mobile phoneimage sourceChan, Vernon. "Sony Xperia J." 26 July 2012. Flickr.

Of Memes and of Mobile: Why Your Business Should Care

February 28, 2013

Today marks the end of the 2013 Mobile World Congress, when the world’s telecommunication companies show off their newest products and ideas. But there’s no reason you should know that: there’s been little coverage and absolutely no buzz from this year’s event.

On the other hand, you probably have heard of at least one of the following: “Call Me Maybe,” “Gangham Style,” and the “Harlem Shake.” All three songs blew up in popularity on YouTube in the last year, attaining that most coveted and fleeting online status: viral meme.

But don’t think the major mobile carriers worry that videos of college kids and corporate offices dancing to pop music get all the attention. The truth is that these memes do more to fuel the industry than any number of press releases, product specs, or even Apple-like public demos could ever hope to accomplish.

Why?

Meme Economics

The knee jerk reaction is that our mobile first, always plugged in culture is shallow. We want our byte-sized entertainment now, and by now we mean five minutes ago.

Sure, there’s some truth to that idea. But there’s more going on. In any new venture, there are three core constraints to be considered: time, money, and quality. As the conventional wisdom goes, you can have two out of three, but not all.

There’s a reason memes comfortably straddle that triangle, catapulting from the back corners of the Internet to the top morning slot on the Today show: mobile. Video memes are usually short dollops of fun, so they don’t choke data plans. They’re easy and quick to produce, making them relatively inexpensive to film and throw online. Almost everyone has a phone with a camera, and video apps allow a bunch of friends to quickly get together, film, and publish.

Of course, that leaves the elusive final barrier to entry: quality. What element of “Gangham Style” had that extra something that all of PSY’s other songs didn’t? How come the “Harlem Shake” blew up nine months after it was released as a free MP3?

Bubblegum Fun

The truth is that none of the above examples hold up to traditional standards of quality. They don’t aim for award shows, they’re not trying to earn ticket sales, they don’t go for amazing special effects or soul searching drama.

They’re the online version of bubble gum: quick tasty chews to kill time with. Of course, the gum industry shouldn’t be dismissed lightly (it did rake in around $3.5 billion in 2011), and while there are certainly true connoisseurs who spring for their favorite flavor at healthy market prices, most of us are comfortable springing for a cheap stick of disposable diversion regardless of the relative “quality.” Flavors and kinds aside, everyone has chewed gum (at least for a while).

Which brings us back to our memes. YouTube and Tumblr are littered with the remains of bad attempts to achieve online stardom. But part of the fun of memes, and mobile technology is general, is the interactivity. No longer are people locked out of any stage of entertainment. Super Bowl ads ask people at home to choose their own endings, and public events are hard pressed to keep their official video free of amateur contributors.

It’s a mobile world, and we’ve only just scratched the surface of what that means. Expect the next decades to get even crazier.

The Answer Is

The wrong way to react to all this pressure is to clamp down and try to restrict all forms of mobile mashup. That’s an alienating move that is doomed to failure from the get go.

Telecommunication companies know their future isn’t in traditional handsets. That’s why they’re constantly experimenting with new devices, new apps, and new ways of bringing the power of online interaction to their customers.

All businesses now have to find a balance between gravitas and levity, polish and pop. We’re not saying anything goes, but that you have to adapt to the technology people are increasing demand they be allowed to use. That means showrooming is the norm for brick and mortar stores, and all websites better have a mobile friendly version prepped and ready.

Listen to how people perceive your business and meet people on that level. Perhaps you could reach out to reviewers (positive and negative) and ask them to participate in an online discussion of how to improve your business. Get satisfied clients speaking for your company (preferably via video). If it fits your desired audience, participate in one of those viral memes: remember, the kids of today are the customers of tomorrow.

Above all, plan to adapt and grow. Mobile is here to stay. Fighting it will lead to frustration and, ultimately, failure. Learn how to embrace this new medium on terms that work for your business.