Emojis mean business: The characters transforming business messaging

emojis-mean-business:-the-characters-transforming-business-messaging

A slight raise of the eyebrow, folded arms, an inviting smile – face-to-face conversations are a lot more than a simple exchange of words. When people talk, the majority of what is being communicated isn’t in the words we use, but rather in non-verbal cues like body language, gestures, and tone of voice that help us clarify the intention of the speaker and give us a bit more context into the conversation. But historically, our communication technology has been mostly text-based. And when typing a message, there is a lot more room for ambiguity and misunderstanding, even when the interlocutors know each other well. Enter the emoji.

In the 1990s, Shigetaka Kurita, a designer at Japan’s main mobile carrier, NTT DoCoMo, created a simple heart-shaped pictogram for the company’s pager. It was such a popular feature that it soon expanded to a set of 176 emoji, and other mobile devices started adding their own emoji characters, too. Emoji usage exploded, and companies like Apple and Google quickly jumped on the bandwagon, proposing that the Unicode Consortium encode emoji into their Unicode Standard documentation.

And if, in the beginning, businesses were quick to dismiss emojis as a silly addition to people’s personal conversations, today, as digital embodiments of our non-verbal language, they’re every bit as important in business communications. We use them to add richness to online conversations, emphasize a point, and even create a sense of rapport with customers. Emojis are wonderfully simple, surprisingly rich, and contrary to what some believed when they first emerged – they’re here to stay.

This week on Inside Intercom, you’ll hear from:

  • Keith Broni, Editor in Chief at Emojipedia
  • Leslie O’Flahavan, writing trainer and coach and E-WRITE founder.
  • Tomoko Yokoi, researcher and advisor in digital transformations at the IMD Business School in Switzerland
  • Karen Church, Intercom VP of Research & Data Science

Together, they’ll talk about the evolution of emojis, recent trends in business messaging, and how organizations can use emojis to build better relationships with their customers.

If you’re short on time, here are a few quick takeaways:

  • Emojis help us express ourselves. They clarify intent, help elicit voice and tone, convey a bit of our personality, and add richness to online conversations.
  • When we compared rates of business messages with and without emoji, we found that those with an emoji were four times more likely to elicit responses from customers.
  • In business communication, always make sure the emoji is just there for embellishment, not for carrying actual content or replacing words.
  • As we move into more hybrid workplaces, emojis act as digital, non-verbal cues that help guide us in our day-to-day, assess morale and even reinforce company culture.

You can read our data report on emoji trends abstracted from more than two million anonymized conversations between our customers and their customers here.

If you enjoy our discussion, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can follow on iTunes, Spotify or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.


A new staple of communication

Liam Geraghty: Hello and welcome to Inside Intercom. I’m Liam Geraghty. Today, as you might have guessed, we are talking about emojis, those cute little pictograms that have become an essential part of the way we communicate. Already today I have been sent a smiling face with smiling eyes, a thinking face, a thumbs up, and even a party popper. They’re just part of the way we message, not just in our personal lives, but also in business, with coworkers, employees, and customers. So today we’re looking at emoji’s use in business messaging. Later, we’ll hear from writing coach Leslie O’Flahavan on how best to use emojis when speaking to customers.

Leslie O’Flahavan: Just as a business writing teacher, I want people to have the widest tool set and repertoire for communication. And it would be snotty and elitist to think these don’t belong in business communication.

Liam Geraghty: We’ll also be chatting with Tomoko Yokoi about using emojis to connect with your team.

Tomoko Yokoi: Many leaders would use that applause emoji in contexts where they needed to show appreciation and respect for each other.

The evolution of emoji

Liam Geraghty: But first, to get a sense of the evolution of emojis, I wanted to talk to Keith Broni. Keith is the Editor in Chief of emojipedia.org. I know what you’re thinking. How on earth do you get a job like that?

Keith Broni: Oh, this is a long and very amusing story. Back in 2015 or 2016, I was studying in London, doing a master’s degree in business psychology. And part of that program involved a dissertation. I ended up running an experiment-based dissertation where I assessed how emojis could change people’s interpretations of branded messages. And then, several months later, after I graduated, a translation company in the UK was looking for an emoji translation consultant. I was appointed as the emoji translator, and the media at the time was very interested in this. I ended up on a couple of radio and television programs, one of which led me to briefly become a meme.

Liam Geraghty: Oh really?

Keith Broni: Which is pretty funny. This was back in 2017, and in 2017 we all expected flying cars. But here we are, and Keith Broni is the emoji translator.

Liam Geraghty: So Keith, where did emojis come from? They kind of remind me of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

“The very first emoji’ was a heart that people could send on a particular type of DoCoMo pager in Japan in the mid-’90s”

Keith Broni: It’s a contentious question. People often go back and cite hieroglyphs, even though technically hieroglyphs were phonetic and, of course, emojis are not. What we say at Emojipedia is that the very first emojis were born in Japan in the mid-1990s because that’s when the technical incarnation of emojis was born. Not the design per se, but this little glyph that you were able to send to a friend or family member or whoever on a digital platform that represented a little pictograph and, of course, had a concept conveyed in that way.

Liam Geraghty: The very first “emoji” was a heart that people could send on a particular type of DoCoMo pager in Japan in the mid-’90s. It was such a popular feature that other mobile devices started adding their own emoji characters.

Keith Broni: And when we were approaching the end of the 2010s, tech giants like Apple and Google realized that, because they’re looking to globalize their digital products – the iPhone and, of course, Gmail – and they wanted to make an impression in Japan, they needed to support emoji characters. They decided that the best way to go about this was to propose that an organization they were both part of for many years already, the Unicode Consortium, would encode emoji into their Unicode Standard documentation. The Unicode standard is responsible for not just emojis, but all of our digital texts. All of our Latin characters and Arabic numbers, the Cyrillic alphabet, and all of the various Japanese Kanji, et cetera. These are all given specific code points in the Unicode Standard and provided that a digital device adheres to that standard, it should be able to represent all of the digital text contained within it.

“Around 2014, 2015, and 2016, we began to see businesses experiment with emoji in their messaging”

Liam Geraghty: Despite the popularity of emojis, Keith says businesses waited and watched to see if these little smiley faces would become a new communication tool before stepping into the uncertain waters of emoji communication. But by the time Oxford Dictionaries named the face with tears of joy emoji its 2015 word of the year, it was clear they were here to stay.

Keith Broni: Around 2014, 2015, and 2016, we began to see businesses experiment with emoji in their messaging. It began with social posting, but it takes so many different forms today. Brands are tapping into emojis by and large to act as a visual hook, to differentiate their messages from all the other things that may be posted on a platform. And, of course, that ties into back-and-forth messaging platforms as well, where people are using emojis to clarify emotional intent, indicate that other people are being listened to, and create a sense of rapport.

Liam Geraghty: That’s something Intercom found to be true in our report on emoji trends in business messaging. Karen Church, VP of research and data science, is one of the authors of the report. Hey Karen.

Karen Church: Hey, Liam.

Liam Geraghty: For this report, you looked at millions of conversations between software companies and their customers, right?

Karen Church: Yeah. I think we analyzed a sample of about 2 million anonymized conversations between our customers, businesses, and their end users.

“We compared reply rates of business messages with and without emojis, and we found that those with an emoji were four times more likely to elicit a response from a consumer”

Liam Geraghty: For the report, you looked at emoji trends from 2015 to 2016. What was the number one most frequently used emoji for those two years?

Karen Church: In 2015, it was the party popper emoji, and in 2016, it was the grinning face emoji.

Liam Geraghty: I know it’s easy to dismiss emoji as just being fun and games, but you found they can actually be valuable and highly effective for businesses trying to engage customers.

Karen Church: We did indeed. We compared reply rates of business messages with and without emojis, and we found that those with an emoji were four times more likely to elicit a response from a consumer.

Liam Geraghty: That is quite high.

Karen Church: It is indeed. To me, it reflects the fact that emojis simply help us express ourselves a bit more. They help elicit voice and tone; they help convey a bit of our personality; they add richness to online conversations, and I think businesses are catching on that that’s a great way to engage with their customers.

“Emoji isn’t a fad – it’s a real way of adding expression and personality”

Liam Geraghty: What was the key takeaway from the report?

Karen Church: The key takeaway was that businesses that allow themselves to express their emotions as they do in real life will build better relationships with their customers. Their richest, most personal form of communication remains face-to-face. It’s always easier to communicate, sell, or resolve things in person. But if we extract this to a business communication context, businesses who appropriately adapt emoji will succeed. Emoji isn’t a fad – it’s a real way of adding expression and personality.

Liam Geraghty: Do you have any particular emoji that you overuse? Or your favorite?

Karen Church: I have plenty, Liam. I’m an avid party popper emoji person. A lot of smiley faces; a lot of heart eyes. I think I probably overuse emoji, to be quite honest.

Liam Geraghty: Right. You’re keeping the flag flying for 2015’s party popper.

Karen Church: I am, indeed.

A few guidelines

Liam Geraghty: So what are the dos and don’ts when it comes to using emojis in business messaging? To answer that is Leslie O’Flahavan, who runs E-WRITE, a business Leslie says has the practical and noble task of helping people write well at work. Leslie saw firsthand the reluctance of businesses to get on board with emojis when she would ask clients if they used them in Slack, Teams, newsletters, or marketing emails.

“All business writers should be using emojis to supplement what they’ve written in words”

Leslie O’Flahavan: People were aghast that I could even ask such a thing. Falling on their fainting couches. That, “Of course, we don’t use them at work. Of course.” This was a very strict distinction – emojis were fine in personal communication, but they were absolutely inappropriate in business communication. And that has fallen away utterly.

Liam Geraghty: Leslie says the first thing to remember when using emojis is that context matters.

Leslie O’Flahavan: All businesses should manage the way they do it. And all business writers should be using emojis to supplement what they’ve written in words. The emoji should still be treated as a decoration, a gesture, an intensification of what you’ve written. In personal use, because you know the reader better, you can use emojis and assume some shared knowledge of either what you mean by the emoji or what the emoji itself means. For example, some people use the hand-clapping emoji sincerely, but sometimes they use it sarcastically. If you’re writing to your husband, wife, brother, or sister, they’ll know how you meant it. Most of the time, they’ll know. In workplace writing, the reader doesn’t know you well enough to know whether you mean that hand-clapping emoji sarcastically or sincerely. So, you’d have to say “we congratulate our Lisbon team on the 12% increase in quarterly sales,” hand-clapping emoji. And because you wrote “we congratulate,” the emoji intensifies the reaction.

Liam Geraghty: It happened this week to me. On Slack, I had as my header that I was editing the podcast, so I put up a little emoji of scissors. One of my colleagues was telling me they had seen the scissors and thought I was communicating that I’d gone for a haircut. It wasn’t a big misunderstanding or anything and it didn’t affect anything, but it just goes to show you.

Leslie O’Flahavan: I love people.

“It was a quick change from not using them to using them with rather strict assumptions about when they’re socially appropriate, to using them freely”

Liam Geraghty: To make the most of messaging, businesses need to reflect a wide range of emotion, gestures, and thought. When talking to a customer online, businesses might not feel comfortable using a smiley face emoji, yet in the same context in real life, they would, of course, smile. This is changing not only with emoji usage increasing but with businesses using more and more unique emojis representing a range of human emotions.

Leslie O’Flahavan: Isn’t it exciting and fascinating to see how communication has changed? Let’s say you had suffered some kind of a disappointing loss. Let’s say a tree fell on your garden shed, and it was going to be expensive to repair it. And someone used a sad face emoji in 2015. You might have been like, “Please, take the time to keyboard me, ‘I’m sorry to hear that.’” And now you don’t feel that way anymore. This, to me, shows that our communication needed emojis. It was a quick change from not using them to using them with rather strict assumptions about when they’re socially appropriate, to using them freely. We need them. You are a masterful communicator. I can hear the smile in your voice when we talk, but so many people are not particularly good at conveying the feeling through Zoom and Slack and the burdensome, numerous channels we have to communicate. No wonder we need some symbols to help us convey feelings.

Perks in the workplace

Liam Geraghty: Another less talked about area for emoji usage is internally. Tomoko Yokoi is a researcher and advisor in digital transformations at the IMD Business School in Switzerland, and she’s been looking at emoji usage in the workplace.

Tomoko Yokoi: Yeah, that’s right. I found that, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot more people are using emojis in their business communications. That sparked my attention to the use of emoji. Before, in the workplace, we had a tendency to rely on physical cues such as facial expressions and body language. But when we go into a more hybrid or remote workplace, those physical cues that we rely on to understand the intent of what a person’s saying or to accentuate how we might want to emphasize something are no longer available. In that respect, what I found in my research is that people are using emojis to emphasize what they like to do, using what we call digital cues in the digital workplace.

“At a single glance at the screen, they were able to see how they could start the interaction just by getting a feel of how everybody was feeling”

Liam Geraghty: Tomoko also researches leadership, which led her to ask how to use emojis to connect with your team.

Tomoko Yokoi: We were really interested in how people could use emojis not just for communications, but to enhance the feeling of teams and to lead people within hybrid and remote workplaces. A really good example was that leaders were using emojis to get a better feel of how their teams were feeling.

For example, we spoke to somebody at Danske Bank, a Danish bank, and when they do these remote management meetings, which have about 30 or 40 people in the audience, they start it off by capturing the mood of the day. They post a sticker of their name and an emoji of how they are feeling at the beginning of that meeting. Since these meetings are usually attended by more than 30 or 40 people, it’s a really good way to get a sense of each other’s mood, as well as the collective mood of the organization. At a single glance at the screen, they were able to see how they could start the interaction just by getting a feel of how everybody was feeling. And they also said that it provides a better way of getting that canvas of feelings without just people saying, “I’m fine,” which is the standard response people use when they’re asked, “how are you feeling.”

Liam Geraghty: Another example Tomoko shared was from a manager who wanted to make one-to-one meetings richer and more time efficient.

“It was about getting more information about how the other person was feeling and having those one-on-one conversations in a richer and more focused way”

Tomoko Yokoi: He would send out weekly surveys using emojis. And all the team members had to do was respond in terms of how the week went for them. That was the first question. And then the second question in the survey was if they might want to talk about a particular issue they were grappling with. And so, on Monday or Tuesday, the manager would take that information, and rather than ask the standard, “How are you feeling? What’s been going on with you last week?” he would use it to gauge and pinpoint the questions he wanted to ask the team member.

In that respect, it was about getting more information about how the other person was feeling and having those one-on-one conversations in a richer and more focused way. That was a very good example of how one could strategically use emojis to better understand how to refocus the conversation you’re having.

Liam Geraghty: Reinforcing your company’s culture is something Tomoko says can be done through emojis, as well.

Tomoko Yokoi: It’s also about accentuating and augmenting the emotions you want to highlight. And I think that’s the most important part.

Liam Geraghty: That was Tomoko Yokoi wrapping up today’s show. You can read more about Tomoko’s research at here. You’ll find more writing advice for businesses on Leslie O’Flahavan’s site. And for all things emoji, Keith Broni has you covered at emojipedia.org. If you’d like to read Intercom’s full data report on emoji trends in business messaging co-authored by Karen Church, you’ll find that here. Well, that’s about it for today 😞 but we’ll be back next week 🙂 for more Inside Intercom.

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