By Emma Kirk

When was the last time you used an emoji? This week? Today? Within the last hour?! Chances are you have jazzed up a recent message, tweet or ‘like’ with some sort of tiny picture to bring it to life, or even to say the words you can’t quite express. And you know what? You’re not alone. So fear not emoji addicts, because emoji or emoji’s (the plural debate rolls on) are taking over the world. One poop, heart, crying laugh face at a time.

There is now a growing body of academic work being done in this area, so we know that people and brands alike are frequently using them and we can start to explore how and what this means. But as a qualitative researcher by background and an avid emoji user myself, I raised the question why aren’t we as researchers? More importantly how can we as qualitative practitioners tap into this phenomena and what challenges do we need to be aware of?

So, first of all, just how big is this opportunity for us? Well it’s pretty big. It is estimated that there are now over 6 billion emoji’s sent every single day. The most common, face with tears of joy was even recognized by The Oxford Dictionary as its word of the year in 2015 and in addition, this year we saw the widest celebration of World Emoji Day across social media. As an FYI, it’s July 17th. Fun fact, this is because July 17th is the date on the calendar emoji in i0s – tell your friends.

Whilst people are using these daily to communicate on a peer to peer level, it isn’t just us everyday folk that are making the most of emoji culture. Major corporate brands are now increasingly using these in their communications with consumers. An article published this year suggests that brands’ use of emoji’s in campaigns has increased by over 700% since the start of 2015, with marketers using them to gain attention and evoke an emotion from consumers online. In addition, this year alone over 250 brands have commissioned the creation of their own custom made emoji’s, in some cases paying upwards of $1 million for the pleasure.

So why are we in the consumer research community leaving ourselves out of the party? As researchers isn’t our role to be the voice of the people we engage with for our clients? To capture their thoughts, feelings and emotions and relay these back so that these brands can better meet their needs? And I raise the question, are we really doing this if we aren’t speaking the same language online?

So here at Join the Dots we have started to use emoji’s in our day to day research. Yet despite these steps in the right direction, there are some challenges to consider when using emoji’s in this way. Firstly we know that people can misinterpret the official meanings behind some emoji’s, as set by the Unicode Consortium. For example one emoji that is often used to denote sadness or crying because of the droplet like icon falling from the face, is actually an image originating from Japanese anime and is widely understood in this culture to represent ‘sleep’.

It is this issue of being ‘lost in translation’ that we as researchers need to be most mindful of in terms of our interpretation. Studies suggest that even when presented with the same emoji people can have polarized opinions on not only what it means, but whether it is even considered to be positive or negative. What confuses this picture even more, is that different mobile platforms and operating systems present the same emoji’s in different ways depending on how they interpret the code. As an example a grin on an iPhone may well be received as a grimace on an android, awkward. So we may not always be speaking the same language after all!

So what does this all mean? Well, like any language, emoji’s and their usage is bound to continue evolving and as researchers we can’t ignore this. Despite these challenges of interpretation, the principles behind the idea can’t be ignored if we are going to continue engaging with consumers in a digital landscape. We have to be mindful that they are using this short hand to communicate with each other and with brands, so eventually they will expect to use it to communicate with us as researchers too. After all, whether using words, numbers, pictures or a combination, isn’t it our job as great researchers to capture and distill the meaning from the myriad of information no matter the format?

It is time to embrace this first truly global language.

Don’t worry about being lost in the translation, we will all learn the lingo as we go 🙂

Emma Kirk, Join The Dots