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Memetic Marketing and Learning From The Underpants Gnomes

Memetic Marketing and Learning From The Underpants Gnomes

I often like to start writing with a song in mind. Today, Kris Kristofferson’s Me and Bobby McGee popped into my head, although so did Janis Joplin’s version, and the Grateful Dead’s version – even though Pink’s version didn’t. Regardless of your age there is something about the song in any of its cover versions that resonates.

I think one reason is in this line, “Good enough was good enough for me… good enough for me and Bobby McGee.” You know – don’t tell me about goals, man, just let me live, ‘cuz School’s Out Forever! (sorry, that was Alice Cooper shouting out for attention).

Not good enough
I also love that Que Sera Sera feeling (okay, this time it’s Doris Day coming up like a sunflower, and the last of the songs). However, even though ‘good enough might be good enough for Bobby McGee,’ it’s not enough for me when I have my marketer’s hat on. And it shouldn’t be for anyone in our business.

We’ve just come through Breast Cancer Awareness month, and have transitioned to the annual Movember meme-a-thon which is supposed to remind us, um, not to shave? This kind of memetic marketing, especially around a cause, represents an area where we, as marketers, tend to be less than good enough.

Underpants Gnomes
And to understand it better, let’s take a look at the Underpants Gnomes. South Park’s Underpants Gnomes are well known for missing a step in their quest for riches. Step 1, Collect Underpants. Step 2 ?? Step 3, Riches.

Too many memetic marketing efforts seem to follow the same basic model, although with an extra step: 1) Pick a goal or cause, 2) Do something weird or disruptive that people share or talk about, 3) Mission accomplished! We’ve changed the world. 4) Congratulate self for coming up with or (here’s the viral part) participating in expression of idea.

We’re Changing The World! Right?
Our marketing goal should be a change of behavior, or at worst, a change in attitude or belief that leads directly to a future change in behavior. Without directly asking people to behave, think, or feel differently, we’re engaging in magical thinking.

  • Share this status to end child labor.
  • Like this page to send a message to Congress.
  • Watch this video to encourage more women to have life-saving mammograms.
  • Grow a mustache and share it to… (I’m still not sure what the point is. Something to do with men’s health – btw good luck finding that on the homepage of the official charity site www.movember.com).

And we like to do this stuff – it’s easy, we get a badge or a gold star, and it feels like we’re actually accomplishing something – we’re changing the world! Aren’t we?

Well, no.

For the most part, just getting the word out isn’t going to do much of anything, other than just getting the word out. Let’s remember one of the basic tactics of marketing – the call to action. A simple technique – ask people do to something and they’re more likely to do it.

What we should be asking them to do is whatever will directly lead to what we’d like to be true when the campaign is done (get a mammogram, get a prostate/testicular exam).

Instead, we tend to ask them to share the viral part, because that’s more fun (we mostly create fun viral stuff), and it’s easy to measure shares and likes.

We’re dropping the ball on conversion. We’d never do that if it were a client – but the moment we “create a movement” around a cause, we start measuring success by whether the movement grows, instead of by whether the movement accomplishes its goals.

Disruption – Only Half a Tactic
We have to remember that disruption isn’t the goal – it’s only half of a tactic. In fact, there’s a bit of psych often applied to marketing called the Disrupt-then-Reframe tactic*. First, shake people up (tell them something that disorients them), THEN tell them what you want them to believe is true – the reframe – and  they’re more likely to believe it because it’s something solid they can rely on in the disoriented state you just created.

In marketing, the reframe is often a call to action – do this, believe that, think this way about that – and it should be very clear.

By the way, the DTR tactic can work for any kind of marketing, not just memetic.

For all of the great attention-getting videos and campaigns for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I rarely saw an obvious “click here to find a local women’s health clinic,” or “click here for a page of educational links” button. If the point is that women get mammograms, we need to make that very clear, and make the action very actionable. Not just shareable. Ditto with Movember – it’s a great cause (once I finally found it) – but most of the campaigns I’ve seen in the past and so far this year deemphasize getting people to the doctor versus giving them something fun to share or post about.

What’s the Point?
The badge value of posting or sharing has to tie to an actual behavioral change, or it has no value. The Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts award badges for doing something, not thinking about something (my post-doc friends say that’s what PhD’s are for). We need our badges to represent accomplishment of more than shares and likes.

In our focus on experience as the currency that drives engagement, we can’t forget that currency is used as an exchange platform for products and services. Ultimately, experiences need to be “spent” on products or services, or all we’re doing is creating a culture of experience hoarders who contribute nothing to the bottom line.

We need to do more than collect underpants if we want the riches.

*Davis, B.P. and Knowles, E.S. (1999). A disrupt-then-reframe technique of social influence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 2, 192-199. Fennis, B.M., Das, E.H.H.J. and Pruyn, Th.H.  (2004). “If You Can’t Dazzle Them with Brilliance, Baffle Them with Nonsense”: Extending the Impact of the Disrupt-Then-Reframe Technique of Social Influence. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 14, 3, 280-290. 

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