If you use the Internet, there’s a good chance that you’ve come across a meme at one point or another. “Meme” is a word used to describe a variety of things from ideas to behaviors and styles that are easily spread and often imitated throughout a culture. Planking is an example of a meme, as are those clever screen captures with white captions.

So what makes memes so popular in our society? Why do we love seeing, sharing, and imitating them to our friends and contacts on social networks, YouTube, and in email? The answers are actually pretty simple.

Can it be imitated easily?

A meme in itself is a simple thing that just about anyone can do or imitate. You won’t see very many skydiving memes as most people don’t have the ability to hop on a plane and jump out, but you might find a meme built around remixing a popular sky diving video or photo.

One of the more popular meme styles out there is the use of white text over an image to add a thought or comment to the image, which changes the story. A six-panel “What ___ Thinks I Do” photo set is an example of a meme that is both easy to replicate and expand upon.

A good meme can be modified to fit a variety of different situations.

What Makes Internet Memes So Popular?

Think about how many punchlines you can tag to a single photo or video. A photo that is particularly interesting by itself might make for a perfect start to a meme.

There’s a still image of Willy Wonka in which he is leaning and looking as though he’s listening to someone, but isn’t quite as impressed with what they have to say as they might expect him to be. The image might be somewhat interesting on its own, but with some clever writing it can be downright hilarious.

The best memes out there are organic.

What Makes Internet Memes So Popular?

So many people (and corporations) try so hard to make viral videos and memes in order to promote whatever it is they’re big on at the time. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these attempts fall short because they’re forced and not at all organic.

The origin of a meme often has an appeal of its own. People know Willy Wonka. They grew up with it and hear the actor’s voice in their heads as they read the text. They know the celebrity and/or subject featured in the meme, and that makes the connection a bit funnier. Just adding your brand logo or attempting to build a meme around yourself rarely works. Someone in your community, however, stands a much greater chance of creating a meme out of something you do. The photo at the top of this section reflects a contribution from a member of the community featuring LockerGnome’s founder in the popular six-panel “What ____ Thinks I Do” meme style.

Do you think the deranged girlfriend or the nerdy school picture kid would have become Internet sensations if they took those photos for the purpose of being captioned? Not at all. People have better organic meters now than ever before.

Perhaps the most important defining feature of a meme is that it connects with a broad audience.

Take the Most Interesting Man in the World photos. It started as a commercial, but the people who made the commercials had no idea that the catch phrase would have caught on and become the center of an Internet phenomenon as people rewrote it to fit various situations. Perhaps they did — they could be psychic geniuses from outer space — but chances are they didn’t.

There is no golden rule for how to create a new meme. Memes themselves rarely pay off for the people who originally founded them as everyone and their dog eventually copies it and makes it their own. The best that you, as a content producer, can do is recognize a trend when you find it and do your best to appeal to your audience given these trends. It’s far better to be with the times than to do something weeks after it became “old hat.”

Attempting to meme yourself rarely (if ever) works. Your community will undoubtedly do this organically if there is something you say and/or do that resonates with them and happens to connect in that way. It’s impossible to tell which style or practice will catch on and become the next big thing.

The folks who do hit that home run (Auto-Tune the News, anyone?) do well to continue doing what they do the way they were doing it when they took off in the first place. Capitalizing on a rare success by doing things “bigger” and “better” might end up biting you in the backside. Lightning, as they say, never strikes twice.

What about you? What do you think makes memes so darned popular?