Not sure what your friend’s emoji means? Well you aren’t alone. As more brands integrate these little characters into their social media marketing , getting the semantics right is integral. A study from the University of Minnesota, which will be published at the International Conference on Web and Social Media in May, has shown that more than 40 per cent of people can be confused by an emoji’s sentiment or targeted emotion. Emoji aren’t communicating as clearly as we all had once hoped.

What does this mean exactly?

Emoji can mean multiple things depending on the viewer and the smartphone platform the receiver is using. Today there are 1,282 emoji in the Unicode standard. Each of these have a specific code that is provided by the Unicode Consortium. The problem is there is no standard for the actual graphic  making it a virtual Wild Wild West of frowns, tears and sunglasses.

Certain emoji are influenced by Japanese manga, a comic-book art style that features large eyes and somewhat flat facial features. The differences between this style and other design formats can impact how a viewer sees what should be a standard emotional representation. Here are some best practices to ensure you emoji don’t get lost in the

Which emoji are interpreted best?

Emoji such as “Hearts in My Eyes” is rarely misinterpreted but Microsoft’s prayer emoji or Apple’s grimace emoji are often very misconstrued.


The study measured emotional sentiment accuracy and  had participants rank their perception of the emoji’s interpretation. Emoji which had large variences in perception between a positive or negative emotional range Some emoji had sentiment variance of three factors higher or lower than the intended emotion.

The worst emoji for misunderstanding are “Grinning Face with Smiling Eyes” and “Sleepy Face”. The sleepy face emoji can be seen has highly negative in the case of Microsoft’s rendering, and highly positive or neutral in Samsung’s. Turns out some people will see a grinning face while others perceive the character as looking for a fight — that’s a huge difference!

Three tips to reduce emoji confusion:

1. Use more objects over faces. Objects have low sentimental bias but faces are loaded with emotional meaning. The more complex the emotion, the more difficult it can be to convey via emoji. If there is an emotion you want to convey use your words or an actual image.

2. Test communications on a variety of platforms. Each smartphone has its own graphic library of emoji. If you are using an email marketing platform and your emoji-laden communication is being sent to inboxes , review which smartphones are opening your messages and test your emoji on the most often used before sending.

3. If you have to ask, don’t. If you aren’t sure how an emoji will impact your audience, don’t use it. Any ambiguity it isn’t worth your while and can cause more damage than benefit to your campaign.

Emoji are just one of the newest forms of telling stories with images. Read our E-Book on visual storytelling and make the most of the images you share.

About James Rubec

James Rubec is a data geek, a former public relations lead and journalist with a love of content and advocacy. Ask him anything @JamesRRubec and be sure to follow @Cision_Canada

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