05/10/2013 03:44 pm ET Updated Jul 10, 2013

4 Steps to Safely Make the Leap into Meme Land

Whether it's Grumpy Cat captions or Harlem Shake knock-offs, there's always some new Internet trend to follow and imitate.

Bored teenagers and wannabe comedians put their own spin on viral videos and images without fear of public ridicule (aside from rude YouTube comments). However, brands wanting to jump on the meme train have to be careful because there is a lot more at stake than a few Internet trolls.

Although the potential for increased exposure and community involvement is high, so is the likelihood of being sued for copyright infringement if the social participation isn't done correctly.

The Good and the Bad

One benefit of involvement in trending videos and images is showing a company's fanbase that it is relevant and relatable. Plus, it targets the ever-coveted millennial demographic.

A great example of molding a social phenomenon to fit an established brand is AARP's YouTube video take on Carly Rae Jepson's hit "Call Me Maybe." They adapted the song for Grandparent's Day, and the video featured fun interactions between kids and their grandparents.

A recent example of corporate meme use gone wrong is a recently filed lawsuit against Warner Brothers for the use of the popular feline memes Nyan Cat and Keyboard Cat. The lawsuit alleges that the company did not pay for the image license. Using any non-proprietary images and videos in advertisements should be checked with the legal department - viral content is no exception and should be dealt with very carefully.

4 Steps to Safely Make the Leap into Meme Land

Check off the criteria below before jumping on the "next big thing." If you can't, just enjoy the show for the two or three weeks it lasts.

1. Check and double check legal use of content - Educate yourself on what is fair use of online images and videos and double check your usage with legal advisors or experts. Aside from potentially losing money and time in long-term litigation, this can negatively impact branding and credibility.

2. Evaluate the trend and the residual value - What value is generated from joining a trend? Is it for entertainment sake or for publicity? Make sure that the reasons for creating viral content add to the value the company already provides its fans and customers. Joining the bandwagon just for the sake of joining could be a time waster that offers little longevity or traction.

3. Create a memorable addition to the meme - Don't just imitate what everyone else is doing. Be original, be specific and be on point with your brand's message and personality.

4. Move quickly - Although it's important to think through a strategy for creating and posting trending material, whatever you're doing is pointless if the meme is already old news. Jump on board before the momentum slows.

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