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Say It With a Smile: Is an Emoji Worth a Thousand Words?

Emojis, those little pictographic cartoons that express emotions, have become such an integral part of modern communication that the word itself was officially added to the Merriam-Webster and Oxford dictionaries in 2015. In fact, Oxford Dictionaries chose the emoji of a face crying tears of joy as its word of the year because judges said the symbol “best reflected the ethos, mood and preoccupations of 2015.”

Beyond the entertainment factor of sending someone a tiny picture of a cat’s face with heart eyes, emojis are creeping into formal missives as nonverbal communication becomes more prevalent. To discuss this trend, Wharton marketing professor Americus Reed, Luke Stark, a media historian who looks at digital communication and psychology, and Jen Golbeck, director of the Social Intelligence Lab at the University of Maryland, joined the Knowledge@Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio, which airs on SiriusXM channel 111.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: Can you talk about the importance of emojis to technology companies?

Luke Stark: This is going to be something that you’re going to see even more of in the next five to 10 years. There’s a real interest in collecting emotional data by companies from their users across all sorts of social media platforms — Facebook is one of them. I think you’re going to see lots of new ways to get these symbols into expression.

Knowledge@Wharton: In some respects, emojis seem like a generational thing. If you’re under 30, you probably use emojis a lot more than people over 30. But some of the older generations are starting to adopt this more.

Stark: For sure. I think you’ll remember those famous smiley-face buttons in the 1970s. I think you can trace a pretty direct line from that graphic to these digital smiley faces. So, it shouldn’t be so unfamiliar to some of the older generation. Just think of that “Have a Nice Day” button. It’s kind of that, but extended out to the world of smartphones.

Knowledge@Wharton: It is interesting that this becomes such an important business element to a lot of companies in the tech realm.

“Just think of that ‘Have a Nice Day’ button. It’s kind of that, but extended out to the world of smartphones.” –Luke Stark

Jen Golbeck: On one hand, emojis are great for people in businesses because they allow you to put some emotion and whimsy and clarification into texts that can otherwise be a little ambiguous. If you put a laughing face or a smiley face after some text, it can really convey an emotion that might otherwise be a little bit vague. Of course, it’s whimsical and kind of funny and wonderful. And when companies do it well, it’s great and it’s a way to connect, especially in social media where people want to feel like they’re having a personal connection.

On the other hand, when they do it wrong, it’s just kind of embarrassing and cringe-worthy. If you get someone who’s not really well-versed in that space managing your social media and using them poorly, they can get you some ridicule.

Knowledge@Wharton: How often are they not being used properly?

Golbeck: The clearest example was the Hillary Clinton campaign, which probably a year ago [now] sent out a tweet that said, “Explain your student loan debt to us in three emojis or less.” They weren’t actually using them there, but they were calling for them. It just felt like this terrible, fake way of trying to connect with young people that really got her in trouble. All of the responses were ridiculing emojis.

If you’re sticking to the smiley face ones, businesses tend to [use them] OK. The real risk comes from mixed meanings. There are studies that show a very large percentage of people have different interpretations of what’s conveyed by emojis. I know I had this problem.

There’s one emoji with three green cylinders of different heights that have this kind of almond-shaped yellow thing at the top and some dirt at the bottom. I always thought it was a zombie hand coming out of the ground. It’s actually a Japanese ornamental celebratory plant. I was using it every time I was talking about zombies. I don’t think I offended anybody there, but I’ve seen it used a bunch of times and lots of people agreed with me. If you’re in a business marketing your latest zombie movie and you’re putting Japanese celebratory plants in there, you can be conveying a message that might offend some people or just make you look clueless.

Stark: I’ll use a certain emoji with my friends in a very different way than I would maybe with my partner, maybe with my mother — if my mother had a cellphone. I think some of that is a good feature of this form of communication. But it does make it difficult for businesses to get it right.

Americus Reed: Is there a standardized emoji dictionary that you can go to and have very clear understanding of what these things mean across contexts?

Golbeck: There are certainly dictionaries online that will give you all the emojis. You can copy and paste them, and it tells you what they are. I was trying to search for the zombie-hand emoji and couldn’t find it. But there’s a lot of them to go through, right? So, you want to make sure if you’re a business that you’ve read that and understand what it is that you’re tweeting. But I don’t think that gets to the interpretation issue.

Stark: The interpretation is more to do with fonts. Emojis are just characters. Apple has one emoji font. Android has another emoji font. A lot of the miscommunication comes through different fonts for different emojis. Some of them do look quite different. You can have vastly different interpretations of that zombie plant, so it’s hard to tell what it is.

Reed: What are some examples of excellent uses of emojis in business? And what does the research or data show about what that actually does for the company? Does it simply signal that you’re in the know and can talk to a younger audience? Or does that matter in how people react to the brand, the company, the organization?

Golbeck: I’ve seen it used well by a range of surprising organizations. I think the one that people have talked about the most is Domino’s where you can tweet them the pizza emoji. You link your account to your phone, you tweet the pizza emoji, you order it. I think that’s just a beautiful use of emojis because it’s fun and funny. At the same time, it lets you do a task. I order Domino’s pizza pretty regularly, and I have that preset order. If I go to the website, I click two buttons. I’ve used the pizza emoji to tweet at them or message them.

“If you get someone who’s not really well-versed in that space managing your social media and using them poorly, they can [earn] you some ridicule.” –Jen Golbeck

NPR does a really good job using emojis. Whoever they have doing their social media on Twitter is clearly someone who uses them a lot. And they use them in the right way. They did a story about how certain biomes that come out in your poop can indicate [the state of] your health. They used the smiling poop emoji, which I didn’t think any business could effectively use.

Knowledge@Wharton: Playing off what you said about Domino’s, I could see grocery stores using online emoji ordering. The new emojis include bacon, eggs and bread. You could pick up your order by sending emojis to the grocery store, right?

Golbeck: That’s right. There’s a lot of fruit and we’re getting a new pancake emoji, so you could definitely order breakfast.

Knowledge@Wharton: But doesn’t it seem that we’re going a little too far with this?

Stark: Well, you’re never going to be able to order everything through emoji. You’d have too many characters.

Knowledge@Wharton: It seems like a lot of our conversation now is in emoji. Don’t we lose something in terms of not having that face-to-face conversation?

Stark: We definitely do. A lot of the diversity of conversations on social media are now happening through things with all emojis. They’re happening through these little animated GIFs or other pop-culture savvy technologies that are now in some ways replacing emoji. Emoji is hitting the mainstream, but in terms of the cutting edge of where emotional expression is happening online, they’re actually a little bit passé.

I just want to jump on Jen’s point about emoji done well. I’ve seen a lot of emoji done poorly. Chevrolet has a campaign right now for some car that they’ve just sort of tacked the emoji onto the posters. I agree with Jen that if they’re used well and in context, they can be a really effective marketing tool. But I think if you’re just going to stick them on something, it kind of falls flat. It doesn’t convey the whole context of what those symbols convey.

Knowledge@Wharton: The nonprofit Unicode Consortium just released 72 new emojis. I don’t know if there was a sense of social awareness within the development of these emojis, but one that they thought about putting out and didn’t was a rifle. This was around the time of the mass shooting at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

Stark: They’ve got a handgun and all sorts of weaponry in there, so they might want to take those out. But I think you raise a good point, which is that tech companies like Apple, Facebook and the ones that are part of this consortium have a big impact on the ways we can express ourselves online. When they make a decision like that, which probably was the right decision given current events, it definitely makes you think about how much impact those companies have on the symbols we use to express ourselves.

“Tech companies like Apple, Facebook … have a big impact on the ways we can express ourselves online.” –Luke Stark

Knowledge@Wharton: I’ve read there’s going to be an app coming out that will react to the words that you put in a text message. It will read certain words and suggest an emoji for the word. Is that the next level of development?

Stark: It sure is. In fact, some of those technologies have been used by East Asian messaging services like Line It’s a very popular messaging service in Japan and Korea, and they’ve been doing that for a few years now. That’s well underway.

Golbeck: That you can tap the word basketball or pizza and replace it with an emoji highlights the risks that come with the ‘corporatization’ of emojis and animated GIFs, which are the more expressive counterpart of this that we also see a lot of.

The point of emojis is to be quirky and show your creativity. If it’s corporatized or automated, you lose that. If we go back to the GIFs that Luke brought up, because I think that’s an important element of this conversation, part of the joy of putting an animated GIF as a response to something is showing how creative you can be.

I’m a hockey fan. I follow this great blog and Twitter account called Russian Machine Never Breaks, which is for Capitals hockey fans. They’ll ask during playoff games, “How do you feel right now?” Everybody responds with these different animated GIFs and emojis to show how nervous they are. But if you’re pulling from Twitter’s preloaded library of animated GIFs, you’re not being very creative. If you’re using some corporately engineered emoji, you’re not really being that creative. And if you just type the word nervous and Apple replaces it with the nervous emoji, you’re not really participating in the creative part of that, which is why we like to use these.

So, I think that you’re right. We can carry it too far. Now, there are certainly places where it would be useful, especially if you’re in a character-limited environment where you may want to be replacing words with emojis just for brevity’s sake. But I think that it doesn’t really embrace the spirit of why people love emojis and the animated GIFs so much.

“The point of emojis is to be quirky and show your creativity. If it’s corporatized or automated, you lose that.” –Jen Golbeck

Reed: I am a digital immigrant, so none of this makes any sense to me whatsoever. But this seems to me like a one-trick pony. Once you get through, “OK, we can be kind of whimsical,” there are only so many iterations that you can come up with. Luke was saying look for the next five to 10 years, and I just can’t imagine why this is interesting to people. Of course, I’m not in this target market.

Golbeck: I think that’s a great point. You’re right in a sense. There’s only so much you can do with emojis. I have a good time finding creative ways to use emojis to try to convey some meaning and make a little puzzle out of it, but there’s only so much … you can do.

I think the animated GIFs are one part of this. GIFs have been around since the beginning of the web. They used to give you spinning beach balls and cheesy stuff from the ’90s web. Now that the bandwidth is higher, we can make these bigger ones, so you get excerpts from videos and TV shows. There’s a website that will let you find any clip of any episode of “The Simpsons” and express it out into an animated GIF.

In the ’90s, [when] I was in high school, we used to have conversations like, “Remember that Simpson’s episode where they did that?” Now you can react that way with a GIF of the actual scene that you’re thinking of. It gives you this much bigger space where you can take sections from TV shows or movies, celebrities saying things, cartoons and come back with a response. It opens up well beyond what you get in these Unicode emoji characters to find a clever response.

Stark: People are always going to want to communicate, right? This is the whole point of social media. Part of the genesis of emoji in the first place was about character limits. It was Japanese telephone companies giving their customers, young people who didn’t have a lot of money for their phone bills, a way to communicate more efficiently via pager. You’d buy a pager and have these cute little symbols. I think anything that lets folks communicate their emotions and other things socially is going to do it.

Knowledge@Wharton: Jen, when you’re writing a text to somebody and you put an emoji in there, what does that save you in terms of the characters within that text?

Golbeck: I was thinking especially on Twitter, where you have [a limit of] 140 characters. If you replace the word basketball, which has 10 characters, with a basketball emoji, you’re giving yourself quite a bit of Twitter real estate in that space. In text messages, where you’re not limited in the number of characters you can use, you do get [to express more] emotions or other cues. If I’m texting my nieces or my husband, I’ll put little heart emojis in there.

Reed: What are your thoughts on the branding of celebrities through emojis? I was reading online that Kim Kardashian has an entire of series of Kimojis, and apparently these are little characters that have various physical attributes.

Golbeck: On one hand, Kim Kardashian is certainly of social media, right? If anyone is going to have their own emojis and use them, she’s going to be part of that culture. I certainly wouldn’t use it. I’m not a fan of the Kardashian media empire, but I could see it working.

On the other hand, is that a generalizable business model? I don’t know. I think she works because her brand, her whole persona is social media. If you were to get a media company, whether it’s Disney or whoever, to come along, certainly people would use it. But you’re going to run into a risk of feeling very corporate in an environment that’s designed to feel very personal and authentic. I think that’s kind of risky.

Knowledge@Wharton: What would be the investment case for making your own set of emojis?

Golbeck: The way I think we’re seeing how businesses are going to use it is something that Twitter is doing now, where they’re allowing custom emojis to go with brands.

“The Walking Dead” has this. “Ghostbusters” just had one where if you would type ‘#ghostbusters,’ you’d get their little emoji ghost with the slash through it, which I just thought was brilliant. “Game of Thrones” has this. A lot of shows have it. Getting a little icon to come up alongside it makes your tweet a little bit prettier, and that’s a nice way for companies to engage where they get that one great emoji in there for people who want to use it. It doesn’t feel over-corporatized or forced on you and it is much lighter weight. I suspect that’s the way we’re going to see this go.

Knowledge@Wharton: Luke, will we see more corporations come out with emojis? Will we see a McDonald’s emoji with the arches in the near future?

Stark: You just might. I think where you’re going to see it is on an app like Snapchat, where companies are already giving you filters so you can make your face into a dog or some other kind of emoji-like form. I think you’re going to see a lot more of that.

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