Emojis have barely been around for 20 years, but they have quickly changed the way we communicate. From being used exclusively by teenagers and frowned upon in professional settings, to being named Word of the Year by Oxford Dictionaries in 2015, emojis have come a long way. What should brands know about emojis, how should they interpret them, and why even use them? Read on to find out!
When emojis were first created by a Japanese mobile service provider in 1999, users had 180 options to choose from. Today, users are spoilt for choice, with iPhone users having over 2,800 emojis available to choose from with the iOS 12.1 update. The official body governing international emoji standards, the Unicode Consortium, lists 1,400 emojis currently available, with more being approved and added every year.
Over the last few years, statistics from SocialBakers suggest a significant increase in the use of emojis on Facebook as well as on Instagram. Furthermore, research performed on data from 86,702 users in 2017 shows that 90% of Facebook users across different age groups used emojis when communicating on the platform.
This widespread use of emojis has made it a fascinating topic to study, especially in the field of linguistics.
At BrandBastion, we work closely with global brands who often use emojis in their social media content and when communicating with their fans. The majority of the comments, messages and Tweets these brands receive also include emojis.
We process all comments that our clients receive using natural language processing and machine learning to detect sentiment and to classify social media content based on our clients’ needs and preferences. Our ability to understand the nuances and components of social media language, such as emojis, enables us to understand and take fast action on content at scale and with high accuracy. This includes:
When it comes to what brands should know about emojis, how to interpret them, and why even use them, we’ve put together a few pointers to keep in mind:
The meaning of an emoji can change drastically based on the context. The context of emojis is a topic coming up increasingly in court cases, where judges are being faced with difficult questions like “Can a knife emoji double as a threat to kill someone?” and “Does a heart emoji from a manager constitute sexual harassment?”
This lack of clarity may lead to some people dismissing the use of emojis altogether. But it’s important to remember that context matters for words as well. Saying a celebrity is “huge” can either be an expression of utmost appreciation or description of physical features.
Language is tricky and so are emojis. The meaning of both words as well as emojis depends very much on the situational, interactional, and cultural contexts. In spoken interactions, non-verbal signals help us choose the correct interpretation of the words and phrases being used by our conversational partner. It is widely accepted that words form only 7% of what is being said. The other 93% consists of the tone of voice, mimics, and gestures.
If this is true, this means that in written communication we are left with only a very limited part of the whole message. It is here that emojis (and text-formatting) come into play.
Emojis enable us to convey the intended meaning of our message - regardless of whether the emojis used are supporting or contradicting the words being used. One significant use of emojis is sarcasm - here, emojis may be the only trigger to help us correctly interpret the intended meaning.
In a comment such as, “The movie was so amazing - it was definitely worth those two hours of my time!” we might believe the user has enjoyed the movie and is truly thankful for the recommendation, but the addition of certain emojis such as “😂 😹 😆 😅 🤣” would suggest this may not actually be the case. This is why written social media language needs emojis and why their interpretation important. This is also why a double meaning should always be considered with certain types of emojis.
A recently published survey by Adobe suggests that the use of emojis makes people appear more friendly. 81% of emoji users surveyed in the U.S. said the use of emojis makes users appear friendlier and more approachable. Three absolute favorites emojis were also selected by the participants - the Face With Tears Of Joy emoji dominated the survey, followed by the Red Heart and the Face Blowing A Kiss.
Even in work environments, the use of emojis is seen positively, as the results of the survey suggest. 91% of respondents said they interpret the use of emojis as showing support. What may be even more striking is that 63% of respondents (and 83% of respondents from Generation Z!) preferred to express their emotions using emojis over a phone call. These results suggest that a good understanding of emojis is key for anyone engaging with people on social media.
Emojis are an example of “iconic signs” (a term coined by the father of linguistics Ferdinand de Saussure). Iconic signs look similar to the exact objects they represent, and thus are often better descriptions of the objects than words. Emojis can even be considered a universal language based on this.
The fact that people do perceive emojis as literal representations of the objects they are describing can be seen from the demand for different skin tones.
Besides creating a common language for the world, emojis can also foster empathy. Several studies confirm that exposure to pictures of emotional facial expressions evokes corresponding facial reactions in muscles expressing positive and negative emotions.
While emoji users around the world may agree on the usage and context of some emojis, other emojis have stirred up huge debates. For instance, the DNA emoji that was introduced by the Unicode Consortium in the past year has generated an uproar among scientists. This is mainly due to the DNA emoji’s left-handed twist which is extremely rare for DNA. Scientists have taken to Twitter to call for variants of the emoji where the twist would be more accurate, and the Consortium finally updated the emoji to look more representative.
Another emoji that was subject to debate was the Green Salad emoji . Previously, the salad contained an egg . Google since dropped the egg to only include lettuce and slices of tomato, to make it more inclusive for vegans, prompting the British Egg Industry Council to express their disappointment in this move.
The discussion and debate about emojis in major spheres of life, from science to agriculture, underscores the huge impact emojis have on our lives.
When emojis are used in a message, this generates empathy on the receiver’s end. Does this empathy also foster more trust in the sender of the message, increasing the message’s persuasiveness? Scientific investigations suggest that this tends to be the case, especially for negative comments and reviews.
The theory of negativity bias, or the negativity effect, states that consumers tend to assign greater value to negative information over positive information. In studies where identically-worded reviews were presentation to participants with and without emojis, the negative reviews that had emojis were considered more useful and credible (Qiu, Wang, Pang & Jiang, 2016; Manganari & Dimara, 2017).
New emojis are being added to different platforms each year and their use has significantly increased within the past few years. A brand’s community on social media is no longer just a passive audience - when users leave comments and emojis on a brand’s post, they are becoming content co-creators. The influence that user-generated content has on other consumers' decision-making is remarkable.
No longer just a simplistic communication tool or shortcut, emojis have become an essential part of modern language. They are a powerful weapon in the hands of social media content creators, including both brands and individuals - for better or for worse.