We're over a month into Armageddon: Quarantine Edition, and some things have become clear. First, few people seem to know how far apart six feet is, so here's a hint: it's more than you think. Second, Saturday Night Live is the same amount of funny whether done in front of a studio audience or via a bunch of Zoom video chats. I'll leave it to the reader to decide exactly how funny that really is. And third, the amount of time it takes for a new word to be introduced, picked up by the general populace, and then overused to the point where it'd be preferable to scoop out one's eardrums rather than hear it again is about three months -- at least if my experience with the terms "coronavirus" and/or "COVID-19" is any indication. So while a few weeks ago I wrote about the notion of The Big Meme, and how when a single thought can quickly capture an enormous amound of mindshare , now I'd like to address the next phase of any such thing, namely deciding when it's time to let the Big Meme go.
The allure of using an already-propagated meme is easy to understand: with a few words it becomes possible to capture attention and inspire imagination easier than if you had to rely on your own creative assets and messages. It's why mascots and jingles dominated the first near-century of modern advertising. These days the study of meme propagation and how and why things go viral is a big deal, as a marketer that can make their messages consistently go viral might literally be worth their weight in gold. Research conclusions on the topic vary from "it's impossible" to "it's nearly impossible," with folks in the latter group mostly admitting that there just isn't much rhyme or reason to what makes one meme go viral while another doesn't. Approaches to studying memes vary to highly academic and math-heavy analyses of propagation and timing, like this meme study from Stanford, to the decidedly less formal (though perhaps more intense) approach taken by the armchair statisticians of the popular /Memeconomy community over at Reddit. And in fact, the best explanation of a message's "lifecycle" that I've come across comes from a Memeconomy Bogmire, who offered up this diagram:
In short, any sufficiently viral-worthy new content starts out unremarkable. Like watching a nuclear reaction in slow-motion, there comes a point where the message reaches critical mass. It instantly becomes fantastically energetic -- at least until its supply of "mental fuel" runs out, at which point it suffers a sudden, sharp drop in usage before either fading away into obscurity or showing up on ironic T-shirts at college campuses.
The world's talent, time and treasure are currently focused on slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus and limiting the pain and suffering of those who contract it, and while it's too early to say for sure, the current plans seem to be working. People are self-isolating, kids are going to school from home, and while my local supermarket still occasionally looks like something out of I am Legend, it's better than a few weeks ago when it looked like something out of The Purge. Indeed, Google's trend tools suggest that we may be flattening the "coronavirus" search curve as much as we're flattening the viral contaigen curve.
All this begs the question -- when will marketers stop using the coronavirus to hawk their wares?
While jumping on the Big Meme bandwagon is usually an easy decision (the upside almost always outweighs the downside), the same can't be said for leaving it. As the first chart above indicates, once past that moment of critical mass the meme will grow and expand while maintaining relevance. Cross the precipice, though, and there's a sharp drop into obscurity. While it's unlikely that the coronavirus and our time in self-quarantine will fade from memory anytime soon, marketers invoking it as a shared thought once it's past its prime will run the risk of tapping into our collective fatigue -- and its siblings, irritation, frustration and paranoia -- of all things COVID-19 related.
As for me, I'll be tapping out now.