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To meme or not to meme? A case study on the use of memes within an Instagram strategy

Earlier this year, as a part of my postgraduate degree, I developed a research paper on the use of memes within a brands’ Instagram strategy. For a while now, brands have leveraged the widely familiar and readily accessible nature of memes to bulk out social media content – particularly across Facebook and Instagram.

For clarities sake, I’d like to define what memes are in this context: I’m talking about images that often draw on popular culture or relatable situations or feelings, and are usually rich with sarcasm or attitude. They can be an image paired with text or a simple text graphic.

Still unsure? Here are some examples:

I understand perfectly why brands choose to use memes such as these: they are easy to source, allow for content to be published more regularly, and assist in developing the identity and persona of the brand.

However, my reaction has always been one of distaste whenever I’ve come across one in my feed. And perhaps, I realised, that is the social media marketing snob in me, whom believes that content should be crafted specifically for the audience it’s targeted to.

So what I want to understand is whether or not they actually make a difference. Does the use of memes within an Instagram strategy help or hinder audience engagement? In other words, are other people out there as snobby as I am, or am I just making a mountain out of a molehill?

THE RESEARCH

I set about finding my answers by creating two parallel Instagram presences; clothing brand based Instagram accounts supposing to be the next big thing in normcore fashion, with the promise of an “online store coming soon”. They both had the exact same branded content – the only difference being that one account also had supplementary content by the way of memes.

To make sure they looked real enough, I did a naughty and sourced images from all corners of Pinterest (I am so, so sorry, image copyright gods, but it was for a good cause I swear!) that could all pass as being part of a spring/summer collection.

I scheduled and posted this content out across a period of 3 weeks, and to ensure I was keeping a level playing field for each account, I chose not to interact in any other way on these accounts other than posting. I utilised a select number of hashtags for each post and while the same images were posted on different days and at different times to each other on each account, they always contained the same copy and hashtags.

THE FINDINGS

This research is not extensive, obviously. The scope of the project was small, and needed to be completed within a tight timeframe. But it still garnered some interesting results.

So as not to cause confusion when reading, lets call the account that did not use memes Brand 1, and the account that did, Brand 2.

I found that Brand 1’s strategy attracted a higher number of average likes per image – the result being 8.4 average likes as opposed to an average of 6.6 likes per image for Brand 2.

What’s also interesting to note is the fact that within Brand 2’s content, the number of average likes for memes alone was 5.2, while branded content was 7.2. This demonstrates that it wasn’t just that the memes attracted less engagement and therefor dragged down the overall average engagement score, but that they actually served as a detriment to the performance of the branded content as well.

While both accounts received a fairly similar highest like count (17 for Brand 1 and 16 for Brand 2), that the lowest like count for Brand 1 was 4 likes, while the lowest like count for Brand 2 was 1 like. Meaning that even at it’s worst, Brand 1 was still performing much better than Brand 2.

Finally, when comparing individual images on their performance within both brand strategies, I found that 63% of Brand 1’s images were performing better than their Brand 2 counterparts.

All of these results demonstrated that even though Brand 1’s feed contained significantly less images posted over the 3 week period, it’s content still performed better overall in comparison to Brand 2’s.

THE LIMITATIONS

Of course, as previously mentioned, this research only goes so far to draw conclusions about the success of including memes within an Instagram strategy. Posting times may have been a variable that served to skew results, and without being able to regulate the audience, the results were also subject to the personal tastes of those who discovered the accounts. I later regretted not also including an account that appropriated memes and quotes and redesigned them to fit within branded graphic templates, as I believe that would have presented another option with more insights into audience preferences.

THE RECOMMENDATIONS

What I would suggest, in light of what i have found, is to experiment. Every brand’s experience of what works for them is going to be completely different, because every brand’s audience is different. But please, take the time to find out what your audience really wants, and what serves your ROI best. If memes work for your strategy, then great! But don’t use them because it’s an easy way to bulk out content. Spend a few weeks (or months!) testing different varieties of content and then stick to the one that serves you best.

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