There's Data in Those Emojis -- and Marketers Want to Mine Them

Why Brands and Agencies Want to Interpret Pizza Slice Smiley Face

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Consumers are communicating in broken hearts and bananas -- and brands are listening. As use of emojis proliferates, brands and their social media agencies are devising ways to interpret the cute icons that form emotive statements in text messages and more recently on Instagram and Twitter. Digital stickers and brand logos are also up for interpretation.

"The use of emojis is kind of like were observing a new language right in front of us," said Tony Clement, VP analytics at independent shop Big Spaceship. The agency is working with technology firms to develop definitions for brand tracking through emojis. The goal, essentially, is to apply some of the same techniques for quantifying value and measuring brand sentiment based on words in social media to metrics for imagery.

A heart, after all, doesn't always represent love. Social-media agencies want to learn the nuances in meaning and sentiment between a blue heart and a crimson one, for instance.

"Basically I'm adopting a new languageโ€ฆhow does that inform an advertising strategy?" said Mr. Clement.

Social agency Crimson Hexagon has been evaluating social posts containing digital stickers and logos in photos for clients including O2 Telefonica UK, Campbell's and Allstate.

"We're missing where people are sharing photos that have our brand in it or our competitor's brand in it," said Errol Apostolopoulos senior VP-product for Crimson Hexagon. The company uses image detection to identify coffee or apparel-brand logos that show up in photos people post on Instagram or their Tumblr pages. It evaluates the volume of brand imagery in addition to context. For instance, if someone is smiling alongside a branded coffee drink, it would be perceived as a positive sentiment.

The image detecting, said Mr. Apostolopoulos, is not challenging. "It's the application of it within social analysis and trying to correlate that with what people have said in text."

Measuring the brand value of speaking in cartoons may seem like a mere novelty, but as adoption of this picture parlance grows, agencies recognize the need to figure out how to analyze imagery as though it were text.

Instagram has tracked significant increase in use of emojis on its platform since Apple introduced its emoji keyboard for iOS in 2011 and Android launched its own in 2013. The photo sharing firm said 10% of text on Instagram contained emojis after the iOS keyboard was made available; that portion has increased to "nearly half" as of March, according to the company, which published the first of a multi-part blog post series on its internal emoji research.

"The vocabulary of Instagram is shifting similarly across many different cohorts with a decline in internet slang corresponding to rise in the usage of emoji," wrote Thomas Dimson, a software engineer on the company's data team, employing the also-acceptable irregular plural form of the term. Instagram places emojis into a variety of categories such as food, facial expressions, marine animals and wedding emojis.

Some marketers even are attempting to master the emoji lexicon. On June 23, Chevrolet hinted at its launch later that week of the 2016 Chevy Cruz with a video and Twitter campaign featuring comedian Norm McDonald.

"I am excited to translate an emoji announcement on behalf of Chevrolet," declared the former Saturday Night Live Weekend Update anchor and all-around curmudgeon. He went on to translate tiny icons that popped up on a TV screen behind him. A mobile phone icon represented the word "technology." The phrase "striking design" was visualized with a bowling ball and pins followed by one of those triangle rulers kids use in geometry class.

The joke, perhaps, was that a somewhat stodgy guy who live-tweets golf tournaments was translating these new-age hieroglyphics.

"I can see brands doing that, sort of having emoji battles," said Mr. Clement. Still, he suggested the use of emoji in marketing campaigns likely will be short-lived since consumer fatigue could set in as it did with gifs and memes. "They need to be careful about how to deploy it and to what extent," he said. "If we see that at the Super Bowl then it's definitely peaked"