New on SSIR: You can has memesez?

by Amy Sample Ward on July 31, 2012

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My latest contribution to the Stanford Social Innovation Review opinion blog is up!
You can read the post and join the conversation on the SSIR blog or below.

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Last month, a pop song rose up the charts and quickly became number one on both the iTunes and Billboard Top 100 lists. That song, “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen, quickly also became the soundtrack to an Internet meme—that is, an idea that spreads online (“I Can Has Cheezburger?” is one of the more famous). More than a dozen athletic teams recorded themselves dancing and lip-syncing to the song (many in vans, spurring a Romney and Obama spoof). Many more groups joined in on the fun,recording videos and posting to YouTube. One of the more recent to join in is Sesame Street. That’s right, a widely recognized nonprofit organization has created a parody so that it can propagate a meme.

Whether it’s “Call Me Maybe,” “Sh*t People Say,” or any other meme that comes along, here are three guidelines you can use to decide when and how to get your nonprofit involved in an Internet meme.

Why meme at all?

Why would an organization even consider participating in something like this? It’s fun, for one. Just watch Sesame Street’s video (above) or the Harvard baseball team’s. Everyone involved in an organization and everyone online is, actually, human, and fun is a good thing.

But beyond that, contributing to a popular meme can help make your brand and even your staff more visible. It shows some of the personality of your organization beyond the brick and mortar. You can also leverage participation in a meme to build connections and get new supporters.

That said, having fun, gaining visibility, and making connections with new supporters happens only if you do it right.

 3 Guidelines for Nonprofits

1. Above all else, don’t compromise your values and mission. For some organizations, that means never participating in any of this Internet hokey pokey, and that’s OK. For others, it means being aware of what the root of the meme is, why people are remaking and remixing the content, and how your community will respond. With the “Call Me Maybe” example, the song is very popular and many people in the Sesame Street community have heard it (a lot of Sesame Street supporters are parents that grew up with the show and support it as adults). The Sesame Street show teaches basic lessons through stories of characters in typical situations and common scenarios. The meme video uses the same formula, changing the words to the song and using the well-known Cookie Monster as the lead character.

2. Stick to your voice. You don’t want to get visibility and make new connections using one message, tone, or personality, and then surprise them once they join your email list, subscribe to your YouTube Channel, or follow you on Twitter with something altogether different. Just as Sesame Street did, use the meme as a chance to tell the story you want to tell, showcase the character (or people!) you want in the spotlight, and do it all in the voice you’ve established at your organization. Neither Cookie Monster nor Sesame Street would ever really sing the words as they are written to “Call Me Maybe,” but the “Share It Maybe” lyrics are aligned with the lessons (sharing is good!), the character, and the voice of the show.

3. Plan for it to spread. We’re great at planning our communications regularly (or at least we try), and you can’t release something a little out of the ordinary without some planning too. In the Sesame Street video, the logo is overlaid on the video footage and linked (via YouTube’s link overlay option) to Sesame Street’s subscribe channel. There is also a segment at the end of the video that promotes the channel, encourages people to subscribe, and points to more videos. As the denizens of the Internet are wont to do, they createda still image of the Sesame Street video and added text to capture the spin on the meme from Cookie Monster’s lyrics—in this case, “they” was Mashable, which created the still to promote the video to its fans on Facebook. This meant fans could share it on social media sites like Facebook, where it’s easy to share images. Since the SesameStreet.org logo appeared throughout the video, it also appeared in the still, so even though the folks at Sesame Street couldn’t necessarily follow where fans were sharing the photo, it still drove people back to the organization. I suggest creating a still before sharing the video to ensure that the URL and message are correct. Whatever medium the meme is using, plan to integrate your branding and links (as appropriate) ahead of time, just like you would with a campaign video or image.

The results of doing it right? Just 24 hours after it posted, Sesame Street’s “Share It Maybe” video had more than 1,780,000 views!