Smile, Wink, Pray: Brands Decode the Enigma of Emojis

Symbols are key to social media marketing

Marketers want to decode one of the social Web's most cryptic languages: emojis.

The digital hieroglyphics, which convey users' thoughts and moods by way of hearts and smiley-faced poop across dozens of platforms, are increasingly becoming a big part of the social conversation. Twitter last year incorporated emojis for the first time, while Instagram this past April introduced emoji hashtags. Characters now make up 40 percent of messaging on networks like Instagram and Twitter, according to a Business Insider Intelligence report.

This added layer of consumer sentiment yields a bounty of information for marketers, which is why advertisers are hiring third-party data sifters to help them make sense of what heart-shaped eyes mean for their brand.

"Clients of ours definitely care about them," said Ali Ardalan, director of product and strategy at Sprinklr, a social marketing software company. "Customers are using them to figure out how the campaign is performing and what the feedback is on the brand and also on the customer service side."

One company focused on emoji tracking, theAmplify, hires influencers for campaigns that appear on Instagram and Snapchat, and then monitors social responses.

"We're building a tool to understand how emojis and words combined create emotional conversations," said Justin Rezvani, CEO of theAmplify. "It's a comprehensive system that analyzes what words and emojis fall in certain orders and what that means."

Rezvani says his company can search comments on a brand's Instagram page and identify all the emojis used. It has deployed emoji analyses on movie releases like Insurgent and Poltergeist and for app makers including Tastemade City.

For Insurgent, theAmplify hired top In-stagrammers to post videos of their reactions as part of a virtual-reality campaign. Emoji responses were mostly laughing faces and hearts. "The sentiment is really based upon how audiences feel about the content they are engaging with from the influencers," Rezvani pointed out.

In the campaign for the Tastemade app, influencers posted pictures of their favorite foods at different restaurants. Emojis of hands together and clapping hands were among the most employed, indicating approval.

Digital marketers say the more emojis, the better. "A vast majority of emoji usage is positive," said Noah Brier, CEO of Percolate, a marketing software firm.

Eric Beane, VML's North American managing director of analytics and insights, works with social media-savvy brands including Gatorade and Wendy's. He said Instagram can be tough to mine for information about emojis because oftentimes users simply use a range of symbols without any clear pattern or reason.

"When you start looking at emojis and emoticons"—a typographic recreation of a facial expression—"you have to try to read entire sentences or the entire chain of a conversation to understand what does that even mean," Beane explained.

A terrified-face emoji is a welcome reaction to a horror movie campaign, but negative in most other contexts, he pointed out. Praying hands could convey begging for a product—or begging for it to go away.

With an estimated 12,500 emojis tweeted every minute, there's little doubt that advertisers will want to continue to glean meaning from them.

"Emoji usage is an evolution of how the younger mobile consumer communicates," Percolate's Brier said, "so it's logical for brands to follow those conversations."