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Turn Your Marketing Messages into Memes

By: Robert Middleton

Robert Middleton, of Action Plan Marketing in Palo Alto, Calif., has helped hundreds of professional service businesses attract new clients and get paid what they're worth.

His website is a resource for marketing professional services. Visit it at Action Plan Marketing.

Are you frustrated trying to communicate about your business? Do you do great things for your clients but just can't talk or write about your services in a way that gets any attention, let alone any response? You're not alone.

As a service professional, you want to get more clients. But to do that, you first need to get noticed and create interest in your services. To stand apart from the crowd, you need to do more than just tell people about what you do. You need to communicate your unique talents and abilities in terms that are both meaningful and compelling to prospective clients. 

You've probably been told that it's a good idea to develop a business name, tag line, elevator speech and headlines. But have you worked on messages like this for hours and they still don't have any oomph? I'm going to show you how you can start creating marketing message that hit home every time. Don't believe me? Read on!

What You Need go Know

Powerful marketing messages aren't only about the content of your message. Just as important is the way in which you structure your message. That's the key that almost everyone misses.

What Do You Meme?

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In 1976, Oxford University biologist Richard Dawkins wrote a book called "The Selfish Gene" in which he introduced a new concept to the history of culture: memes (it rhymes with "seems"). A meme, Dawkins asserted, is much like its biological cousin, the gene. Like a gene, a meme is self-replicating. However, memes don't replicate biologically; instead, they are passed along in the form of ideas. Dawkins argued that memes are the "basic unit of cultural transmission." He wrote:

"Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.

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Jump ahead twenty years and to another book called "Rapid Response Advertising" by Geoff Ayling
, an Australian advertising man. Ayling builds a strong case for the use of memes in marketing and advertising, and he thinks that the meme is the missing piece of the marketing and advertising puzzle. "A meme," he writes "operates through the process of chunking complex concepts or ideas down into a simple, easily communicable unit." Likewise, marketing messages can be constructed as memes to communicate the benefits of a product or service more quickly and easily.

After reading Ayling's book, I realized that I had long been using a marketing meme to introduce my service: "I help service businesses attract more clients." When I explain my work that way, I frequently get an immediate "Oh! That's what I need!" response. I've used this tagline for years, but I never really understood exactly why it worked so well. The idea of marketing memes gave me the key.

The Meme in Action

A marketing meme always accomplishes four things: It actively transfers specific information. It's immediately and obviously beneficial. It's self-explanatory and ultra-simple. And it's easy to replicate in someone's mind. When all of these elements are in place, it works like magic.

Imagine this: I'm at a networking event and I've just answered someone's question about what I do with my marketing meme. For whatever reason, they don't need my service, but they still understand immediately what I'm about. Half an hour later, that same person drags someone over to me and says, "You should talk to Sarah here, she needs to attract more clients." Bingo! This has happened to me countless times.

This is why it's smart to apply marketing memes to virtually any marketing message -- people will understand you more quickly, and as a result, you'll attract more attention, interest, and response. You don't have to worry about zippy slogans or phrases. Just strive for clarity, simplicity, brevity and benefits, all wrapped up in a few words (or a combination of words and images). Great marketing memes make a direct and memorable connection.

What a Marketing Meme Is Not

Sometimes it's easier to understand a marketing meme by looking at what it is not. A meme is not a meaningless slogan, nor a clever play on words. Ever see a headline on a billboard that totally confused you? That's a dead meme. Memes should never confuse. They should clarify. With a meme you say, "I get it!" When it's not a meme you say, "huh?"

Let's look at a recent example, a billboard from IBM: Two tires in profile. Two ThinkPad portable computers in profile inside the tires. The headline: "ThinkPad. Road Trip." Huh? Sorry, Big Blue, but that's not a meme. What's the message? I have to stop and figure it out. It's not immediately obvious and beneficial.

Here's an eTrade billboard that's much better: "This month, someone's going to win the lottery. Just not you. eTrade." Bingo! Without having to figure anything out, you get the message: "I'd better stop wishing and start investing." Like a good joke, it hits home immediately.

Slogans, headlines, taglines and other marketing messages aren't necessarily memes. Sometimes they're just clever phrases built on a play-on-words, or they're so general that they communicate very little. "Overnight Delivery" isn't much of a meme. On the other hand, "When you positively, absolutely have to have it overnight" built a multi-million dollar business. Your challenge is to create memes for your business that communicate the benefits of your service just as powerfully.

What You Need to Do

A meme can be used anytime you need to communicate effectively about your business. Remember, a meme communicates quickly and effortlessly in just a few words (or sometimes in words plus images), the benefit is obvious and it it stimulates a response, either immediately or sometime in the future because it's so easy to recall.

Finding Your Core Solution

For instance, a recent client, a personal organizer, was struggling to position her organizing practice. She had fallen into doing the kind of organizing that didn't excite her much. I asked her what was special about her business, what made her different than everyone else. She said that, unlike most organizers who helped people throw out a lot of junk, she had an eye for valuable items that they could sell instead of putting in the garbage. We emerged with a wonderful tagline meme that said it all: "We find treasures in your clutter." This has an immediate appeal for those who want to get rid of clutter because it promises an added bonus - finding a valuable treasure or two. Using this meme as her central marketing message, she built on it in her marketing materials by telling of the treasures she had found for others and how finding just a few valuable items would pay for her services.

There are several ways to use memes in marketing your business. Here's some of the major ones: The actual Name of your business; a Tagline (as outlined above) to use with your business identity; an Audio Logo (a short version of a "elevator speech") which you say out loud when someone asks what you do; a Headline on an ad, flyer or letter; and a Title to a talk or an article. All of these memes might be expressed slightly differently but they all communicate essentially the same message with clarity and impact.

Cooking Up Your Meme

So how do you create a powerful meme for your business? It's a bit of an art but here's some guidelines: First, ask the key question - "what do my clients get as a result of using my services?" Don't worry about the wording yet, just brainstorm a number of sentences that capture the gist of your key benefit. You might even do this with a small group. Initially you might come up with: "Our clients have problems with employee conflict and our services help reduce that conflict while building cooperation and trust." So the core idea is there, but it's pretty long. So start paring it down to its essentials. The next cut might go: "We reduce conflict while building cooperation." This is better but I'm not sure if this is for individuals or organizations. The next attempt yields: "Reducing conflict and building cooperation within organizations." But are we trying to say too much? We have a message that is both about solving a problem and offering a solution. Maybe we should go with one or the other. The final meme, used as a tagline is: "Building cooperation within organizations." Now this is simple, benefit-oriented and easy to remember. You've got a meme!

Testing Your Meme - Is It Any Good?

Once you've developed a meme, you need to test it to see if it really does communicate your core message. How do you know that? When you get a favorable response when you use it. You notice that when you say it, people ask the right questions and want to know more. The best way is to try this as an "Audio Logo." When someone asks what you do, say something like: "I have a company called Working Diplomacy. We help build cooperation within organizations." If most of the people say, "that's interesting, more companies need that," or "you ought to talk to our HR director," there's a very good chance you have a winner. If, on the other hand, everyone says, "what do you mean," or "why do companies need that?" you may be off track. Back to the drawing board.

Rolling Out Your Meme

A meme isn't just a nice thing to have. It's the core expression of your business purpose and strategy. So you want to use it everywhere you possibly can. Put it in the tag line of your business card and stationery. Use it as a headline in an ad, answer the phone with it: Prospect: "Hello, I hear you folks do conflict management for companies." You: "Yes, we help build cooperation within organizations. Is that what you're looking for?" The whole idea of a meme is that it helps prospective clients understand quickly and easily how you can help them, so you want to include it in every single piece of promotional material and in all the marketing activities you do.

You Can Also Be an Expert at "Meme-Ology"

With a little work, anyone can create a powerful meme for their business. It all starts with a core idea: What are the results you produce for your clients? Next you need to hone it down to a few words and make it as simple as possible. Finally, you need to apply it to several marketing messages. When you get the hang of constructing good marketing memes it's like riding a bicycle. In the same way that it's virtually impossible to lose your balance, it will be impossible to construct a meme that doesn't hit home every time.

© Copyright 2000, Robert Middleton

Other Articles by Robert Middleton

The author assumes full responsibility for the contents of this article and retains all of its property rights. MarcommWise publishes it here with the permission of the author. MarcomWise assumes no responsibility for the article's contents.


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