Love ’em or hate ’em, emoji have probably sneaked into your text messages at some point over the recent years. As they say, a little cartoon poop is worth a thousand words. (Or, you know, something like that.)
And as email marketers, the question on our minds in the face of a trend is always, “What does this mean for email?” Sure enough, a few years ago, emoji began popping up in email subject lines. As early as 2012 it was possible to send simple symbols such as hearts, stars and arrows, according to Salesforce, and by February 2015, around two percent of B2C emails contained special characters or emoji.
So are these the holy grail of approachability, making brands seem like buddies to their email subscribers? Or are they a bad case of businesses co-opting strategies that just don’t resonate?
The answers to those questions depend on the brand, the email recipients and a host of other variables, so it’s a risk to take the emoji plunge. They might grab attention and increase your open rates, or they might tank. We’ll get into that in part 2 of this series, but first, it’s important to understand a brief history of emoji so you know what’s technically possible—and what challenges you’re up against.
Understand Code Points (Minus the Techie Speak)
It turns out, sending emoji is more complicated than sending a picture. What you’re really sending is a piece of data associated with a symbol. Lauren Schwartzbert explains the process well in this Fast Company article, saying, “When you pull up an emoji on your iPhone, for example, you are looking at a library of images designed by Apple. When you select [an emoji] and send it to a friend’s Android, the iPhone sends data called a ‘code point’ to the Android, and the Android understands that you’ve sent a code point for [the emoji you selected]. Then the Android displays the emoji that its own developers designed.”
For several years, those code points varied from company to company. Japanese companies NTT DoCoMo, KDDI and SoftBank, the original companies to design and use emoji, all had their own versions. They weren’t consistent throughout Japan, much less internationally. To try to bring some cohesion to the process, an organization called the Unicode Consortium created a standard system in 2010. “[Unicode] ensures that the code points are the same and recognized among all devices and services,” Schwartzbert says, allowing them to be used outside of Japan and across various operating systems. Thanks to Unicode, you can be confident that the emoji you send is at least in the ballpark of the emoji your recipient sees.
Say It Like You Mean It: How Design Differences Impact Your Message
Still, there’s variation in the symbols themselves that can impact how an emoji is interpreted. Check out this side-by-side comparison from the HuffPo article “How Emoji Get Lost in Translation” by Bianca Bosker. For the code point U+1F483, you might get any variation of this emoji, based on which platform you use to view it:
Understandably, this introduces quite a challenge to email marketers attempting to use emoji in subject lines. If you’re inviting local women out to a dancing event and you try to use Apple’s sassy flamenco dancer design, a few of your recipients might see a guy whose style is reminiscent of Austin Powers, or even Microsoft’s abstract rendering that looks a bit like a crime scene outline. Either way, it’s not the same vibe you were going for, and it could cost you clicks and customers.
The Constant Evolution of Emoji
The emoji alphabet scoffs at English’s fixed 26 letters—by contrast, Unicode is adding and standardizing code for new emoji all the time. And who makes those new characters? You do!
Well, sort of. You can send Unicode a character proposal for an emoji you think should exist. (Bacon emoji, anyone?) Then Unicode evaluates those public submissions based on a few different criteria, such as expected usage level and if the new emoji would fill a gap in existing emoji. Once they’re accepted and a code point is designated, then the designers for Apple, Android, Twitter—any company that has its own emoji alphabet—can create their version of the design.
It may take a while for the newly approved emoji to actually hit the marketplace, though, and there’s still no guarantee that each carrier will even design one. After all, the middle finger emoji was included in Unicode 7 in 2014, but we still can’t text anyone the bird from our iPhones because Apple hasn’t added it to their alphabet.
So as you navigate these semi-charted waters, have fun, but be careful. Consider how your subscribers will be viewing your emails and where new emoji are in the creative process, and then test like crazy to make sure you get the look and experience you want. After all, an emoji might help knock your open rates out of the park—but only if we can see that little cartoon baseball.