How to turn a bright idea into a thriving online business

From its murky origins in anonymously authored minor distractions, the Internet phenomenon we know as the “meme” has become a mighty engine of commerce.

Get on the good foot

Your first step, of course, is to make something.

Mat Honan, an associate editor for Wired, created his site as a funny present to his girlfriend. But what started as a joke quickly became an Internet sensation.

And within days, two New York publishers called Honan to offer him a book contract. “I went out that very afternoon and got an agent,” he says, and ended up with “a nice five figure advance.”

Still, Honan’s success pales in comparison to that of the empire.

Ben Huh, the site’s CEO, is doing so well that he hesitates to talk about it. “I don’t want to flaunt my money while other people are having trouble,” he says sheepishly.

Begun in 2007 with a humble Web site for cat photos, Huh’s online operations have expanded into a conglomerate of nine popular sites requiring the attention of ten full-time employees.

That’s not even counting a “whole bunch of pet projects” that the company has going on the side, according to Huh. Instead of trying to create new memes, he pays attention to what’s popular and then either adapts it or buys it up.

ICanHazCheezburger was born to be a business, says Huh, who purchased the site in December of 2007.

“At the time, I had no idea what memes were, but on paper LOLcats made a lot of sense. It’s a low-cost business with very high loyalty. You can run it from anywhere, and you don’t need a lot of infrastructure.”

T-shirt and book sales make up only a small portion of the company’s profit, while ad revenue brings in plenty, Huh says.

This past April in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a very different crowd of meme makers gathered at the first annual ROFLcon – a convention celebrating the older generation of accidental celebrities made famous by embarrassing videos and unflattering photos.

A nostalgic collection of 900 fans showed up to see Tron Guy, Gem Sweater Lady, and other icons.

As for ICanHazCheezburger, conference organizer Tim Hwang says many attendees had a definite sense that by monetizing its meme the site had “sold out.”

For his part, Honan says recruiting would be pretty smart from a business perspective.

“A lot of editors are looking to the Web to find new writers, especially when it comes to humor books, because you can find this huge talent pool of people on the Web who might not otherwise try to put together a book,” he explains.

Besides, publishers can sign up those writers for a lot less money than big-name authors would command, and their books may still make it onto the bestseller lists.

“It’s weird because the Internet is supposed to put old media out of business,” Raftery says–and yet online memes seem to be breathing life back into print publishing.

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

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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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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