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Love ‘Em or Hate ‘Em, Emojis are Likely Here to Stay in Marketing Communications

New WSB research takes first look at use of emoticons, emojis, and other nonverbal elements in marketing and considers implications for consumers, brands

By Wisconsin School of Business

February 5, 2018

This. Is. Good.



smiley and dancing woman in a red dress

A new study from the Wisconsin School of Business finds that brands are using non-verbal elements in their marketing communications with consumers, but the use of this textual paralanguage (TPL) may have different results for different audiences. Joann Peck, associate professor of marketing at the Wisconsin School of Business, Andrea Webb Luangrath of the University of Iowa, and Victor A. Barger of the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater, reviewed social media platforms and found brands were using TPL elements in 20.6% of their tweets, 19.1% of their Facebook posts, and 31.3% of their Instagram posts.

“Brands are trying to be authentic, to come across as personable, and project traits like warmth and competence,” says Peck. “One way to do that is to mirror everyday conversation, and that means taking the non-verbal cues we use in face-to-face communication into the online environment. The challenge becomes finding the appropriate balance between communicating in a manner that’s seen as warm and friendly without becoming so informal that it appears unprofessional and raises questions of firm competence.”

The study reviewed online marketing communications from large national brands and their spokescharacters including; AFLAC (AFLAC duck), Cheerios (Buzz the Bee), Energizer (Energizer bunny), the U.S. Forest Service (Smokey the Bear), Frito-lay (Cheester Cheetah), Geico (GEICO gecko), Kelloggs (Tony the Tiger), and Progressive (Flo). The most recent social media posts from both corporate and spokescharacter accounts were collected and analyzed to identify TPL elements.

Peck defines TPL as written manifestations of nonverbal audible, tactile, and visual elements that supplement or replace written language and that can be expressed through words, symbols, images, punctuation, demarcations, or any combination of those elements. The study considered five different kinds of TPL:

  • Voice qualities—characteristics of the sound of the words being communicated that have to do with how the words should be spoken. These include pitch range (“I rEAlly want that”), rhythm (I. Guess. I’ll. Go.”), stress (“You are the BEST”), emphasis (“happy!!!!”), tempo (“looooooong”), and intensity or volume (“*whisper*”).
  • Vocalizations—utterances, fillers, terms, or sounds that can be spoken or produce an audible noise that is recognizable. These include umm, uh-hu, hmm, ahh, sigh, hiss, moan, groan, mmm, or zzzz.
  • Tactile kinesics—interactional elements between communicating parties that suggest physical contact, such as “high five”, “hugs”, “kiss”, or even a man and woman holding hands emoji.
  • Visual kinesics—nonverbal communication related to the movement of any part of the body. These include emoticons, emojis and stickers (dancing lady emoji), and parts of the body emoji (thumbs up, eyeroll).
  • Artifacts—the presentational, formatting, and stylistic elements of a message. These include changes in typeface, spacing, layout, color, and non-kinesic/non-tactile emojis and stickers such as a hamburger emoji.

Peck says there are many factors a brand needs to consider in using TPL in marketing messages, including the nature of the platform. Given the informal nature of so much content on Instagram, it comes as no surprise the site is where brands are choosing to include more TPL in their content. At the same time, that platform is more likely to be used by younger audiences who may be more receptive to the informal nature of TPL, and that is a key factor to consider. Older audiences may be put off by the use of TPL, finding it annoying, unprofessional, or even inappropriate. For that reason, brands may want to consider staying away from TPL on their corporate channels while utilizing it more through spokes character communications.

“When companies market on social media platforms, they are seeking to promote brand engagement, providing content that will be liked and shared, while building stronger relationships with their customers,” says Peck. “Using emojis and other TPL on the right platforms and targeting the right audiences may be a very effective approach for brands that are motivated to create a young, relatable, or warm image.”

The paper, “Textual paralanguage and its implications for marketing communications” is in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.