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Are Emojis the New Keywords?

By Dipak | 21st Jul 2016 | Posted in Social Media

Companies are now using emoticons and emoji in their campaigns like never before. Want a pizza? Simply tweet a pizza emoji to the Domino’s Twitter account, and one will be on its way. Brands can now even target adverts according to what emoji people are using on a social channels.

Dominoes Pizza TweetIs this strange? Perhaps, but in many ways an emoticon could be a better way to target adverts relevantly. A picture is worth a thousand words, after all. A genuine emotion is distilled into a single pictogram. There’s no need for words which may not convey precisely how one feels. Language barriers are broken, and the need for messy terms that could have several different meanings is taken away.

Look at almost every car advert ever made for television. The adverts usually have little to do with the car itself (though printed adverts can be quite different in this regard). They are likely to focus on certain feelings, themes, and motifs. Freedom, empowerment, individualism, escapism, rebellion, family life… These are the most common ideas that car adverts will use to try to sell to you. When the Bat-Signal is turned on, part of the purpose is to intimidate the criminals of Gotham City.

I sometimes wish I were immune to the power of the emoticon. Anyone who reads my informal writing would notice that I do use them, albeit sparingly. I also get a small rush when a friend of mine sends me an excited, happy, or winky face. Heck, even a couple of “x”s to denote a kiss or two send me into a tizzy. Knowing that you’ve managed to elicit a positive response from those closest to you is powerful stuff. After all, there’s not much better in the world than being treated with genuine affection, kindness, and thoughtfulness.

Yet, my patience for emoticons is limited, as it is for many others. Overuse of emoticons suggests one has nothing of substance or relevance to say. Spammy emails and texts are full of the darned things, and in most cases seem like overwrought attempts to look “cutesy”, “in the know”, or *shudder* “down with the kids” (no well-meaning adult – or child, for that matter – should ever attempt to be down with the kids). Emoticons, like slang, tend to go in-and-out of common usage, too. One day, an emoticon might be used by everyone. The next day, barely anyone at all, except behind-the-curve parents and those using it “ironically”.

This is complicated by the fact that there is a separate class of emoticon called the emoji. The difference here being that emoji convey ideas or concepts, not emotions. Emoji also need specific software to support them, and often use the same character usually set aside for Japonic and Sino-Tibetan languages. This is not surprising, since emoji hail from these places – places where complex symbolic writing systems are the norm.

This is where difficulties come in. Where emoticons display a simple, easy-to-understand emotion, emoji add nuance. Moreover, not all companies use the same character sets. A dancer emoji sent to an iPhone will look different to one sent to an Android. To make matters even worse, some emoji are also emoticons. Then there’s all the emoticon/emoji art to consider. What emotion is someone making an Abraham Lincoln emoji attempting to convey? Emoji are also prone to the whims of hackers and other types who like to “subvert” the meanings of popular symbols. Situationism is a well-regarded art, so this is not entirely negative.

All of a sudden, these symbols – which were supposed to take us away from complexity – have just drowned us in another layer of communication to navigate. Winks and kisses may seem rather innocent display of affection for me, but for others it can put up another barrier of communication, giving the impression that someone is simply hiding behind mean-nothing pictures instead of saying what they mean. Sure, using an emoticon on occasion to punctuate your sentence is nice – even thrilling – but use it once too often, and I won’t take you seriously.

This presents a huge conundrum for marketeers. Getting genuine emotions out of others is our bread-and-butter. An advert or marketing campaign is successful based upon how positive it makes people feel about a specific product or service. A simple-to-read emoticon/emoji may help cut out the nonsense and get us to the heart of the matter, or it could just end up us displaying meaningless guff to those who just wrote meaningless guff, intentionally or not. Emoji also have the problem of appearing “gimmicky”, especially things like Christmas trees for holiday adverts, hearts for Valentine’s Day and so on.

Systems like this are easily gamed, which is why spam filters look out for emoticons/emoji. Copywriters know that using emoticons and emoji inappropriately will mean that your email is likely to get binned. Should I get an email from Apple with an emoji in the subject line, it will get trashed if my spam filters don’t pick it up. I get a lovey-dovey face from my friend at the end of a text, and I will treasure it forever. Context clearly matters.

So, no, emoticons and emoji are not new keywords at all. Their history and usage runs deeper and longer than the internet. The only difference is that Twitter and Instagram have become slightly better at using this way of communicating more effectively. However, both the art and the science still have a long way to go, for all the reasons above. Try as one might to create a perfect formula and system for a context-free-yet-highly-contextual grammar, targeting emoji and emoticons is a risky game.

If you do want to create a successful campaign based on emoji, there are three points to bear in mind:

  1. Use sparingly but consistently.
  2. Make them relevant to your campaign – don’t use them where they are unnecessary, and never, ever use them for the sake of using them.
  3. Always be wary of context: hearts and smiley faces are not for every situation. Over 40s are also unlikely to use emoji extensively, so demographics also need to be taken into consideration.

Another factor is exclusivity. I like the kisses my friends send me, because they don’t just randomly send them, and they don’t just send them to anyone (I’m greedy, yo). Make something special, and people will want to share it. Make it too popular, and it becomes kitsch and open to abuse or subversion. All those hearts mean nothing to me if they are empty ones.

So, in conclusion, my advice would be thus: by all means use emoji and emoticons, but only sparingly. On the other hand, for larger or particularly exclusive campaigns, such as by making a certain emoji a “secret handshake”, making and/or targeting the right emoji could be a very cost-effective cross-platform and multilingual way to get a message across.

Just don’t spam your symbol in people’s faces, OK? Oh, and never, ever assume I know what your newfangled emoticon means. We old 30-something types still like banter and the ability to write in something other than whatever vomit-inducing Pokemon-alike, cloying emoji is fashionable that particular day. I will still accept all kisses with open cheeks, though.

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