In 2016, a Facebook group called “UC Berkeley Memes for Edgy Teens” had more than 100,000 members from around the globe, including many who had never laid eyes on the university.
A saucy meme would be uploaded to the Facebook group, and in a matter of minutes would garner tens of thousands of engagements from members who would tag their friends, flagging it as hilariously relatable. What was all this about?
Internet memes are memorable pieces of media, often containing jokes, which spread virally across the web through likes, tags, and follows, capable of reaching thousands of social media users within minutes.
When 22-year old Nancy – who asked to go by her first name – started her Instagram page @HKMehMeh in late 2017 from her flat. She did not expect the response she received.
A self-proclaimed token expat, Nancy graduated from the University of Hong Kong last fall with a degree in English Education and Linguistics. Her Hong Kong memes are textbook inside jokes—ones that only those who live or have lived in Hong Kong can relate to.
But in the short span of a year, @HKMehMeh has increased its following to 11.500 followers, becoming a hub for expatriates and other English-speakers to connect over the quirks of living in the city.
Lim’s creations are far from trite clichés. Her most popular meme to date with the highest engagement rate is the “Hong Kong 1 room for HKD 17K”, which pokes fun at inflated real estate prices with an image of a makeshift room the size of a Barbie dollhouse.
“Choosing an English name” is the uncontested leader for highest number of comments, a gag at the names local citizens choose for themselves, which often involve fruit.
Memes have those from their teens to their mid-20s staying awake past midnight scrolling away in their beds, but they leave others wondering what exactly about the Arial font and drag and drop Shutterstock photos strikes such a common chord with millennials.
To understand Lim’s Hong Kong memes, you need a sharp sense of Reddit-like satirical humour. In other words, you have to be fairly young, English-speaking, and abreast of social trends.
Balancing between hypercritical humour and self-deprecating irony, internet memes have become Generation Z’s vehicle for social critique and self-expression.
With universities in the United States now offering academic courses on the impact of meme culture on the way Generation Z communicates and forges relationships, advertisers are now using memes to deliver marketing messages to consumers in a way which blends in with the information they consume for fun.
For Lim, this means opportunities to turn something that started out as a hobby into a source of revenue down the line, but only if utilised in a “meme”-ingful way.
“I see a lot of companies that are failing to communicate in an efficient way with younger folks,” says Lim. “That’s because brands usually go in for the hard sell, making memes out of context, which feels a little contrived for the sake of marketing.
“Memes have to be timely, topical and transparent. They cannot be forced and they have to be organic. If people can tell you’re just trying to cash in on the popularity of memes, it just won’t work.”
Instead, Nancy suggests that brands looking to disrupt traditional advertising carefully aim their content towards their target audience.
“If you are planning on adding memes into a marketing mix, I would suggest using memes to draw traffic. Use memes to get your brand out there by engaging with people who fit your ideal audience.
“Look at whether they’re posting memes and if they are, what style of memes they share. Then spark conversations on your page and get your name showing up in more people’s newsfeeds. As long as the meme is relatable, funny, attractive, and above all, natural to cut through the noise, I’m sure your brand will be the talk of the town in no time.
“Although it is too soon to tell whether memes will yield much marketing success, as long as you tread carefully, it is definitely a fun, topical way to harness the power of social media.”
To date, Nancy has worked for several local brands, including WOAW, Barebells, SUDIO, and Dova. In marketing speak, this sort of partnership is called key opinion leader or KOL marketing.
“Partnerships are important in marketing because you are able to reach not only your database but also theirs as they are talking about you. You are reaching out to their network in an organic way,” says Sarah Vee, co-founder of Highlight Asia.
Started in 2017 by co-founders Sarah Vee and Genna Soh as an alternative to their jobs in well-known PR firms, Highlight Asia boasts a portfolio of brands who engage them to market their products to niche groups.
“Nowadays in order to reach millennials, brands need to understand that they need to market with people as opposed to at them,” says Vee. “Being able to collaborate with KOLs and influencers really makes a difference.”
After more than a decade in PR and marketing, Vee and Soh believe that user-generated content leads to higher engagement rates. “User-generated content is well known in the marketing world,” explains Vee. “Instead of telling the story yourself, you let the millennials tell the story for you.”
With the rise of content streaming and sharing social media platforms, user-generated content has made its way into successful marketing campaigns from Nike’s #AirMaxLine to Aerie’s #AerieReal.
Brands looking to disrupt traditional advertising and break into new markets can no longer ignore the writing on the wall: creating campaigns which allow users to generate their own viral social media content may be their biggest challenge yet.