Next time you are on Twitter, check out emoji search by Google. If you tweet an emoji to Google’s Twitter account, Google will respond with suggestions of where to eat or what to do based on the content of your emoji. For instance, I tweeted to Google a donut emoji, and Google tweeted me back a link to search results for “donut” nearby (along with a GIF for good measure).
The functionality is limited (Google says it is working on 200 search-enabled emoji) but demonstrates just one of the ways that emoji have become the lingua franca of our lives. Three elements of cultural adoption — consumers, media platforms, and brands — have converged to make emoji mainstream, and there is no turning back.
Consumers Speak Emoji
The first element of cultural adoption consists of everyday people adopting an idea, often in regional pockets. Emoji have taken hold as an acceptable way for our mobile society to express themselves — which is neither good nor bad, just a sign of the evolving ways in which people communicate. According to the 2016 Emoji Report, published by Emogi, in 2016 people sent to each other 2.3 trillion mobile messages that incorporate emoji. Heavy mobile texters — people who say they send messages several times a day — use emoji in 56 percent of their messages. (Those heavy mobile messaging app users are typically female and younger.)
People use emoji to be understood, to add sentiment, or simply to express themselves as quickly as possible. Emoji are especially appealing to a culture that relies on mobile texting. Short-form text does not always lend itself to expressing sentiment. Emoji eliminate that problem. Accordingly, emoji use has exploded as mobile messaging apps have become more popular. The amount of time adults in the U.S. spend on mobile messaging apps will increase from five minutes a day in 2016 to nine minutes per day in 2017 and 14 minutes per day in 2018, according to eMarketer. 📱
And we’re hungry for more: 75 percent of mobile messaging users want more emoji options, and half of U.S. consumers would be open to using in their messages branded emoji such as a 😀 next to a Pepsi can or a dancing Coors Light can, according to the 2016 Emoji Report.
Media platforms such as Apple, Facebook, Google, Snapchat, and Twitter are usually necessary to amplify an idea beyond initial adoption by everyday people. All the major media platforms have taken major steps.
Throughout 2016, Apple aggressively emoji-fied the way users of its Operating System communicate. At its Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple rolled out an expanded emoji library to make Apple Messenger a far more lively communication channel. It was as if Apple switched from color to black and white by dialing up its use of emoji. Any Apple Operating System user noticed the change the moment they updated to OS X, as Apple made it easier to select emoji along with GIFs and images to turn texts into bursts of multi-media goodness.
Apple also added some important cultural nuance to its emoji. In August 2016, Apple rolled out emoji that recognize and celebrate diversity, including single-parent families, rainbow flags, and more images of people of color. As Apple noted on its website, “This exciting update brings more gender options to existing characters, including new female athletes and professionals, adds beautiful redesigns of popular emoji, a new rainbow flag and more family options.
Apple is working closely with the Unicode Consortium to ensure that popular emoji characters reflect the diversity of people everywhere.”
Facebook gradually incorporated emoji into the way its community communicates. In early 2016, Facebook added emoji to the Facebook Like button, thus adding more sentiment to a simple click. Facebook Messenger introduced 1,200 new emoji, and Facebook pushed emoji to commemorate special events such as Star Trek’s 50th Anniversary. But organic is not Facebook’s style. Look for Facebook to incorporate emoji more as a paid media strategy with brands.
Google made emoji a more prominent part of its ecosystem. For instance, Gboard, launched in 2016, introduces all sorts of functions into your mobile device’s keyboard, including easier access to emoji (Google also unveiled a handy emoji search tool to Gboard in December). But Google wasn’t done. Google also unleashed Allo, a smarter, more visual messaging app that includes, among other functions, a shortcut for discovering emoji. And, as noted, Google is encouraging the adoption of emoji in our everyday lives through functions such as emoji search — which is where I think emoji will really take hold as mobile use continues to rise.
Not surprisingly, Snapchat has been an emoji innovator, introducing functionality such as making it possible for users to add emoji next to their friends’ names, based on variables such as their Zodiac signs. Snapchat also allows its members to pin emoji to Snaps, which makes the emoji animated, and Snapchat uses emoji as visual cues to tell you how often you and your friends communicate with each other. For instance, a gold heart next to your friend’s name signifies that you and your friend send the most snaps to each other — you are the bestest of best friends. At the other end of the scale, a baby emoji means you and have just become friends. The emoji are an interesting way for Snapchat to exert some pressure on you and your friends to share more (on Snapchat, naturally).
For Snapchat, emoji are a natural extension of the visual ways that Snapchatters tell stories. Especially now that Snapchat enters the realm of being publicly traded, look for the platform to find more ways to incorporate emoji commercially, such as incorporating emoji more aggressively into its advertising.
Twitter has been a proving ground for emoji, an example being Coca-Cola and Twitter launching the first branded emoji in 2015. The platform has been especially effective for using emoji to celebrate global events such as the 2016 Olympics. In the run-up to Super Bowl 51, Twitter exploded with emoji including a customized Lady Gaga emoji. To commemorate Black History Month, Twitter has launched a series of emoji and a chatbot that will suggest to you ways to commemorate Black History on Twitter through a variety of hashtags. All you need to do is send a direct message to @Blackbirds (Twitter’s black employee resource group) to join in. The Black History emoji are a perfect example of how Twitter continues to lead as an event-based app.
These platforms are all incorporating emoji to increase levels of user engagement on their platforms, which makes the platforms more attractive to advertisers. My bet is that Snapchat will be the first to monetize emoji in a powerful way.
Brands add the all-important element of commerce to cultural adoption. And brands are using emoji to do to everything from inject sentiment to ordering products. In 2015, Domino’s set the standard against which all emoji branding seems to be measured now when Domino’s made it possible for its customers to order pizzas with emoji on Twitter and then through texting. As Khushbu Shah of Eater wrote at the time, “Gone are the days where pressing a couple of buttons on a smartwatch or voicing an order to a virtual assistant on Domino’s mobile app seemed convenient. Those methods are entirely too cumbersome and tedious when ordering is now as simple as tweeting an emoji.”
The notion of simply texting or tweeting a pizza emoji promised to remove layers of friction from ordering, which generated great PR for Domino’s. In reality, ordering a pizza with an emoji turned out to be more complicated than the marketing made it sound. Domino’s claims that half its U.S. sales come from digital, and so the emoji ordering feature makes sense for the company to try, even if the actual experience is not as slick as advertised.
In fact, Domino’s is not the only brand using emoji. A number of other businesses have creatively employed emoji, such as:
- As noted, in 2015, Coca-Cola became the first brand to get its own custom emoji, which appeared when people tweeted #ShareaCoke. The emoji created social engagement for Coke — within 24 hours, #ShareaCoke scored 170,500 mentions globally through the joint effort between Coke and Twitter.
- General Electric created an #EmojiScience campaign consisting of a website, emojiscience.com, which contains emoji as a periodic table of the elements. Clicking on each emoji leads you to more layers of scientific information, including explanations about aspects of science from Bill Nye in the #EmojiScienceLab. For instance, clicking on a rocket ship emoji revealed information about the New Horizons space mission to Pluto. The experience brilliantly supports GE’s brand, which is rooted in the power of science.
- In 2016, Pepsi rolled out an emoji campaign notable for its multichannel integration. The PepsiMoji summer campaign featured more than 600 proprietary emoji designs on packaging (including more than a billion bottles and cans), Instagram, and video on social media. The PepsiMoji returned during the holiday season with the launch of a set of holiday-inspired emoji, all with the express intent of getting people to #SayItwithPepsi.
- Luxury brands have been employing emoji to create some heat around Valentine’s Day. For example, Michael Kors launched an emoji keyboard that works with Android and Apple devices to share special Valentine’s Day emoji such as kissing lips and conversation hearts. Moët created a branded emoji keyboard, too, which includes lips, hearts, and mini-animated Moët & Chandon bottles with popping corks. In essence, these businesses are creating utilities that facilitates Valentine’s Day-themed messages while engaging with the brands.
For many other brands, using emoji can mean simply incorporating emoji into their content, whether posting information on Facebook or tweeting. Emoji constitute an effective way to express brand sentiment and promote a campaign just as visual storytelling does. And tools are emerging to help brands become more sophisticated. For instance, startup Inmoji runs emoji-based marketing campaigns for big brands such as Disney and Starbucks. Inmoji offers a self-service platform in which brands can create clickable stickers that reveal more content. Brands are reporting engagement rates exceeding 100 percent because people click on the emoji multiple times.
Emogi, the publisher of The 2016 Emoji Report, has introduced a way for businesses to embed branded emoji into text messages, which is crucial because, as noted, texting is a popular form of emoji sharing. Here is how the process works, as noted by Jia Tolentino of The New Yorker:
- A beer brand—let’s say Bud Light—makes an ad buy on the triggers “party,” “drinks,” or “🍺.” The brand then targets the users in the demographic they’re going after: women aged eighteen to thirty-five in New York or Chicago, say, whose Internet profiles indicate that they’ve recently searched for local bars. When these women text their friends “🍺?,” a selection of Bud Light emoji will pop up in their keyboards: a girl riding a beer can like a rocket, perhaps, or a frog sipping a Bud Light, or a💃clutching a beer in both hands. Ideally, these little images will be too charming to resist.
In addition, Emogi and Moat recently launched a tool to measure consumer engagement with emoji, and with measurability comes more legitimacy. Whether the emoji are annoying or cool depends on how creative and authentic the emoji look. I’d argue that an emoji of a Starbucks cup is more authentic than a bland coffee cup, just like people in a movie seem more believable and real when they’re sipping a Coke instead of a generic Acme brand.
What Brands Should Do
The combination of consumer usage, media amplification, and brand participation will ensure that emoji continue to grow in usage. Already 92 percent of online consumers use them, and clever tools such as Bitmoji continue to make emoji mainstream. All brands owe it to themselves to examine how to use emoji in their content, whether through advertising or branded content. If you are a brand, you should ask:
- How does your audience use emoji? How do they incorporate them into their tweets to you and in their Facebook posts, for instance?
- How might you test the use of emoji? Do A/B tests in your social content and emails to see whether emoji result in higher rates of engagement.
- How are other companies using emoji and why? Study their successes and failures, and learn from them.
- Where does it make sense for you to use emoji? For Domino’s the ordering functionality makes sense (even if flawed) because of the Domino’s strategy of driving sales from digital. As noted, brands have many other options, such as simply adding emoji to social posts, embedding emoji into ads, and using them in content such as blog posts. You don’t have to issue a press release in emoji as Chevrolet did. But at the least, look for ways to incorporate emoji to impart tone within short-form content.
And here’s one thing you don’t want to do: ignore emoji. Assuming emoji don’t apply to you is like ignoring the rise of visual storytelling or being ignorant of how language is changing in everyday use. Emoji are here to stay. ✍