How to Use Emoji in Marketing (As Told by a Millennial)

You know the power of harnessing trends to connect your company with the younger generation, but it’s also easy to miss the mark and come across as out of touch.

Want to reduce that risk? Take these key do’s and don’ts from a millennial (ahem, me) when using emoji in your marketing efforts:

1. DO use emoji sparingly.

Using too many emoji is confusing and seems like an aggressive attempt to reach an audience you don’t understand. Carefully choosing one or two images to accent a written message is much more effective for getting the point across, especially in a PSA.

This Partnership for a Drug-Free America PSA has way too much going on. I read this image as “raising hand genie bottle thumbs up, s, no, sew (so) inbox umbrella tea ant.”

Even when I subsitute things like “raising hand” for “hey” or “genie bottle” for “wish,” I’m still entirely unsure what the organization means. And what’s the point of that?

In contrast, the VW Don’t Text and Drive campaign is simple, powerful, relevant, and gets the point across in a way that also matches their branding. Very successful.

 2. DON’T be condescending.

Believe it or not, our primary form of communication isn’t emoji—which is probably why I can’t decipher the Partnership for a Drug-Free America PSA.

Our parents love to believe we do nothing but text each other “hey, what’s up?” “not much” all day long, but we actually have real conversations using real words—augmented, not replaced, by visuals.

Don’t treat us as if our constant textual communication makes us stupid, petty, or frivolous. And definitely don’t use emoji as a subtle criticism about our tech addictions.

I’m looking at you, Pepsi. This selfie emoji bottle feels like a jab, and a personal one at that.

3. DO make sure you’re using emojis like we do.

I’ll admit it: this is the hardest part. It requires careful observation and research, including looking at how other companies are incorporating them into their communication.

But it’s also the most important part.

We love the heart eyes emoji and the tears of joy emoji (although we use it to mean “laughing so hard we’re crying”). Both of those translate easily enough, but one of the reasons emoji are so popular is that their meanings are contextually flexible.

I use the OK hand sign for both “okay” and a sarcastic “cool” (i.e. “this sucks”). Emoji cover for text’s pitfalls and allow for inflection—including sarcasm.

If you use emojis too literally, it’s a dead giveaway that you don’t speak our language. Don’t be like the companies that don’t understand that “Netflix and chill” is slang for sex.

Certain hashtags (#ShareaCoke, #Oscars, #SB50, #IWD2016) unlock branded emoji that appear automatically in the tweet. This move encourages conversation around a brand by giving a mini-incentive—the branded emoji is fun and feels official and exclusive.

But since you can’t force people to engage with your brand on social media, the hashtag needs to be part of something bigger.

JC Penney has been all over my social media with their new “Get your Penney’s worth” campaign. The company has a branded emoji that appears when you tweet with #SoWorthIt, but that’s not their entire strategy. It includes print and TV ads and an interactive digital scratch-off ad. JCP is also shifting their store layouts to make shopping easier and featuring models who “look like real people” in their commercials.

The emoji is cool, but only in conjunction with an integrated plan to make Penney’s more modern.

5. DO be creative.

I know, I know, I was just criticizing Pepsi for making fun of millennials. In fact, I did a mini-Twitter rant about it when I first heard about their new Pepsimoji campaign.

But let’s be real—Pepsi had to do something to compete with the extremely successful Share a Coke campaign, and this is a smart approach. Customization is hot right now, and Pepsi’s marketing is absolutely in line with that trend.

With a name like Sabina, I never got to be on a Coke can. But I can envision myself sending Snapchats of a Pepsi bottle with the side smirk emoji on it—just like people would take photos of their names on Coke cans or buy a bottle for a friend with the name on the label.

Using emoji can be hit or miss–some ads feel right on target and appeal to me as a millennial, while others are about as cringey as seeing someone’s grandma start an unrelated conversation in the Facebook comments of a photo they’re tagged in.

As with any strategy, using emoji is about knowing your audience, considering your goals, and integrating all your tactics into a cohesive campaign.

*peace sign hand emoji*

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