The Age of Emojis

Oxford Dictionaries announced this month that their “Word of the year” for 2015 does not contain any letters in it. The “word” their editors chose to reflect what people identify most with is a pictograph, or more commonly known as an emoji:


Emojis have been around for quite some time; however it wasn’t until recent years that this practice grew exponentially into a culture phenomenon. For instance, if you opened any communication apps or text messages of a group of millennials, you will find yourself staring at an assortment of different emoji exchanges. This phenomenon might be the most popular in millennials but certainly exists in other age groups as well. Generally, in the U.S., the younger the user, the more frequent emoji he or she uses.

This phenomenon is also not restricted only to the English speaking population. In fact, some argue that it all started from a messaging app from Japan.  Currently, it has also taken all the Asian countries by storm. For example, the popular Chinese messaging app WeChat is observing emoji exchanges surpassing textual exchanges for a significant portion of their users. Interestingly, in China, Emoji use is not as closely linked to age. Due to the difficulty of typing Chinese language for older population on their phones, emoji communication actually tend to be even more popular with the older audience. (My parents only send me voice messages and emojis on WeChat).

Internet exists as a means to achieve more efficient communication and information sharing. Therefore is it not surprising to see that due to the power of internet, our most efficient means of communication – words and language is being challenged and evolved. Indeed, Emojis do have an advantage over words in several aspects: They add authenticity and an emotional layer; they are shorter, more convenient and sharable; they are also ubiquitous, easily recognized and transcend most language and cultural barriers.

It is no surprise then to see messaging apps taking advantage of this popularity to monetize emojis. After all, this is not so difficult. Many messaging apps, such as Line and WeChat, now have a freemium model that charges users for specialized emojis.

However, the money doesn’t just stop there. By nature, emojis have very strong network effects. The value of an emoji depends on the number of people installed and the frequency used. And through its nature of sharing, the network effect is even stronger as users want to be linked to other users and share the emojis which helps to turn them viral. Monetization does not have to follow the service function directly, and this is where it gets interesting – monetization can come through indirect benefits in creative ways.

In retail and e-commerce, brands have taken notice of this trend and have evolved their communications strategies to attempt to insert themselves into the daily conversations of both existing and potential consumers. In the past year, more than a dozen of brands have incorporated emojis into their marketing efforts to relate to their audience in a “more fun and no pressure way”.  This makes sense. Emojis are a powerful form of promotion because they enable and empower self-expression, and allows brands to enter customers’ lives while being organic and non-disruptive.

For example: Taco Bell created their taco emoji. Mentos created emojis faces on Mentos candies. Ikea created “emotictions” including  furniture, pets, and Swedish meatballs. Old Navy created a website that analyze your top used emoji, then gives you vacation suggestions. You can order pizza by tweeting a pizza emoji through Domino’s. WWF lets you donate to their cause based on how many of their emojis you use. Foot locker created a “Shoemoji” for every shoe style they have… The list goes on…

With the emergence of this new wave of communication methods such as Vine and Snapchat, we see the way of communicating rapidly changing and evolving. We have moved from voice, to text, to pictures and still emojis, and more recently, to animated emojis and videos. In this wave of rapid change lie significant business opportunities, especially for companies that benefit from brand awareness and network effects. Companies who can truly enter consumer’s everyday communication while being organic, authentic, and non-disruptive in making money will find themselves a very powerful competitive advantage.

By: Mark Feng


  1. The whole shift to "image communications" is definitely interesting, and there was a story on NYT focusing on "line" specifically:…. Already in Korea and other places in Asia there are pop-up stores that sell physical versions of some of the characters from these "stickers," so needless to say there may even be further opportunities for monetization.

    But I am less optimistic about images being a more common language for people across borders. As simple as images may seem, I think that the subtlety underlying this simplicity actually makes them open to different interpretation depending on cultural context. I would be interested to see how these messaging companies tackle this challenge.

  2. Amy MacBeath

    I agree with Seongmin. I think communicating with emojis can be risky. How emojis are received is dependent on (1) the recipient having access to the sent emoji and (2) the recipient understanding the sent emoji.

    An example of (1) being a problem: After Apple updated to iOS 8.3, new emojis did not appear properly on devices running older software. In some cases, the new emojis appeared as skulls (maybe aliens?) inside boxes! This happened to me and for a long time I thought that my all of my friends were plotting to kill me… Turns out, they were just sending me “smiley faces” and “thumbs up” with different colored skin tones.

    An example of (2) being a problem: My mother thought that the emoji with “two hands together” was a “praying” symbol, while I interpreted it to mean a “high five”. As one can imagine, this led to some miscommunication! I was also told that “two hands together” can mean “please” and “thank you” in Japan so this emoji can be interpreted in even more ways! Not straightforward!

    Sure, words are often misinterpreted. But if “a picture is worth a 1000 words”, then pictures have the potential to be even more confusing…and that’s assuming that they even appear correctly in the first place! The potential for problems, like those outlined above, should make businesses and people wary of using emojis. At the very least, care should be taken to ensure that emojis sent are compatible with all operating systems, backward compatible with previous operating systems, and not open to questionable interpretation. This is especially true for businesses that may be communicating with many people at once.