In 2015, Oxford Dictionaries crowned an emoji as the word of the year. The decision received mixed reviews. That a goofy smiley face could be considered a word was, to some, a mockery of the English language. Others, however, saw it as the first step toward developing a universal language that everyone could understand.
Emojis were not an overnight success; they have actually been around since 1999. They gained massive traction among multiple age groups in 2011 with Apple’s release of iOS 5, becoming a standard keyboard to all iPhones. Until that point, downloading and installing an emoji app was a multistep process. Primary users were those who frequently used their smartphones for texting or instant messaging. More often than not, these users were Millennials, which makes sense given that over 85% of U.S. Millennials own a smartphone, according to a Nielsen study in the second quarter of 2014.
Emojis are the epitome of the phrase, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” with the ability to convey emotion more effectively and in far fewer characters than words. For this reason, they are a natural fit for Twitter, where, since 2014, more than 110 billion emojis have been tweeted in the United States alone.
Brands also have taken note. Domino’s Pizza, for example, had tremendous success with a 2015 campaign in which people could tweet the pizza emoji for a 30-minute delivery to their homes. Domino’s largely credits the promotion for helping it reach an estimated $4.7 billion annually in global digital sales.
Although this was successful in both generating revenue as well as reaching the Millennial audience--of which I am a member--marketers should think twice before treating emojis as the de facto language of an entire generation.
Case in point: Chevrolet recently released an all-emoji press release for the Chevy Cruze. The promotion was targeted at Millennials, but rather than resonating, it generated confusion and criticism of coming off forced. Many critics thought the emojis should be used organically to add that extra touch of facial expression.
In my opinion, this confirms the notion of “what can be done can be overdone.” Yes, emojis are a convenient (and fun) shortcode to display emotion. But they don’t replace language itself to the point of needing to be decoded and interpreted. And they’re surely not a brand’s ticket “in” with Millennials.
Still, make no mistake: Emojis are here to stay, and they’re beginning to evolve. Phojis are the most recent addition to the landscape, enabling brands to turn real pictures, logos, product shots, etc., into interactive, personal emojis. They also can be integrated with a brand’s messaging services, including email, SMS, MMS, Twitter, and push notifications, for communication with individuals, at scale. For its part, Skype recently added its own form of emoji, the moji—short video clips to express yourself in instant messages when emoticons are just not enough.
Like any marketing strategy, emojis and their counterparts should be used appropriately. They must be of service to the target audience and fit within their language and lifestyle. (That goes for any generation, not just Millennials.) Brands must be careful to avoid sending a mixed message by using emojis with serious subject matter. It’s all about time and place.
That said, emojis can be a great way to quickly convey and stimulate ideas and emotions. In the end, isn’t this what marketing is about?