2016 was a strange year to be alive.
In what other year could Hamburger Helper release a Soundcloud mixtape that put most amateur rappers to shame? Or a laughing woman wearing Chewbacca mask become the most watched Facebook livestream of all time?
In 2016, the incomprehensible became possible and the line between the physical world and the digital vapor of social media no longer seemed to matter.
I’ve personally found myself lost in dank memes and Weird Facebook, joining groups that celebrate Smooth by Rob Thomas and following a page that posts the same photo of Jeff Goldblum everyday. But I wasn’t the only one to take a nosedive into this abyss. Millions of people around the world attended fake Facebook Events and shared remixed image macros of childhood TV icons like Spongebob and Arthur on Instagram.
Meme culture extended well beyond teenage inside jokes this year. It transformed into a powerful force that affected public policy and spread ideas at unprecedented speeds. Memes also became powerful tools for growing businesses faster than ever.
Every time a new meme emerged this year, there were entrepreneurs worldwide brainstorming ways to cash in. From t-shirts to mugs to greeting cards, there were no shortage of opportunities to transform each and every cultural phenomenon into a business.
We took a look at our data to put into perspective just how big memes were for businesses this year. If you scroll down, you’ll find an infographic breaking down this year’s most popular memes and some key insights about their impact on ecommerce.
But first, let’s talk 2016.
Election in Meme Land
With the easily digestible and highly shareable format of memes, complex ideas, concepts, and emotions can be expressed in a pixelated jpeg and a string of Helvetica. No longer do think pieces, sound bites, and talking heads shape public perception of issues and events. Instead, opinions are now built, propagated, and destroyed on Facebook feeds and Messenger inboxes.
Virality played a massive role this US election with fake news spreading like wildfire across social media. The same phenomenon that propels memes and viral videos started having an effect on the way we interpret current events.
As major platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter switched over to relevance and engagement-based feed algorithms, pieces of content that were highly emotionally or politically driven often rocketed to the top—even if they weren’t truthful—due to their high levels of engagement.
Viral content like memes, videos, and now fake news stories, usually rely on a simple formula for being shared. They combine a high impact emotional response—fear, joy, surprise, love—with a central message that says something personal about a large number of people.
The second part of this recipe is the driving force behind why people share things on social media. People love to share content that they feel represents and reinforces a part of their identity; not necessarily because they think other people will find the content valuable.
Just like fake news stories, memes perform a similar function and there were tons of memes during this US Election period. Take Ken Bone, for instance.
Ken Bone was a man who asked a question during the second 2016 US Presidential Debate. Due to his unique name and appearance, Ken Bone instantly went viral and accrued hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers practically overnight. Ken Bone was vaulted into meme superstardom with people across the world ironically celebrating him as the true winner of this year’s election.
Nasty Woman, a debate night jab that created a massive response on social media, is another perfect example of one of the many memes generated by the world of US politics in 2016—but we’ll dive into that one a bit more later.
The Year of the Living Meme
Memes also had a transformative effect on the world of celebrity this year. Many celebrities choose to harness Internet culture to boost their own star power and become Living Memes themselves.
Using their own eccentric personalities to their advantage, many entertainers transcended their status as popular influencers. Rather than just being gossiped about or adored, these celebs had their every move constantly dissected, replicated, and shared across digital media—and they used it to their advantage.
Everything Living Memes do is accompanied by public fascination. By embracing their viral potential, these celebrities aren’t just creating content, they are content. They lift themselves into the upper stratosphere of virality where they’re able to spread at blistering speeds by turning their followers, fans, admirers, and enemies into micro broadcasting systems.
The transition to Living Meme status allows celebrities to reverse the polarity of their traditional relationships with the media and the public. Rather than being constantly scrutinized, Living Memes create new opportunities for both their followers and media publications to repurpose their existence into fresh content.
When a Living Meme says something odd in an interview or walks out of the house wearing a strange outfit, they’re no longer ridiculed endlessly online. Instead, they show up in funny image macros and video edits that reinforce their public persona and build their reach.
DJ Khaled was one of the first celebrities to truly embody the characteristics of a living meme. With his infamous Snapchat Jet Ski odyssey, DJ Khaled skyrocketed from a catchphrase-dispensing hip hop curator to an impossibly magnetic social media icon.
On Snapchat, DJ Khaled turned every aspect of his life into an opportunity for new content. Watering his plants, trimming his beard, visiting friends—his entire daily routine was suddenly a breeding ground for memes.
Drake flexed his muscles as one of the most social media-savvy celebrities recently by creating, celebrating, and owning the viral content that once painted him as a target.
For years, the memes that poked fun at Drake for singing heartfelt songs were seen as a hurdle for him to overcome. The public insisted that Drake prove his street cred—in many circles, questioning whether Drake really “started from the bottom” became as common of a small talk topic as the weather.
While these memes cornered Drake as a sad clown caricature, he chose to fight back by weaponizing his viral potential over the past few years and creating content engineered to be remixed and shared.
His 2015 beef with Meek Mill was one of the first signs of this stunning reversal by Drake. After being accused of using ghostwriters—a cardinal sin in hip hop—by occasional collaborator Meek Mill, Drake went scorched earth on him with a set of diss tracks that nearly crushed his career.
Memes played a significant role in Drake’s public roasting of Meek Mill. During OVO Fest in the summer of 2015, Drake projected hundreds of memes onto the stage’s screens while performing Charged Up and Back to Back, his two chart-topping diss tracks. Drake’s team plucked memes from the depths of Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter and used them as another tool to taunt his opponent.
The use of memes during Drake’s live performances even led to the birth of a new living meme: Toronto City Councillor Norm Kelly. One meme that featured Kelly generated over 65,000 new Twitter followers for the 75-year old municipal politician. Kelly now boasts nearly half a million followers on Twitter and his own merch store.
Later that same year, Drake dropped a music video for Hotline Bling that was designed to be GIF-ed and remixed by social media users. It went viral instantly, with a slew of memes cutting up his unconventional dance moves and pasting them into absurd contexts. From playing tennis to dribbling basketballs to catching Pokemon, the replication was endless and the video itself racked up over one billion views on YouTube as a result.
In 2016, Drake continued his mastery of digital youth culture with the release of Views, his highly anticipated followup to 2015’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late and What a Time to Be Alive. The album art for Views featured a larger-than-live Drake sitting on top of Toronto’s iconic CN Tower. While the image was ridiculed at first for its bizarre sense of scale, it proved to be a stroke of genius—its format was so highly memorable and easy to replicate that it became the source of endless inspiration for memes and viral content.
Suddenly, Drake was sitting on top of other buildings, household objects, people’s shoulders, and more. Using tools like Drake’s Views, fans were able to create their own versions of the album art. This behavior was encouraged by Drake himself, who tweeted out a link to the site and also filled his own Instagram profile with new versions of the Views album art featuring miniature versions of himself sitting on his collaborators.
Big Brands Embrace Meme Culture
While big brands normally come under fire when they try to repackage youth culture as a marketing tool, many businesses mastered the art of memes in 2016.
When it comes to brands that do incredible work targeting Millennials on social media, fast food joints like Denny’s, Domino’s and Taco Bell are normally top of mind. This year, some new champions emerged with content that spoke to their audience’s core values and even acknowledged the absurdity of their marketing strategy with an impressive level of awareness.
Bagel Bites was one of the most interesting brands to start using memes as a central part of their social media strategy this year. It makes sense, after all, bite-sized, microwaveable snacks have always been a hit with the under-24 market, so using a style of content already popular with their audience was an easy choice.
Their well-executed memes (complete with self-aware commentary) were an excellent way of using memes and youth culture without it feeling unnatural.
And they were even the first to admit that it could easily feel unnatural.
Sonic the Hedgehog was another major brand that caught my eye for its use of memes this year. While you may expect the social media presence for a huge video game series like Sonic to focus on product announcements or minor attempts at engagement, Sonic the Hedgehog instead posts incredibly dank memes mined from the deep and dark bellies of Reddit and 4chan.
It’s an audacious move, but it comes from a clear understanding of their audience. Gamers have been one of the core constituencies of Internet culture from the very beginning, so this type of content resonates powerfully with them. There’s also the added level of absurdity and irony that makes Sonic the Hedgehog’s use of dank memes even more effective.
Irony and Absurdity as Critique
When it comes to memes, and especially memes in 2016, irony plays a powerful role.
Memes that started as simple jokes were quickly driven to their most post-modern endpoint with image macros that played on the format itself or purposefully made no sense, making the audience question why they even had emotional responses to certain things or found them interesting.
Just like the world’s ironic love affair with Ken Bone, memes like Harambe and Dat Boi also leaned heavily on absurdity. Their existence was nonsensical, acting more as a commentary on meme culture and social media than anything else.
The overblown mourning of a felled gorilla could be taken as a critique of social media as a hotbed for overreaction. Dat Boi’s emergence from absolutely nowhere and complete lack of meaning could be seen as a takedown of memes at large—what are we even laughing at anyway?
However, some of this year’s biggest memes still stayed true to traditional viral formats and were just plain funny, like Damn Daniel. No commentary, no critique—just a surprisingly clever, simple video that made people laugh and served up a twinge of nostalgia for care-free high school living.
How Entrepreneurs Cashed in on 2016’s Biggest Moments
Okay, so that was what 2016 looked like. Now, let’s take a look at how people took that bizarre mess of a year and turned it into cash.
For many people, starting a business seems like a massive undertaking. Don’t get me wrong—it can be. But getting off the ground can actually be pretty easy. Shopify has a slew of integrations and apps that make it easy for entrepreneurs to act fast, creating new products and even entire new businesses quick enough to keep up with Meme World.
We took a look at our own data, along with search volume stats from Google Trends to give you a clear-cut look at the surprising ways that memes and ecommerce intersected in 2016.
Harambe, a 17 year-old Western lowland gorilla who was tragically slain when a child fell into his enclosure, was the center of an incredible amount of satirical and ironic memes this year. People all over the world saw Harambe as a critique of social media echo chambers, unearned fame, and more. Harambe moved past being a one-note joke and instead became an ideological vessel; a symbol upon which any meaning or message could be cast.
Stores with products based on Harambe ended up making a cumulative $2,434,800 last year, an incredible number that reflects the massive scale of Harambe’s impact. Keen observers will also note the peak in orders near the beginning of November, probably fuelled by rumors that Harambe received thousands of votes in the US Election.
This debate night slight ended up turning into a cultural phenomenon, generating huge numbers in an extremely short period of time. Overall, products based on Nasty Woman produced $1,880,724 in just over two months and peaks in purchase volume followed closely behind search volume.
Damn Daniel’s numbers weren’t quite as astronomical as Harambe and Nasty Woman, but still represent a significant impact for a playful series of Twitter uploads. Overall, Damn Daniel-inspired stores and products sold $28,730 last year.
Sales for Damn Daniel-based products hit a high shortly after the two creators appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres Show on February 24th with a correlation between search volume and sales that appears much closer than Harambe and Nasty Woman.
Only two stores were opened specifically for Damn Daniel which could mean that capitalizing on the video’s moment in the sun could’ve been a missed opportunity for many.
The data for Dat Boi looks a bit more erratic than some of the others which is probably a reflection of the meme’s absurd and nonsensical nature.
Dat Boi saw two huge spikes in orders shortly after it hit its maximum level of interest on Google Trends and sold a total of $6,562.
How to Build a Meme-Based Business
Here’s a quick rundown of just a few ways that entrepreneurs cashed in on memes this year, along with some resources to help you do the same in the future:
T-Shirts and Apparel
To call t-shirts a staple would be an understatement. They’re the foundation of fashion; the rock that everything else is built on top of. And they’re also incredibly easy to get started with, especially when you use print-on-demand services like Printful and Printify, both of which are available in the Shopify App Store.
If you’re thinking about diving into t-shirts, these will give you a headstart:
- How to Start a T-Shirt Business: The Ultimate Guide
- How I Built an Online T-Shirt Business and Made $1248.90 in 3 Weeks
- [FREE COURSE] How to Build an Online T-Shirt Store
Enamel lapel pins made huge waves in ecommerce this year, exploding onto the scene as one of the hottest new products out there. I covered them in my article 10 Trending Product Ideas for 2017 because their popularity has shot through the roof since the start of 2016. Although they require a bit more lead time than t-shirts, they’re still an interesting way to create unique, meme-based products.
If you’re thinking about making your own enamel pins, read these:
- How to Make Enamel Pins: The Ultimate Guide
- This Brooklyn Boutique Wants to Be the Nike of Enamel Pins
When you’re trying to move fast to capitalize on a meme or viral moment, there isn’t always time to make your own products. That’s where dropshipping comes in.
Dropshipping allows you to source your products from manufacturers that already have them in stock. That means you don’t need to hold any inventory yourself, you simply place an order with your manufacturing partner every time a customer places an order with you. Next time you notice a new meme, try heading to AliExpress or Alibaba to see if products based on that meme are already available direct from manufacturers.
If you’re thinking about giving dropshipping a shot, check these out:
- The Ultimate Guide to Dropshipping
- The Definitive Guide to Dropshipping with AliExpress
- How I Imported Gaming Glasses with Alibaba and Made $2416.51 in 5 Weeks
It was a wild year, but 2017 could hold just as many surprises.
Who knows, following a meme account on Instagram might be the smartest business decision you’ve ever made.