Emoji in the Inbox

For those of you living under a rock or still hopelessly attached to RIM’s Blackberry, Emojis have become the new smiley face standard. Gone are the days of using the text-based precursors, such as ":)" to signify happiness (or ":-D" on a particularly good day). Instead, these richly designed “pictographs” can communicate a more robust host of emotions and scenarios, with as little as one character.

After a standout year, from Presidential recognition and nods from Merriam Webster, emojis have finally made the leap from full-fledged fame to fully-functional: marketers are now starting to implement them in email subject lines to drive engagement (read rates).

However, not all that glitters is gold for emojis ambitious push into marketing. Although some research shows that emoji usage in marketing has numerous strategic benefits, their use in email marketing specifically is not yet fully understood. In this post, we will attempt to dissect the benefits (and shortcomings) of using emoji in email marketing, and how direct marketers can capitalize on the craze.

Humble Beginnings

The creation of emojis can be traced back as early as 1998 amongst Japan’s top telecommunication companies. As the nation faced significant overhaul bringing Internet capabilities to mobile devices, these industry leaders vied for a way to communicate more effectively through text, while making emotional intent clear.

Largely credited with their creation, Shigetaka Kurita of NTT DoCoMo developed the first set of emojis to fill that growing communication void. What was originally intended as a distinguishing feature of business instead became something much more socially driven—it became a way for Japanese girls to incorporate “cute” typography in text messages to their boyfriends. And they did just that. And their boyfriend’s acquiesced. And emojis flourished.

Fast forward to 2015 and emojis have completely infiltrated Eastern and Western cultures alike, while reshaping the way we communicate via online and text. And with this comes a whole myriad of potential benefits for marketers who want to talk directly to these audiences.

The Good

When it comes to email marketing, the benefits of emoji use are numerous:

  • Highly Visual – Emojis play on society’s paradigm shift to an image-driven culture (Mintel North America Consumer Trends 2016). In the context of email marketing, a well-placed emoji in the subject header may jump out at a recipient and stand in stark comparison to the hundreds of other text-based emails they receive daily.
  • Universally Understood – The rich graphics found in emojis are able to cross cultural and language barriers (thanks to Unicode standardization). Not to mention, these graphics capture emotional intent and may enhance the surrounding statement. If, for example, your email is meant to communicate a sentiment of adoration or endearment, a well-placed “heart” emoji in the subject line may communicate in a way that an overly effusive ad copy could not.
  • Short and Sweet In keeping with emojis ability to showcase emotional intent, they also help consolidate a message. For example, an email intended to showcase a travel-based offering may choose to use the “airplane” emoji, instead of writing “flight” or some variation. Not only would this add a visual element, but also save five characters. In the battle for pithy email subject lines, these five characters mean everything.
    • Note: The “airplane” was rated the most popular emoji used in subject lines in email marketing campaigns. (Mintel)
  • Millennial-Driven As Millennials become a growing high-value segment, the correct use of emojis can help a company gain X-factor appeal amongst this group. A recent report stated 32% of Millennials say that their favorite brands are trendy and 23% say their favorite brands are innovative/cutting edge (Marketing to Millennials). There is no doubt a few strategically placed emojis in an email subject header would help render a company cool in the eyes of this cohort.

The Potentially Upsetting

Some shortcomings of using emoji in email...

  • Rendering Issues: The biggest case against emoji use is the way they render (or don’t render) across mobile devices and email clients. Outlook 2003, for example, may not render an emoji (or any symbol for that matter). And although most platforms account for viewing emojis, there are still certain cases that warrant frustration. The good people at Campaign Monitor have done a great job at compiling a chart that breaks down rendering across email clients.
  • Triggers Spam Filters: Another potential shortcoming of emoji use is their propensity to trigger spam filters. This, of course, is highly detrimental in an email marketing campaign designed to nurture leads. The use (and overuse) of emojis in a subject line could automatically shoot any chances of visibility right in the foot. Tread with caution.
  • “Gimmicky” and Unprofessional: Let’s face it; emojis lean towards the “lighthearted” spectrum in terms of visual representation. Even certain emojis deemed “crying faces” are now universally accepted for adding levity or gently poking fun at a situation. This is certainly a cause for concern across industries that involve more serious affairs. For example, clients of financial services firms probably don’t want to see you using emojis the same way a mourning family at a funeral home wouldn’t.

Key Takeaways

With emoji use in marketing still in its infancy and direct marketers still testing the waters, we have compiled three key takeaways to guide usage in your own campaigns:

  • Understand Your Target: Although emoji use is near-ubiquitous in the digital arena, there are still devices and mail clients that won't play ball. This makes it ultra important for marketers to understand their target list before embarking on a campaign. Generally speaking, iOS and Android both have solid emoji support—if a large percentage of your segment read email on a mobile device, emojis could be your ace.
  • Make It Relevant: Do not attempt to mold your offerings around the use of an emoji—at this early stage, putting all your money on their ability to drive engagement would be foolish. However, if you are the type of business who can use emoji in email, keep your range of emojis limited and make sure they are relevant to your offer.
    • According to research, the top-performing emoji in email (based on read rates) are:


  • A/B Test: Finally, and this may go without saying, remember to A/B test the inclusion of an emoji in a subject line before rolling out.

As with all potentially good ideas, taking a strategic approach from start to finish will make all the difference in ultimate campaign success.

Published on December 17, 2015