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Memetics and the Value of the Viral Engine

Why Your Marketing Strategy Should Include Person-to-Person Viral Transmission and Behavioral Ecology

By Olivia L. DobbsPublished about a month ago 7 min read
Image Credit: Alejandra GD. Support her here ->

A successful marketing strategy is a misleading beast, one that seems easy to tame at first glance. With a wealth of online resources, one can feel as if every strategy has already been done, and all that’s left to do is pluck them from other sites and implement them. But, even with great effort, knowledge, and budget, making an impact on audiences can prove nearly impossible, resulting in thousands of social posts left unengaged with, unread emails, and wasted money. Even the best-laid marketing plans often go awry.

But, there’s a way to break out of this cycle of reusing listicle strategies and recommended best practices, and the solution stems from a surprising discipline: Evolutionary Biology. And, though it has been understood by biologists for decades, many in the marketing field have not yet formally implemented it into their practice.

Read below to discover how you can use the science of behavior and evolution to improve your ability to market.

What Is Memetics?

Before diving into the intersection, let’s begin with the basics. In the realm of cultural evolution, memetics refers to the study of how cultural ideas, behaviors, and information spread and evolve like the way genes propagate in biological evolution. Coined by British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book "The Selfish Gene," the term "meme" is used to describe units of cultural information that are transmitted from one individual to another through imitation, communication, and replication. You’re likely more familiar with this term than memetics.

In the context of memetics, a meme can be anything from a catchy phrase, a fashion trend, a melody, a concept, or even a behavior pattern. Just like genes in biology, memes are subject to variation, selection, and adaptation over time. They can become more or less prevalent in a culture depending on factors such as their appeal, usefulness, or ability to spread effectively. Consider how rapidly in your own time the “status quo meme” format has changed. If you’re over the age of 20, you saw a recent transition from image formats to audio clips, for example.

The study of memetics helps us understand how cultural ideas and behaviors spread within societies and how they shape the collective mindset. It also provides insights into the mechanisms of cultural evolution and the influence of communication technologies, such as the internet and social media, in accelerating the spread of memes across populations.

What is The Viral Engine?

Now for the other piece of the puzzle. The Viral Engine of Growth encapsulates a dynamic mechanism through which products, services, or ideas spread rapidly and exponentially within a population, much like the way viruses proliferate in biological systems. This concept is often used in the context of business, marketing, and technology to describe a strategy that leverages the existing user base to promote and share the offering, leading to its widespread adoption.

In the context of business, the Viral Engine of Growth essentially relies on the power of word-of-mouth, social sharing, and network effects to propel a product or service's reach. When an existing user of a product introduces it to others, and those newcomers in turn become users who also refer it to more people, a viral loop is formed. This loop drives exponential growth, as each new user brings in multiple others, creating a cascade effect that mirrors the rapid spread of a contagious virus.

Social media platforms, apps, and online services often harness this viral engine to rapidly expand their user bases. The ease of sharing information and recommendations through digital networks amplifies the effect, allowing a product to gain traction and achieve widespread adoption in a relatively short period. Notable examples include the growth of platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp, and TikTok, where users inviting their contacts to join the platform led to explosive growth.

TLDR; the "Viral Engine of Growth" is a metaphorical representation of how momentum builds through interconnected networks, echoing the way biological viruses replicate and spread. It underscores the immense power of social interactions and interconnectedness in driving rapid and substantial growth in various domains.

Memetics and the Viral Engine - Fitting the Puzzle Pieces Together

Understanding marketing and being successful at it requires an endless fascination with people, their behaviors, and what’s in the collective consciousness. That’s where the two above ideas overlap.

You must have a profound sense of the cultural Zeitgeist of your target group - empathizing with the thoughts trending within a subsection of society. But you also must have the skills to replicate those thoughts in such a way that feels organic to them, and not just a rehashing of other people’s content. Despite your understanding of audience pain points and keyword searches, we now live in an environment where, to get ideas to stick and be viral, the way they are delivered is as important as the content itself.

Note that memetical marketing only works when it’s genuine, or indiscernible from genuine content. Moreso, the viral engine you engineer won’t travel far, let alone virally if it doesn’t tie into memetic principles. A poor piece of marketing material, whatever the medium, will stick out like a sore thumb and remain ineffective amongst the consciousness stream that is the internet. People these days have an excellent sense of when they're being advertised to, or being manipulated to purchase something you're selling and, with the amount of content being produced every minute, will only spend time interacting with the best of it. Your content must genuinely fit in, not just appear to fit in, with the value that users are searching for.

Unearthing the Value: The Memetic Engine

Knowing the information I mentioned above is all well and good, but harnessing memetics for viral growth is where the money is. The implementation involves strategically creating and sharing culturally resonant memetic content to amplify the reach of a product, service, or idea. To accomplish this, you must understand your target audience and also their target experience. In this, you must traverse beyond the traditional marketing strategies.

Once you get an inkling of a trend and format that will work for your target, strike fast. As soon as you notice a new method is working, a proverbial timer has begun ticking down. The first few instances of memetic content will feel genuine to a viewer but, as more and more marketers catch on, viewers will see it replicated in a million ways - and the meme will be less effective.

A phenomenal example of this occurred in early 2023 when companies repurposed Maxwell the Cat as a marketing strategy.

When the first marketers posted a TikTok of their companies’ buildings with this trend, it captured a huge audience. The marketers here did something beyond what marketing has traditionally done - focusing on humanizing the marketing workers who were producing the marketing content, establishing them as forward-thinking, funny, young folks, and then using their personalities as a multiplier to increase brand awareness. The posts went viral. People loved the idea of a marketer providing a meta look into their job - it made the viewers not feel like the company was an "other", but that this worker was part of their in-group. The post made it feel like the community was collaborating in support of not some random corporation but, instead, of real people whose success in an effort was tangible.

But the trend died fast, and slower-acting marketing teams attempted the trend too late:

Notice, as it replicated, the effectiveness began to taper off. The early adopters of this trend were able to replicate it successfully but, as more and more people caught on, it felt less and less genuine. Instead of the early adopters, who felt like "Hey folks, I'm trying a silly thing for my marketing job. Wanna help it work?", the late adopters began to feel more like, "Hey, I saw that other marketers got this to work. What about me and my brand?" It transitioned from cool, funny, and self-aware to formulaic, predictable, and old-fashioned in the span of a couple of weeks.

Modern Memetical Marketing moves lightning fast.

Our voyage through the convergence of memetics and the Viral Engine of Growth has unveiled a tapestry woven from the strands of cultural evolution, strategic dissemination, and human connection. We stand on the cusp of an era where ideas can traverse continents in a heartbeat, where memes become the currency of communication, and where each individual becomes a node in a vast network of viral transmission.

As we reflect on the interplay of these forces, it becomes evident that the realms of culture, communication, and consumer behavior are undergoing a transformative shift - one led by an incredible evolution by the rapid advancement of technology. The fusion of memetics and the viral engine brings us face-to-face with the exponential potential of today's interconnected world.

So, armed with insights into the alchemy of memetic propagation and the orchestration of viral growth, let us tread thoughtfully. Let us craft narratives that uplift, spark conversations that resonate, and create ripples that lead to positive change. In this dynamic nexus, where memetics meets the viral engine, lies an opportunity to shape the course of information, influence, and innovation in ways both profound and lasting.

pop culturesocial mediasciencehumanity

About the Creator

Olivia L. Dobbs

Science Enthusiast, Naturalist, Dreamer.

Check out my science! ->

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