Cash In on Internet Memes

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Don't Force It

If you are looking to make a profitable meme from scratch, you can't just show up at a conference and start printing money. Internet analyst and Quinnipiac University professor Alex Halavais warns, "There's no clear recipe for getting something to go viral." He does, however, offer some general guidelines.

"It needs to be easily remembered and passed on… It needs to retain coherence. It can't mutate too quickly. At the same time, it can't be entirely stable." That may sound complicated, but consider the "Where's the beef?" phenomenon. "If it only applied to hamburgers," Halavais says, "you'd be in bad shape."

Honan subscribes to the "you can't force a meme" mantra. "When your end goal is to have a book deal, that's pretty tough," he says. "If your end goal is to do something you like and have fun with it, then you're a lot more likely to do something that'll be successful." Since domain names are so cheap these days, he recommends just giving it a shot if you have an idea you think might catch on. It could go nowhere, or it could be the next Post Secret. If you don't try, he observes, you'll never know.

Hwang, on the other hand, suggests that aiming for sustainable Web growth and regular content is a more reliable model for profit. "Web comics are great for that," he says, though they take a big commitment. "Being Internet famous isn't something that just happens," he says. "It's about the roll-up-your sleeves work of developing a community."

Halavais suggests a different route for meme fortune hunters. "My advice is to try and find the things that are catching and ride on their coattails," he says, "rather than design from the outset… A lot of companies have been trying to create their own memes, and that's a very hit-or-miss prospect."

Promote, but Don't Overdo It

Numa Numa Kid
Numa Numa Kid now has an agent. No, we're not kidding.
If you succeed in authoring a popular meme, Honan says, don't be shy about self-promotion. Then again, you may not have to do anything, reasons Halavais: "I don't think you have to try at [the point where you're already Web famous]. People are looking for you." But Hwang warns that selling out for cold, hard cash might weaken your connection to your online constituency. Numa Numa Kid, for example, now has professional representation. Hwang recalls that he tried to track him down for an appearance at ROFLcon. "We were never even able to talk to him because his representation was like, 'We don't even discuss this until there's a couple thousand dollars on the table.'" Obviously an unyielding professional approach can cost you valuable exposure opportunities.

Tay Zonday's disappearing career is another great example of this, according to Hwang. After his video Chocolate Rain went viral, Zonday did a commercial for Dr. Pepper. "Money-wise, I hear he did quite well," says Hwang, "but he no longer has the resonance that he used to with the online community. Instead, he's become much more like a traditional celebrity, and people are less interested in that." As a real celeb, Hwang explains, "You're no longer accessible. It rubs the Internet the wrong way."

Still, for better for worse, members of the new generation of meme makers are doing their best to make an online buck--and largely succeeding. How long will the current boom of book deals and profits go on?

Ironically, Huh sees a link between people's empty wallets and his full one. "Maybe the reason we're doing so well is that we bring laughter to so many people who need it during the recession," he says. "Our goal has always been to make people happy for 5 minutes a day." Hwang agrees about the connection between the economic crash and the popularity of Internet culture. "Suddenly you have lots and lots of unemployed people sitting at their computers with nothing to do all day, creating lots and lots and lots of content," he says.

But there's still hope for people not yet in the Web phenomenon game. Halavais expects that memes will continue to be a potential source of monetary riches as long as they attract large amounts of traffic and buzz. "There have always been people who draw attention, and they've always gotten book deals," he says. "The way people draw attention to themselves is now Internet based, but that Internet modifier seems almost unnecessary. What else is there?"

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