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When a question about the color of a dress went viral, several nonprofits joined the conversation to help their messages spread along the viral wave. Did these nonprofits use a sophisticated communications tactic, or did they just jump on a vapid bandwagon?
If you somehow missed #TheDress, here's the scoop: One day, someone posted a photo of a dress to Tumblr and asked if people thought it was white and gold or blue and black. A furious debate erupted.
Within days, hundreds of millions of clicks, reblogs, tweets, shares, and media stories, including a key Buzzfeed post, carried the argument around the Internet to every country in the world. The Dress became one of the most quickly viral memes that the Internet has ever seen.
If you needed confirmation that we live in strange times, there you have it.
Newsjacking is the practice of "hijacking" or leveraging a current news story to help your messages get the attention of a wider audience. It's a valid technique to make your messages much more relevant, useful, and timely — qualities that can increase the number of people who read and share what you have to say.
Memejacking is simply a type of newsjacking that connects your communications to a meme — that is, a pop culture trend.
Even though memejacking seems like little more than frivolous fun, it works. As communications tactics go, memes are cheap and easy to make. Eye-catching and already popular, they are shareable by design.
When you're memejacking, your message doesn't need to break through the noise — it is part of the noise. And, if you're thinking that only teens like memes, look at the range of people who drenched themselves for the Ice Bucket Challenge. Memes travel within all age groups.
For nonprofits, the trick is to use memejacking in a way that can help your organization reach your supporters and even attract new ones. But, how?
If you want to tap into a hot new meme, it pays to be fast. Memes can quickly rise and fall in popularity and relevance. Use an old meme and your organization can seem out of touch. A rapid response will also give your content more time to get noticed.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) may have been the first nonprofit to memejack The Dress, using it to inspire a discussion about discrimination. The reward for its impeccable timing? Engagement.
The Facebook post garnered 5,365* likes, 2,279 shares, and 364 comments, while the tweet got 506 retweets, 58 replies, and 358 favorites. The ACLU also used the meme as its first Instagram post, a clever way to kick off a new social channel.
The ACLU's quick thinking also got lots of media coverage by journalists looking for fodder for stories about the white-hot (or is it blue-hot?) meme. Those who saw the meme were given a way to learn more about the ACLU's work and take action to protect civil liberties.
Which brings us to the next best practice. …
The point of memejacking is to help your message reach a larger audience, so your message matters just as much as it does when you're being serious. The best memejacking will forge a compelling connection between the meme and your organization's work.
The American Optometric Association (AOA) focused on its members' expertise in a blog post about the scientific reasons for The Dress' color shift. The agency that works with the AOA reported that The Dress post "dwarfs" the organization's usual blog traffic.
The AOA also engaged people in one-to-one social media conversations and shared the post on Facebook and with three tweets, reaching more than 65,000 people.
Geeky it may be, but geeky is the right tone for the audiences that AOA tries to reach — and the meme made a potentially dry topic more interesting. By connecting the meme with its mission, the AOA captured eyeballs in a whole new way.
Stop the TPP, a project of Communication Workers of America, used The Dress to inspire its members to take a specific action via a simple but successful Facebook post.
In its memejacking post, the organization asked its followers to call politicians to ask them to prevent the fast-tracking of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal. The organization chose this meme because it says the manufacturer of The Dress has a history of using sweatshop labor, which the TPP trade deal will increase.
With an impressive 855 shares and 123 likes, Stop the TPP's memejacking call to action reached a huge audience. Beyond current supporters, many people learned about the issue who never would have if not for the organization's creative memejacking.
Memejacking is not for the faint of heart. You need to embrace the viral zeitgeist fearlessly.
In terms of overall reach and coverage, one of the most successful nonprofit memejackings of The Dress came from the South African branch of the Salvation Army.
The domestic violence awareness ad was so bold that it didn't matter that it came out over a week after the meme originally sent the Internet into a tizzy. In particular, Reddit, Twitter, and the media ate it up, and tens of thousands of social shares made the Salvation Army's ad a meme unto itself.
With success comes downsides. Once the ad brought the Salvation Army into the spotlight, people criticized the organization for its anti-LGBT practices. Journalists and activists panned the ad as a "fuzzy" and "simplified" effort at raising attention, and for burying the most important message — the phone number that people can call if they are victims of domestic violence.
Whether memejacking elevates or devalues messages is a debate for another blog post.
To see more examples of how nonprofits creatively memejacked The Dress, check out this Pinterest board.
*All numbers retrieved March 26, 2015.
Lauren Girardin is a marketing and communications consultant, writer, and trainer. She counts TechSoup Global among her beloved clients. Follow her on Twitter at @girardinl.
Lauren, love your analysis of the memejacking. thanks Jeanne
This work is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International License.
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