Social Hieroglyphics: The Emoji Evolution

Is the art of communication dead?

As communication professionals, we sure hope not; but to make sure, we turned to our H+K Perspectives panel—a diverse 20,000-strong Canadian research community—to explore how texting and messaging are changing the communication landscape and how we connect with one another.

As it turns out, communication is alive and well. Canadians maintain hundreds if not thousands of connections through a myriad of platforms and mediums. With all of these connections all competing for our limited time and ever-shrinking attention spans—it’s no wonder that how we communicate has become truncated.

Abbreviations, acronyms and—most interesting—visual iconography now pepper our writing in the form of emojis or emoticons.

Across the board (all genders and ages), more than two-thirds of H+K Perspectives panel respondents regularly use acronyms in daily conversation. Women; and more specifically, young women, reporting to be the most active proponents of this trend.

And while abbreviations and acronyms are on the rise, the most jarring “text-trimming” trend has been the explosive increase in popularity and use of emojis. With more emojis emerging every day, there seems to be a tiny digital icon for just about every occasion.

Emojis have become ubiquitous—more than half of our respondents told us that they’re aware of the characters, while more than 80 percent recognized the low-tech brethren, emoticons.

Gen Zs posted the highest awareness and are also the heaviest users, with 92 percent of 19- to 24-year-olds reporting that they regularly use emojis. These numbers go into free fall for respondents born before 1990 (as one might expect). The next heaviest demographic in emoji-fandom are Millennials, but with only 58 percent of them reporting regular usage, it’s clear that Gen Zs are in no danger of losing the emoji, especially since they strongly believe that the utility of emojis go far beyond injecting a little whimsy into conversation.

Gen Zs rely on emojis to get their point across; in fact, 100 percent of the 19- to 24-year-olds emoji users agreed that emojis helped convey emotional meaning and tone. This is certainly at odds with their baby-boomer parents, only half of whom agreed with that statement. Boomers are actually highly skeptical of emojis and were twice as likely to report that emojis negatively impact our ability to communicate effectively.

Despite this divide, it appears that the vast majority of respondents can agree that while emojis may be fun and efficient, they’re not necessarily professional. A whopping 97 percent of emoji users report using them in personal communication, but only 11 percent report that they indulge in this habit at the office.

Gen Zs just entering the workforce are still the most likely to use emojis in the workplace (21 percent report incidents of “bizmojis” or business emojis). But what’s most interesting is the gender breakdown: males are two-thirds more likely (14 percent versus nine percent) to insert a  or  into their professional communications.

So what does this mean for brands?

We have certainly seen a number of creative brand activations in this space over the past few months. Through the use of emojis, brands have allowed their social communities to order pizzadonate to charity, increase their scientific understanding of the world or even tell the story of a Canadian election—all without saying or typing a word. Dominos, WWF and GE, respectively, have certainly positioned themselves as innovators through these unique initiatives, but how do consumers feel about brands infiltrating the messaging realm and capitalizing on the trend?

Half of our panel respondents believed that emojis have no place outside of texting and messaging, and only one-third thought brands should include emojis into marketing and advertising efforts. While these numbers may be discouraging for innovative marketers looking to experiment in the space, remember that these are still relatively early days.

There are certainly brighter skies for youth brands hoping to connect with Gen Z (and with the emerging Alpha generation). More than half of our panel respondents were open to brands using emojis—provided they integrate emojis in a relevant manner that reflects how the target audience themselves use the icons. This means brands will have to truly understand the nuance of each emoji. That, or risk total social humiliation.

Communication tools and conversational shortcuts may continue to change, but the underlying purpose so far has remained the same. Ultimately, we’re all looking to connect and be understood; but with the evolution of technology, we now want to do this faster and more efficiently than ever before. Emojis let us inject personality in an abridged format, but with missing cues like body language, tone, volume, sarcasm and more, the meaning may be easily misinterpreted.

This goes for informal and personal communication, and big-brand campaigns. Whether you’re a brand trying to connect with a teen target, a Gen X male sending a high-five to a colleague or a millennial female checking in with a friend—remember to emoji mindfully.

Elliott Gauthier, VP, National Director, Research + Measurement, H+K Strategies Canada

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