How Internet Memes Went Corporate

The creation and perpetuation of memes is becoming a big industry.

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Duncan Mitchell, the co-founder of Someecards, ascribed the growth of the meme market to content producers' attempts to scale by both maximizing traffic while minimizing the number of paid staffers it takes to produce it. It's not a coincidence, he explained, that many meme-based sites rely on user-generated content.

"I think the goal for a lot of web businesses is to produce quality content without having to burden all the costs of creating that content," he told me. "It's hard to create a profitable publishing business online, so user-generated content is one way to kind of diffuse some of those costs."

Mitchell jokingly refers to himself as the "CEO and assistant to the CEO" of the humorous e-card company launched in 2007 that serves as a parody of Hallmark greeting cards. Though he initially worked on the project while maintaining his day job as creative director at a major digital marketing firm, he and his business partner, Brook Lundy, received some outside funding in 2008 and came to work for the site full time. Today, Someecards employs the two founders, five full time writers, one full time tech person, one full time ad salesperson, and a number of freelance graphic designers and writers. In the last month, the site generated 39 million page views and over five million unique visitors.

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Someecards is a mixture of user-generated content (users are able to pick from a variety of designs and overlay their own text onto them) and cards written by company staffers. Mitchell estimated that the company features six to 10 new pieces of content a day. Like many of the companies featured in this piece, it makes most of its money from advertising. While many of its ads are no different from the display ads shown on the websites of the New York Times or CNN, Someecards is also able to provide custom "branded" content for its main publishing channels.

"So if you're a liquor brand, a car company, or a movie studio, we create Someecards co-branded with your products and circulate those around the site," Mitchell said. "It'll show up in our apps, in our Twitter feed, and on our Facebook fan page."

Mitchell claimed that the click-through rates on these kinds of ads are "10 times the rate you get on normal display advertising," mostly because they rely on the very same humor inherent in all its non-branded content. In fact, the only difference between a standard Someecard and a custom ad is the company logo contained in the ad. They don't shill for the company, but rather allow the brand to hitch a ride on the viral content.

"So if we have an ad for for Chili's, it may be a joke about going to a happy hour for margaritas, not an ad about Chili's," he said.

Perhaps the most significant portent of the meme's rise in prominence is BuzzFeed's recent spate of hirings of veteran journalists, including both Politico's Ben Smith and Rolling Stone's Michael Hastings. Though it's not entirely clear at this point what the company has in store for these more traditional reporters, Peretti asserted the lessons the company has accumulated from its viral meme content will be applied to its political news coverage.

"I think that we've seen a lot of blurring between these different styles where some reporters are thinking, 'How can I use some of the conventions of the web to report a story better?' And some of the people who are mostly craving entertainment web culture are saying, 'How can I get engaged in a big news story or a news event using the tool I'm accustomed to?'"

Still, many couldn't help themselves from cracking a few jokes when the announcement had been made that BuzzFeed sniped Smith from Politico. Several of these jokes came in the form of memes, one of which imagined Smith asking a question at a White House press conference: "Mr. President, Ben from BuzzFeed. What are your top ten Honey Badger mashups?"

Simon Owens is an assistant managing editor at US News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+. You can reach him at sowens@usnews.com


Corrected on : Correction: 6/28/13: A previous version of this story misidentified the founder of Quickmeme.