Say It With A Smile: Is An Emoji Worth A Thousand Words? by [email protected]

The Rise of Emojis

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 [email protected] show on Wharton Business Radio, which airs on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

[email protected]: 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.

[email protected]: 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.

[email protected]: 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.

[email protected]: 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

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