The Future of Viral Content

By Gaby Serpa, Behavioural Analyst and Christina Møller Behavioural Analyst, Canvas8.  

Meme marketing is increasingly common – but more often than not, brands’ efforts fall flat as they fail to accurately decipher people’s behaviours online.

The mythos of the self-made human is alive and well, despite societal upheaval testing its limits. People continue to see entrepreneurship as the key to economic freedom. Among younger generations, this manifests itself as an interest in the creator economy, which is worth $250 billion in 2023. Creating shareable content is an attractive prospect – in fact, ‘influencer or content creator’ ranks fourth in Gen Zers’ dream profession.

Today, creating shareable content doesn’t come without its challenges. For brands, attention is hard to command on social media, especially as media consumption habits continue to shift online. It’s about creating moments that invite interaction and engagement – for example, UK supermarket Tesco ran a campaign on TikTok to recruit the new voice of the checkout tills and achieved virality by encouraging users to reply and respond to the Tesco video with their own take on the classic script.

But as brands increasingly enter meme marketing territory, some are struggling to read the room as they try to tap into people’s existing culture and behaviour on social media platforms. In 2022 during the infamous Depp v Heard trial, for example, Duolingo received backlash following a comment on a TikTok unsuccessfully attempting to tap into the viral Depp fandom. Or, take Burger King, who faced accusations of ‘pride-washing’ after it released its Pride Whopper campaign. At the same time, the viral life cycle of a meme has been reduced from months to days, making it increasingly difficult for brands to navigate. But with 56% of Gen Zers regularly sharing a meme with family or friends, it is becoming a form of communication that is impossible to ignore.

Gen Zers are notorious right now for being very into meta irony or cringe humour, and that makes a lot of the memes they produce feel elusive – not only to other generations, but maybe people who aren’t in on the joke. Are memes actually more elusive than they were before? Can you hack meme culture?

Josh Chapdelaine, a digital media producer and strategist, says, “I think it is much harder to hack meme culture than anyone would like to believe.

Josh points to the difference in the #GentleMinions trend, which successfully encouraged those that grew up with Despicable Me to go and see The Minions movie, versus the ‘Summer of Morbius’, which resulted in Morbius memes that made fun of the film’s “It’s a Morbin’ time” catchphrase.

“Even though both of those case studies have a tinge of irony, one represents genuine enthusiasm, and the other represents a company not having a full understanding of what it means for ironic creation. This is where not only authenticity, but also intent, are key. If you can figure out what people are actually passionate about as opposed to ironically passionate about, this is the biggest way to avoid failure,” says Josh.

Understanding that difference is quite a human skill. As the world comes to terms with artificial intelligence (AI), content virality still seems the domain of humanity. ChatGPT can draft meme captions that draw upon ten years of previous content, but what about communicating lived human experience of something that’s happening right now, in a relatable way?

“I don’t want to be a Luddite and say that images generated by AI will not be memetic or viral, but I’m claiming that the whole process of meme creation relies on the creative spark of a human being. So, it will still require intent on the part of the creator,” says Josh.

As we move into a world where AI can easily create what we tell it to, and as social platforms become more fragmented, brands are going to have to create content that appeals to a smaller overall number, but more highly engaged communities. In an AI world saturated with artificially generated content, relatable human experiences will be one of the few things able to cut through the noise.