Why Marketers Should πŸ’“ Emojis but 🐝 Aware of Potential Pitfalls

In our paper we establish that emojis are a new form of visual communication that can help marketers and influencers grab social media users’ attention and elicit engagement.

What are Emojis?

  • Emojis are ideograms or picture-words that convey ideas independent of a particular language.
  • Emojis are visually appealing, semantically rich, intrinsically playful, and allow for convenient communication, which is especially important for the growing number of users who access social media via their mobile phones.
  • Unlike emoticons that can be created by users, emojis are primarily created by software and technology companies and are adopted through a standardization process that is run by the Unicode Consortium.
  • Although recognized as a universal language, emojis can differ somewhat depending on the social media platform used.
  • Communicators who use emojis rely on their correct interpretation by the message receiver.
  • Importantly, both emoji use and interpretation are often culture specific. For instance, while the thumbs-up emoji (πŸ‘) conveys positive meaning in North American and Asia, it is an insult in other countries.
  • Facilitated by the variety of emojis available on social media, consumers use emojis in increasingly creative and complex ways, ranging from expressing emotions to conveying information, sometimes even telling complete stories using only these visual symbols.

Emoji Communication Strategies

Marketers need to know how to fit into the conversations these emoji-loving consumers are having on social media. Analyzing the posts of top Chinese influencers on Weibo, we developed a taxonomy of emoji communication strategies. We found that they involve the following four building blocks:

Emoji type

Influencers use not only all the categories listed in the Emoji Unicode 10.0, but also those specifically afforded by Weibo (e.g. the Weibo symbol
Weibo Emoji Embarassment means β€˜embarrassment’). They mostly use emojis related to gestures, objects, faces and animals. The most popular animal emojis emerging from our data are a Husky named Emoji Er Ha and a Shiba Inu named Emoji Doge
Weibo influencers use them to refer to themselves or their friends to support playful interactions with their followers.

Emoji modality

The social media posts we studied involved both static and animated emojis, for example, (https://img.t.sinajs.cn/t4/appstyle/expression/ext/normal/32/lxhwahaha_thumb.gif)

Emoji mode

In addition to using a single emoji, influencers also string multiple emojis together to formulate emoji sequences, including the repetitive use of a single emoji, the combination of multiple different emojis, or a mix of single and repetitive use of different emojis. Marketers need to be attentive to and mimic such user conventions.

Emoji usage in relation to text

Our research finds that influencers use emojis independently or in combination with text.

  • There are three patterns of emoji use in combination with text:
    1) emphasizing the text/repeating the text;
    2) modifying the tone of the text; and,
    3) replacing parts of the text.
  • Influencers use emojis to communicate four distinct things:
    1) express emotions and attitudes;
    2) offer factual information;
    3) ask consumers to do something; and,
    4) make a promise.
  • Influencers use emojis to express not only positive but negative and mixed emotions to trigger reactions in their followers. For example, β€˜This old woman is suffering 😭😭😭 Where are her childrenπŸ˜‘πŸ˜‘πŸ˜‘β€™. They express positive emotions primarily through conveying affection, sympathy, flattery, as well as love and friendship. β€˜Dear, wish you a happy marriage forever πŸ’πŸ’πŸ’žβ€™.
  • They use emojis to earn consumer trust by creating a sense of similarity (e.g. sharing hobbies) with consumers and by conveying good intentions and benevolence. For example, β€˜Count me in 🎀🎹πŸ₯πŸŽ΅πŸŽ΅πŸŽ΅β€™. β€˜Changsha, hang in there 🀝🀝🀝 πŸ™πŸ™πŸ™β€™.
  • Influencers adopt emojis to articulate relevant content/provide specific information. For example, β€˜One night in Japan! πŸ¨πŸ£πŸ£πŸ΅πŸΆπŸΆπŸΆπŸ’ƒπŸ»β€™.

Emoji use has been established in past research as a driver of consumer likes, comments and reposts, and importantly, for building consumer relationships. Yet, the use of emojis puts marketers into an unfamiliar and somewhat awkward position. They can learn a lot from the strategies of influencers, who are persuasive communicators that are close to the pulse of consumers.

Four β€˜Be’s (🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝) as Takeaways:

  • Be humble: Do your homework and learn from emoji lead users such as influencers.
  • Be creative: Fully leverage the wide range of emoji categories to initiate humanized social media conversations.
  • Be cautious: Acknowledge the specific cultural context and connotative meanings when using emojis to reach global audiences.
  • Be (or at least behave like) a friend: Use emojis openly and sincerely to express your feeling, your kindness and love, to earn consumer trust and to strike up relevant and interesting conversations, but make sure this fits your brand’s personality.

Emoji marketing has arrived. 🐝 Ready!

Read the original research article: Ge, J. & Gretzel, U. (2018). Emoji rhetoric: a social media influencer perspective. Journal of Marketing Management. https://doi.org/10.1080/0267257X.2018.1483960

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Jing Ge

Jing Ge

Jing Ge is a postdoctoral research fellow at Anthropology Department, University of California, Berkeley. She has a PhD in Marketing Communication from the UQ Business School at the University of Queensland, Australia and has close to 10 years of online marketing industry experience. Her research focuses on computer-mediated communication, the language businesses and consumers use on social media, and visual communication.

Ulrike Gretzel

Ulrike Gretzel

Ulrike Gretzel is a senior fellow at the Center for Public Relations, University of Southern California. She has a PhD in Communications from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and has held previous appointments in tourism and marketing at Texas A&M University, the University of Wollongong, Australia, and the University of Queensland, Australia. Her research focuses on persuasion in human-computer mediated contexts.

Disclaimer: Any views expressed in this posting are the views of the Author(s), and are not necessarily the views of the JMM Editors, Westburn Publishers Ltd. or Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.