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Some 70% of the global population will own a smartphone by 2020, according to network experts Ericsson predictions from their 2015 Mobility Report. Alongside this increase, we have also seen a rise in visual media as a means of expression, particularly the language of emoji. No figure better displays this meteoric rise in popularity than the finding from Swyft Media, which states that six billion emoji are sent via mobile message every day.

The Evolution of Language

History shows us that language is constantly evolving. Just as human beings developed language from ancient paintings on cave walls to Shakespearean English, the evolution of communication continues today as emoticons become a greater part of conversation. According to New York Magazine we are now learning to write and send messages at the same speed with which we talk. Furthermore, we are continually advancing our ability to communicate across geographical and language boundaries, void of any physical or contextual cues, via mobile devices.

Why are emojis effective?

With an increased desire for short and immediate messages, emojis are enlisted to do the ‘emotional heavy lifting’, often when the written word seems clumsy or awkward. They can convey complex messages in simplistic ways. In a way that no other language can, the emoji is capable of crossing barriers to creating the world’s first universal language, one that is instinctively understood.

Lessons for brands and marketers

What lessons can we take about how best to utilise this emerging language to engage with brand audiences?

1. We must strive to better understand the way in which consumers and brands are using imagery.

New generation audiences shape their identities through digital consumption. The content they choose to share online can serve as a strong indicator of their brand affiliation; all the more reason to pay close attention. Where it used to be sufficient to focus only to what was being said on social media, we must now be equally observant of what is being shown. While monitoring the visual content users share with each other provides us with the opportunity to gain deeper insight, in equal measure it presents us with a challenge in that analysis of visual data is inherently more difficult.

2. Brands themselves must strive to become more visually appealing.

Brands need to focus on creating a unique visual brand language indicative of a distinctive and individual brand identity. Research conducted by US publisher Media Post earlier this year revealed that 51% of teens would like brands to come up with new and creative emojis for them to use. Many brands have only just begun to uncover the possibility of leveraging their identifiable assets – such as their logo or packaging – in this way to help the younger generations share their message. Pioneers in this area include the American fast-food chain Taco Bell. Despite the availability of branded emoji keyboard generators, Taco Bell went straight for the big time, launching a petition to have a taco emoji included in the next iOS update so that the emoji would be automatically present on all Apple devices. This petition went on to gather more than 33,000 signatures, granting the wish of taco lovers everywhere, with the emoji debuting in iOS 9.1.

3. Careful attention must be paid in the appropriate usage of emoticons.

We have seen cases in the past year where emojis were used when perhaps, they shouldn’t have been. The Goldman Sachs Group, for example, incorporated emojis into a tweet in their efforts to target millennials.

sachs

This was met with mixed reactions, most notably from the Wall Street Journal who laughed off the effort from the firm, likening them to “A grandparent who’s just learnt how to text”. Goldman Sachs is a widely respected company and regarded as a serious business. The use of emojis in their social media activity was seen by some to be too much of a deviation from the authoritative voice the public have come to expect from the firm. A similar instance was also seen when the White House released an infographic containing emoticons which was met with similar hesitation.

WHouse

It is also important to note that amongst different groups, in different contexts and across cultures, the same emoji can be interpreted to mean something entirely different and so paying close attention to where and when they are used is of paramount importance.

In contrast to these examples, other brands have managed to successfully integrate emoticons into their marketing and advertising strategies, producing fruitful results. The World Wildlife Fund launched their #EndangeredEmoji campaign using 17 popular animal-based emojis.

WWF

It took note each time a Twitter user who had joined the campaign hash-tagged one of the selected emojis and then at the end of the month calculated a donation to the WWF for them on the basis of the number hashtags used, donating 10 cent per hashtag used.

Coca-Cola, in conjunction with Twitter, also recently launched a new type of paid ad placement. When a Twitter user typed #Shareacoke into Twitter, an emoji version of the iconic Coke bottles clinking appeared after the hashtag. The campaign to create the “World’s Largest Cheers” was highly successful with more than 170,500 mentions recorded in a 24 hour period. Delivering custom-created content like this can make a millennial audience feel recognised and rewarded.

The Impact for Search

As of September 2015 Wordstream confirmed that the number of mobile searches has officially surpassed desktop. This trend is set to continue. In keeping with the increased tendency toward visual communication, visual search engines such as Blippar continue to grow. Blippar is a visual browsing app which utilises image recognition and augmented reality technologies in order to display digital content in relation to physical objects captured through the devices camera.

The goal of Blippar is that you can hold your devices camera over a physical object and the app will deliver digital content related to that object across a range of different categories. Although we’ve yet to see the full potential of the product, they are gaining increased recognition among major investors and have already received awards for pioneering innovation. In order to position themselves for this emerging trend of the visual search, brands should act pre-emptively and work toward establishing a distinctive visual brand language.

In October, Facebook began trialling their Reactions update in both Ireland and Spain, which extends from the original ‘Like’ button to include six new reactions: love, haha, yay, wow, sad and angry.

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Stating their reasons for employing this change, Facebook commented that the figures suited the mobile platform where it can be difficult to type or search for a sticker. No doubt Facebook are experimenting to see if users will become more active if they have an instant reaction, as opposed to the usual Like. From a data analysis point of view, emojis will also allow brands to obtain more specific data about how people are emotionally responding to content. Finally, Facebook highlighted the emojis as an easy method for users to express themselves in a universally understood way. This decision from Facebook to introduce emojis illustrates just how popular they have become and it will be interesting to see if other brands follow suit.