otherwise things may backfire, and the company’s reputation may suffer.

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