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People pose for photos with emoji hats fixed on a wall in a shopping mall in China.
Emoji are fun, but they’re also valuable snippets of code that advertisers can use to understand how people feel.
Feature China/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

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Emoji reveal more about you than you think

These tiny cartoon characters can be powerful tools for advertisers.

Rebecca Heilweil covered emerging technology, artificial intelligence, and the supply chain.
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Since these digital pictographs debuted on mobile phones two decades ago, emoji have become a ubiquitous facet of human communication. There are now more than 3,000 emoji, and over 100 new ones, which are as varied as the transgender flag, a dodo bird, and a woman wearing a tuxedo, are expected to show up in our keyboards later this year. Meanwhile, Snap (which owns Snapchat and Bitmoji), Apple, Facebook, and Samsung all allow users to render themselves as personalized emoji avatars.

The appeal of emoji is their universality and dexterity. They allow us to augment otherwise flat online messages by adding a dimension to our online speech that we may not be able to express with just text. And they’ve quickly become a fundamental part of how we communicate online.

“There’s a whole generation of children who ‘learn to read and write’ emoji before they can read and write,” Jennifer 8. Lee, an emoji activist and founder of the grassroots group Emojination, told Recode.

But these tiny pictures are more than just a visual way to communicate, and they reveal more than we might expect. They can help companies and platforms get a better sense of how we feel — especially how we feel about brands — and they can even be used to target advertisements directly to us. So while we might be using emoji just to rant to our followers about a favorite soccer player missing a goal, by using emoji we’re also handing companies neatly packaged, juicy information about our emotions and interests.

Emoji “are powerful symbols for expressing not just the strength of your opinion, but the valence and sentiment of your opinion,” said Goutam Chakraborty, the director of the master’s program in business analytics and data science at Oklahoma State University. “It’s now a staple for consumers to use emojis in personal conversation. But, certainly on social media platforms, you should be prepared that the marketers are going to use it.”

On that front, emoji are influential enough that companies have fought for the recognition of their products showing up in emoji keyboards. Last year, Ford ran a somewhat-secret campaign to get a pickup truck emoji approved by the Unicode Consortium, the body that oversees the emoji available on our device keyboards. Now that truck emoji will show up on our devices by the end of 2020, though it won’t include any Ford branding.

“Why are they important? Because they do carry cultural weight,” Jeremy Burge, the head of Emojipedia, an online dictionary dedicated to emoji, told Recode. “There is a limited set and they’re on every phone in the world. What else do we have that kind of meets that criteria in the world? I don’t really know.”

What are emoji, and where do they come from?

What makes an emoji an emoji? Put simply, they’re little pictures that can show up alongside lines of digital text. Think of the smile emoji or the pile of poo emoji. These images convey some kind of emotion — or reference an object or idea — and they’re all standardized according to the same fundamental code. “It’s a pre-curated visual means of digital communication,” argues Lee. They’re not quite a language, she says, but a medium of communication that’s “language-y” and has taken on a form of its own.

Emoji’s origin story stretches back to the late ’90s, when a pair of Japanese mobile companies, SoftBank and NTT Docomo, introduced sets of images with their phones. SoftBank introduced 90 picture-like characters in 1997, but Docomo is often credited with creating emoji as we know them, with a set of 176 emoji that were released 1999. These icons, designed by Shigetaka Kurita and meant to describe parts of our world, were incredibly simple compared to the emoji of today. The original set included mostly everyday items, like a car, camcorder, and umbrella, as well as symbols, including numbers and musical notes. (MoMA added this set to its collection in 2016.)

In 2010, the Unicode Consortium, an international body for standardizing texts and characters across languages that’s mainly composed of tech companies, finally standardized emoji. A decade later, it’s a basic expectation that a uniform set of emoji is available on the apps and devices produced by major technology companies and platforms. The Unicode Consortium is now responsible for setting these standards as well as creating new emoji. Anyone can submit a proposal for a new emoji character, and, in a process that can take more than a year, the Unicode Consortium weights a wide range of questions about which characters deserve to be added to an emoji set that will appear on billions of people’s phones. Not every proposal makes the cut.

Shigetaka Kurita designed emoji for the Japanese phone company NTT Docomo in 1999.
Behrouz Mehri/AFP via Getty Images

As emoji have gained prominence, the Unicode Consortium’s selective process has also become a stage for its members and emoji users alike to coalesce around international cultural and social representation. Since their creation, emoji have been expanded to include more skin tones, to be more gender-inclusive, and to incorporate icons that represent the disability community. There have also been grassroots efforts, like the 2016 campaign to include an emoji featuring a woman in a hijab, which was started by a 15-year-old named Rayouf Alhumedhi.

At the same time, brands have also tried to take advantage of emoji as a way to form personal relationships with their customers and, in a way, achieve a certain level of global status. While Ford actually helped draft the ultimately successful proposal for a pickup truck emoji, Taco Bell threw its weight behind a petition for a taco emoji that also succeeded. Other companies’ efforts have been less successful. Kendall-Jackson Wines has so far come up short in its call for a white wine emoji. Durex’s campaign for a condom emoji and Kit Kat’s proposal for a chocolate bar emoji also failed. But sometimes the process has its own marketing appeal.

“Campaigning to have an emoji is almost as good even if [companies] know they’re not going to get one,” Burge, from Emojipedia, explained. “The campaign gives them something to work with. It can be fun. They can put it out in the public sphere.”

Still, even if it’s a brand pitching an emoji, the Unicode Consortium takes these applications seriously.

“Whether the proposal was created by a company or an individual is not a factor in the consideration,” Greg Welch, a member of the Unicode Consortium’s board of directors, told Recode in an email. He added that Unicode Consortium will not consider applications for trademarks and brands to become emoji.

Emoji reveal our feelings in unexpected ways

Like much of what is shared on social media, emoji contain valuable data that companies can use to understand their customers and to target ads. Emoji can provide a clear view into someone’s mood and emotions, which can be helpful for large brands conducting what’s called sentiment analysis. This is when algorithms, typically employed by brands or companies, analyze content that’s mined through the web for content and social media posts about them or potentially other topics. And while some of its members do sentiment analysis research involving emoji, the Unicode Consortium itself tracks how often different emoji are used.

Overall, Chakraborty estimates that half of the companies providing sentiment analysis — which might normally look at keywords and the text of posts — now factor in emoji, which is notably higher than when he first looked at emoji in 2015. The data that can be gleaned from emoji usage is valuable for a number of reasons. While a computer might have a hard time understanding the tone of a tweet’s text, emoji can provide an algorithm with a big hint.

“When a piece of text contains emojis, it’s much easier for our algorithms to detect just generally whether the author has a positive or negative tone,” explained Lane Wagner, an engineer at the social media marketing firm Nuvi.

“It’s kind of like hanging a picture frame, where it’ll be more well-balanced if you put two nails in the wall instead of just one,” Nuvi’s vice president of marketing, Brian Collier, added. “So one nail on the frame of sentiment analysis is your word analysis, and the other nail in the wall to hold up your sentiment is emoji analysis.”

Beyond studying how their audience feels, brands can also use emoji to target their advertisements. One of the best examples comes from Twitter, which has enabled emoji targeting since 2016. This type of targeting allows advertisers to direct advertisements to people who have recently shared or engaged with a specific emoji, like a soccer ball or a car, much in the same way they might do so using keywords or demographic information, like a user’s location or gender. One example of this is a 2018 campaign for the Toyota Camry that involved dozens of versions of an ad, each served to specific users based on which emoji they recently used on Twitter.

One of the advertising partners that provide this Twitter tool, 4C Insights, estimates that use of the feature is now 10 times greater than it was in 2016.

“It gives more context to the mindset of the user,” 4C CEO Aaron Goldman said. “There’s only so much you can infer from a 280-character tweet when you’re trying to decide, as an advertiser, is this a good person or a good time to advertise to that person.”

Deciding which emoji to pay attention to can be a double-edged sword for advertisers. More common emoji, like the smiley face, tell a brand more about a user’s mood but less about their interests when compared to a more specific emoji like a coffee cup. Still, they can be used together.

Goldman explained this challenge by pointing to one of his clients, a large American coffee company, which targeted messages to people who used the coffee cup emoji as well as others, such as smiley faces and travel-oriented emoji like the airplane. The various combinations of emoji allowed the company to run a campaign around the idea of getting coffee on the go and found that engagement rate with the ads was more than double than what it was without this specific kind of emoji-based targeting. Still, it’s important to note that another advertising firm that offers that tool, AdParlor, told Recode it has never had an advertiser interested in emoji targeting.

Emoji remain open to interpretation

While emoji can be helpful for expressing emotion, there’s a lot you still can’t say with them. There was a sense when emoji first came out that they could become their own language, but several experts highlighted important differences between this new pictorial lexicon and written and spoken languages. These differences include ideas, such as verb tenses like past and present, that you can’t express in emoji, as well as how emoji are interpreted by various cultures and even from one device to the next.

“One of the things that slowed down emoji pickup as a proper language is you can’t express new ideas. You have to take existing emojis and [find] the best fitting one,” said Paul Barba, the chief scientist at Lexalytics. “That’s very different than language, which does sort of evolve.” He added that while a smiley face has a global connotation, for instance, a particular hand gesture in one culture doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing in another.

Another issue is that emoji rendering can also change without notice, and they can also look different across different operating systems. While the Unicode Consortium decides which emoji to include in the total set, it only provides guidance for how they look; software developers and device manufacturers ultimately design the emoji themselves. Take “astonished face,” for example. On Apple, the face looks more surprised, but on Facebook’s Messenger, the same face looks more alarmed and has Xs over its eyes. That means emoji can have widely different meanings to different users, as a study from the University of Minnesota documented.

Still, technology is getting better at identifying consistent uses of emoji, even when interpreting their meaning can be subjective. While it’s true that people express themselves differently with emoji, AI systems can, for example, be trained to understand them based on how they’ve previously been interpreted by humans. In 2017, researchers at MIT released an algorithm that used emoji to train an algorithm to understand the emotion expressed in different tweets, including sarcasm.

This type of analysis assumes that we’re all using a limited number of emoji, but the Unicode Consortium’s emoji set is constantly evolving. As emoji have become more popular, their number has expanded to better account for and represent a wide variety of cultures, objects, and symbols that humans find meaning in. This fall will continue that expansion, with the Unicode Consortium adding a ninja, a pinched finger emoji, new food-inspired emoji like bubble tea and the tamale, and new animals like the bison and the dodo.

Meanwhile, the popularity of emoji has given rise to other image libraries, some of which are completely customizable. Apple’s Animoji, for example, offers the ability to animate existing emoji characters, and the newer Memoji feature lets users create customized 3D avatars. Facebook has a similar product called Avatars, which is a competitor to the popular avatar app Bitmoji. But despite these fancy emoji-like characters, the Unicode Consortium’s emoji set is still the standard. According to Burge, the Emojipedia founder, “what people want isn’t just a physical emoji; it’s the recognition of being on the emoji keyboard, and that’s what these custom avatar setups can’t replicate.”

As long as this universal language of sorts exists, brands and companies will want to capitalize on it. But that’s surely in part because emoji have proven so useful at helping us express ourselves and have therefore made themselves invaluable.

“It’s just wild that we do have this one set of over 3,000 characters that are on every single phone in the world,” Burge added. “The emoji keyboard is the most popular keyboard in the world.”

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