World Emoji Day: The Changing Face of Business Communications
Emojis have quickly become part of our daily lexicon, from their invention in 1998 to the 3,019 individual emojis that we have today.
While these icons were once reserved for social contexts, they’re now popular in the workplace and have changed the way we communicate. Whether it’s a smiling face at the end of an email or a brand identity that relies on a cheeky, emoji-filled social media strategy – it’s safe to say that these icons are everywhere.
On World Emoji Day, we’re investigating just how these change the way we communicate in the workplace, and how this could change in the future.
Emojis in the Workplace
The most useful function for emojis is to convey tone, which can be hard to read in a digital format. Softening a message with a smile or a confused face to express a query can more fully explain the tone to the recipient.
However, there’s still room for confusion where emojis are concerned, as they can mean different things to different people. Even design differences among operating systems can change the perception of an emoji from a reassuring smile to bared teeth.
The University of Minnesota conducted a survey into the understanding of emojis; they found that the Apple version of the smiling face was likely to be interpreted as ‘ready to fight’, whereas the Google version was interpreted as ‘blissfully happy’.
Cultural and demographic differences were found to also influence the interpretation of these images. For example, on Chinese social networking sites a smiley face can represent sarcasm or mocking, rather than the simple smile that other cultures view it as.
So, what does this mean for emojis at work? Well, you should be aware that these can be subject to misinterpretation. Sticking to the basics should steer you in the right direction, as there’s less room for error when it comes to a thumbs up or thinking face.
For HR, this can create sticky situations in which the recipient misunderstands the meaning of an emoji. It’s also possible for employees to claim ignorance when reprimanded for inappropriate use of emojis. If those who work in HR aren't clear on emoji meanings, then they may not understand the nature of a grievance.
This is an issue that’s also impacting the court system, with the number of cases featuring emojis doubling this year. The intention behind winking, knife and other questionable emojis can be difficult to understand.
Proactive and understanding HR practitioners will be able to have a word with employees before this gets out of hand. The sender may not realise the underlying meaning of what they’ve sent or just need one warning to understand the communication was inappropriate.
Understanding the Culture Fit
Like so many behaviours in the workplace, the use of emojis will largely be governed by the existing culture.
For highly formal spaces, such as lawyers’ or accountants’ offices, this may not be appropriate. Reading what’s appropriate for your workplace, before you jump in with emoji-laden messages, will serve best.
In client facing roles, it may be appropriate to send these to a colleague, but not to a new client. Even in organisations with an open culture, there may be people that prefer not to communicate using them. Understanding this and tailoring your approach to the type of communication is key for smiling faces all round.
Using messenger apps for business communications is becoming ever more common, leading to more emojis in our regular conversations. Slack and WhatsApp are widely used for internal communications, each with their own vast library of emojis.
In companies that use these types of casual communication methods, it’s more likely that emoji use will be widely accepted.
Brand Building by Emojis
In the marketing department, emojis can be a key part of the brand identity. With more brands taking to social media to communicate with their target market, it’s natural that they use emojis to convey tone and meaning.
In new research from Brandwatch, different brands were found to prefer different emojis to communicate with their consumers.
Fashion brands, for example, prefer to use the fire, heart, camera and love heart eyes emojis on social media. This is how many of us communicate our satisfaction or need for that new outfit and this is something that successful brands pay attention to.
This can also play a role in the customer service department, as these colleagues can use emojis in communications too. They should be able to decide when a situation warrants this kind of communication, to ensure it’s appropriate.
Smiles, hearts and even celebratory hands can be used in chats to thank customers for getting in touch and sharing their thoughts. By simply looking at the Instagram comments of top brands, you’ll see that this kind of communication is in full swing.
Savvy marketers use their knowledge of their customer base to build a brand tone that speaks to their target audience. Incorporating emojis can make a brand feel more like a trusted friend, which makes consumers more likely to choose this brand in future.
However this can be a double-edged sword, as some brands use emojis in a way that consumers find out of touch. Brands that use emojis they don’t understand, communicate confusing messages with emojis or overuse them are more likely to alienate their consumer.
Financial services company Goldman-Sachs attempted to reach millennials by heavily using emojis on Twitter. Their brand image, combined with the overuse of these emojis, led these tweets to make the brand seem less like they were in touch with millennials and more like a grandparent who's just discovered emojis.
Know your customer and use emojis sparingly for the best chance of success with this kind of strategy.
There’s no single, agreed-upon ‘right’ way to use emojis at work, as much of their use comes down to the culture, demographic and understanding of those using them.
Whether you use these to enhance a message or have an entire brand tone based upon them, remember to assess the likely reaction of the recipient. Emoji use is growing and they’re becoming ever more present in the workplace, so get savvy when it comes to using them.