Emojis in PR: a picture tells a thousand words

Emojis in PR: a picture tells a thousand words

Emojis are a visual code used for messaging on the internet. They transcend demographics and language itself. It’s surprising that they are frequently overlooked as a means of public engagement.


What if I was able to show you a way of improving engagement in your digital communication

There’s a very simple means of achieving this goal that’s within the reach of any individual or organisation. It costs nothing and you need look no further than your keyboard.

As we’ll see, various studies of content on social media platforms suggest that emojis improve engagement in digital communication by as much a third.

Emojis as communication

Emojis are a short code language developed by Shigetaka Kurita, a software engineer in 1999, while working for Japanese mobile operator NTT DoCoMo. They were intended as a means of short form communication to fit on the mobile phone screens of the time.

Kurita’s character set consisted of 176 images. It became a permanent collection at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2016.

Today emojis are used as a means of communication and expression on social media and messaging platforms.

In 2015 the Oxford Dictionary named the face with tears of joy emoji as its word of the year.

Emojis are frequently confused with emoticons.

Emoticons are a much older means of communication, based on a combination of typewriter characters. They were the genesis of the graphical emoji characters.

A transcript of a speech by President Abraham Lincoln published in The New York Times in 1962 contains the phase:

[…] applause and laughter ;) […]

It’s either a typo or the first use of the winky face emoticon.

Here’s the irony. Emojis, like so many forms of digital communication, are a means of abbreviation and reduction but they also add emotion and nuance.

Emoji literacy

Emojis are fun. They aren’t so much a language as a visual code that divides the internet between those who are emoji literate and those who are not.

The simple graphical format cuts through not just in the English language but in others too. It can be a means of bridging language barriers providing due respect is given to cultural differences.

A smiley face or heart works in any language while the nail polish emoji is used variously to describe polishing nails, contempt and to silence trolls. Thumbs up is positive in Europe and the US but offensive in the Middle East.

The eggplant, or aubergine, is either a purple vegetable or a phallus depending on your perspective. In Japan it’s considered lucky to dream of an aubergine in the New Year, whereas in the UK it has sexual connotations.

Emojis occupy a reserved area of the character set on computers, just like the alphabet and numbers. The Unicode Consortium, which manages the standard for the international character set, includes emojis. A cross industry committee manages the definitions.

Your smartphone or tablet will likely have 2,000 emoji characters. Each digital platform adds its own subtle graphical interpretation.

Apple added new emojis to iOS 11.1 in October 2017, including emotive smiley faces, gender-neutral characters, clothing options, food types and animals.

The Emojipedia is a good resource for exploring an emoji’s appearance and meaning on different platforms. It shows platforms such as Google and Facebook; and devices such as Apple and Samsung. Meanwhile decodeemoji returns the meaning of an emoji and emoji translate renders text into emojis.

Emoji engagement

Analysis by social media analytics tool Quintly of emoji usage on Instagram between January and July 2016, found that posts containing at least one emoji receive twice as much engagement per post than those without. The most strongly performing?? pages analyzed used emojis in more than 80% of posts.

Accounts with fewer than 1,000 followers are least likely (23%) to include emojis in a post. The study found that the camera emoji was the top Instagram emoji followed by hearts and fire.

Zazzle Media reports similar findings on Facebook. Its analysis suggests that posts using emoticons have a 57% higher reaction rate, a third higher comment rate, and a third higher share rate.

More brands than ever are using emojis in their communication but it remains a niche activity. The brands brave enough to use emojis in their communication are perceived as fun and relatable by consumers.

"We see much higher engagement in police communications when using emojis. The public don’t expect it and they like the fact we engage on the same level. Try not to be too corporate all the time," said Kristian Ward, Communications Officer, Dorset Police.

Emojis as a means of listening to consumers 

The combination of emoji search on a social media platform such as Twitter provides a window into the psyche of the internet.

Search for the smiley face, heart, tears, or angry face and you’ll unlock a sentiment engine. Add keywords, hashtags or geolocations to find out about specific brands, topics, events or locations.

My colleague Ken Buraker, Executive Creative Director at Ketchum describes the opportunity.

“We’re in a new age of visual sentiment mixed with a changing attention economy. Data on emojis by region can give us powerful insights on how consumers are feeling about a specific brand,” said Buraker.
 “The ability to segment this further by sentiment over time would help track what other issues may be affecting trends such as new product offerings, politics or other news events. Ultimately, it would help us identify where we need to improve consumer engagement.”

Social media tool vendors such as Brandwatch provide sentiment analysis based on emojis as part of their monitoring solution.

Brandwatch analysed more than six billion emojis shared on Twitter in the two year period from October 2015 to October 2017 as part of study into consumer behaviour.

The use of emojis has increased by 50% over the period of the analysis. 250 million emojis are typically shared on average on the platform each month.

Brandwatch’s analysis found that emojis are a strong indicator of sentiment. Typically 75% of usage is positive and 25% negative.

By grouping several brands by industry Brandwatch was able to determine which industries generate positive and negative consumer engagement. Hotel, clothing and spirits come out on top while insurance airline and banks bring up the rear.

Case study: ‎#BeatlesOnSpotify

Emojis are commonly used as a means of personal messaging and by brand as a means of listening and community engagement, but as we’ve seen are featured less frequently in brand campaigns.

Twitter has a paid product that adds a customised emoji to tweets that include a specific hashtag.

When the Beatles catalogue launched on ‎Spotify as well as eight rival streaming services in December 2015, it worked with digital agency 360i and Twitter to execute a ‎#BeatlesOnSpotify campaign.

An emoji combining the Spotify hashtag and the four members of the Beatles was added to tweets that included the hashtag. It enabled Spotify to stand out from competitors with more than 80% share of voice.

The campaign also helped achieve an audience of 6.5 million in the first 100 days of the Beatle record and set a record for simultaneous streams of a single artist. The campaign generated more than 250 million streams in less than a month.


  1. decodeemoji – explains the means of an emoji
  2. emoji translate – translates words and phrases into emojis
  3. emojipedia – explains the meaning of an emoji and shows how it renders on different platforms

Summary: working with emojis

Adopt the emoji mindset

Emojis are a visual code that’s easy to unlock. My tip would be to simply start by listening to a conversation and then use emoji characters when you reply to messages.

Sentiment analysis

Emojis are characters like any other letter or number. Use them to query your favourite search engine or social media platform to discover the mood of the internet at a moment in time.

Emoji engagement

Could your organisation benefit from improved digital engagement by using emojis? If you work with a consumer brand or public sector organisation consider a test and learn exercise using emojis in your digital messaging.

Call to action

Educate your audience on how you want them to use an emoji. Inspire conversation and engagement by leading the way.

Press releases: what, why, when, how, where and who?

Press releases: what, why, when, how, where and who?

Make it don’t fake it

Make it don’t fake it