Tell Us How You Really Feel… with Emoticons

Posted by: Trish Smyth
  • June 7, 2016

Tell Us How You Really Feel With Emoticons

LRW just got Skype for Business as part of a broader technology upgrade. I like many of the features that came with our new tech, but my favorite, by far, is the collection of new (and animated!) emoticons at my disposal. Now, in addition to my traditional suite of smiling, laughing, and crying emoticons, I have a facepalm emoticon that actually facepalms, a pizza emoticon with slices that disappear as quickly as they disappear from our kitchen areas, and an emo hair flip emoticon so cool it could have been cast in Inside Out.

Emoticons are everywhere – and they’re here to stay. The 2015 Emoticon Report (yes, there is such a thing) found that 92% of online consumers use emoticons in some capacity. Use of emoticons by marketers increased by 777% in 2015 compared to 2014. It’s no mystery why we’re all using emoticons: in a world run by mobile, on mobile, and for mobile, screen space is limited. Brands and consumers alike need to say more with less in less time. A picture is worth a thousand words.

Market researchers, meanwhile, are interested in gaining consumer insights at speed, leading to the obvious question: do emoticons have a place in research? The answer is No… and Yes.

Let’s start with the No side of the argument, easily illustrated by a text exchange with my mom at Easter. My text to her included smiley faces, baby chicks, flowers and a bunny. Mom’s response? “Why did you send me an alien?” As it turns out, mom’s very old phone needs a software update, so she doesn’t have the same emoticons as I do. Something that looks like a baby chick on my screen looks like an alien on hers. A picture might be worth a thousand words, but this time, it had said the wrong thing.

I’m not the only one who’s run into this problem.  A recent study by the Grouplens research lab at the University of Minnesota confirmed that the sentiments conveyed by emoticons are open to (mis)interpretation for two reasons: one, because emoticons render differently across platforms and devices, and two, because different people are likely to interpret the same emoticon differently.

An emoticon keyboard isn’t exactly the International Phonetic Alphabet. We haven’t all agreed on what each one stands for. Until we do, we’ll be stuck wondering if the Apple ‘grin’ conveys as much happiness as the Google or LG grins.

But, however they’re interpreted, emoticons do convey emotion. With that in mind, LRW’s Miriam Alexander said yes, we should interpret emoticons – with caution.

Get Context. Don’t leave a 🙂 or 🙁 in isolation. If you’re a researcher interpreting an emoticon left by a consumer, be aware of how the emoticon looks on the consumer’s specific platform and what language, if any, they use around the emoticon. Furthermore, look at the options they have available. Are they picking one of six Facebook reactions, or are they picking one of a dozen (or more) happy faces? Subtext may or may not have been intended; knowing context will help decipher meaning.

Use emoticons to overcome a communication barrier. While emoticons are not universal, they can sometimes provide insights that might not otherwise be available. For years, researchers have used images of different facial expressions with children to understand their initial reactions and general sentiments.

Use emoticons to trigger further conversation. Sometimes, it’s easier for respondents to use emoticons as a shorthand to express feelings, either because they’re more emotionally comfortable with emoticons or because emoticons are the lingua franca of their life. (Did you know that, when expressing laughter, people in Chicago and New York prefer Emoji, while people in Seattle and San Francisco prefer ‘ha ha?’) Emoticons can express general sentiments that lead to greater insights.

Are emoticons going to change the face of research? Probably not. Emoticons, like other linguistic cues, are open to misinterpretation. But can they nudge a researcher in the right direction and open the door to new insights? Yes… as long as we’re willing to accept that the occasional alien might pop up out of nowhere and surprise us.

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