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How Advertisers Are Using Emoji to Target You

Nothing is pure anymore

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

A few months ago, when Chris Graham first learned Twitter was planning to use emoji as a way to target ads on its platform, he couldn’t help but make a few eggplant jokes.

“Not everyone was aware of it,” Graham, a vice president at digital-ad agency HYFN, said, referring to the popular euphemism that the eggplant emoji is also shorthand for penis. “I warned them not to Google it.”

Graham’s joke — and the fact that not all his colleagues got it — encapsulates the gray area that corporate forces must wade through in their latest effort to monetize emoji, the adorable illustrated symbols on your phone’s keyboard that are swiftly replacing human language. Since the beginning of internet advertising, companies have always found something to target: a keyword, a hashtag, or those horrible Candy Crush requests sent to Facebook friends. But as online-ad companies are now tasked with providing emoji-related data and guidance to their clients, they must also navigate an oblique form of modern digital communication to ensure, above all else, that they are not using an eggplant emoji to sell baba ganoush.

“We obviously do legwork,” Graham said. “We always want to go make sure that we haven’t missed something, [to] see what the general conversation is before we advise that an advertiser leans into it.”

Currently, Twitter’s six select official ad partners are focused on mining information for decidedly less phallic, straightforwardly pleasant emoji. As in, less vomiting and syringes, more smiley faces and beloved junk food. Since HYFN began using the feature last week, one of its clients has used the pizza slice emoji to advertise its restaurant. Taco Bell felt most kindred with potential diners who tweeted a heart emoji next to a taco emoji (same). There has been a great deal of talk in the HYFN office about the potential of the birthday cake emoji.

After a client settles on its match and HYFN determines what location, age, and gender they want to target, a promoted tweet is born and pushed out into the corresponding timelines. In the case of Taco Bell, that was a tweet advertising free “Doritos Locos” tacos between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. And it was a generally successful tweet! According to Graham, these emoji-based campaigns have earned between two and 10 times as much engagement as other ads they’ve pushed. HYFN hopes to have close to 80 percent of its clients using the technology within the next three months.

“In the early days [of emoji marketing], it’s kind of the lowest-hanging fruit,” Graham said. “But there are always people coming up with creative ways to think about engaging with an audience. We’re definitely pushing a few of our other clients to experiment.”

Twitter is not the first business (or celebrity) to recognize emoji may be an effective way to get our attention. A startup named Makemoji, for instance, offers an emoji keyboard that developers can install as the default in their app as a way to track their users’ emoji choices. When Tyler Breton first launched the company two years ago, it started as an app that let people make emoji and turn their own photos into emoji. Those photos were then shrunk down to emoji-size stickers. Six months and 600,000 users later, he noticed users were uploading a lot of brand-centric material, like a Starbucks cup or a Domino’s box, and saw the advertising potential. After sifting through the data from his app, it became clear that emoji could be accurate indicators of what the advertising industry describes as “sentiment” and “affinity” when compared with written language.

“When somebody shares a tired emoji, we get the sentiment of that person being tired,” Breton said. “And if somebody shares a snowboarding emoji, we tag that person as liking snowboarding.” Simple enough.

Josh Dreller, a vice president of marketing at the Twitter ad partner 4C, said that many of his clients feel similarly because images offer crucial context to platforms where people are limited in character length.

“There’s the old adage that a picture’s worth a thousand words,” he told me. “By adding a certain emoji to your text, you can convey better what you really mean by the text.”

Their analysis is by no means an exact science (and does not work in the case of the eggplant emoji), but Breton reasons that there’s generally less room for double meaning with the most popular symbols, which on his keyboard, tend to be from the classic yellow smiley face genre. As a result, certain emoji are inherently worth more than their counterparts, and an informal value system emerges.

“There definitely is a value on certain things, like a happy face, that is much higher than certain things, like an eggplant,” he said.

In some cases, the desire for a brand to own tweets involving a certain emoji may drive up the price. Say, theoretically, a significant portion of people use Makemoji’s keyboards to search for the pizza emoji. And that both Domino’s Pizza and Pizza Hut have developed symbols for their own brand, which contains hyperlinks to their websites (a technology Breton calls “hypermoji”). Much like Google AdWords, there’s a real-time bidding engine that allows those brands to battle for the top spot in a person’s search. In the end, whoever wins the bidding war also gets the brand recognition, and maybe even a new customer.

Though Twitter is not yet in the business of tracking brand-related emoji, the premiere of its new platform could be a path to studying how to most efficiently shill to the masses without ruffling the feathers of its most dedicated users. Or, you know, accidentally using food symbols that represent human anatomy.

“You don’t want to be so far behind in user behavior,” Dreller said. “If you’re not hip to [emoji], it’s hard to even understand what they’re saying. They’re becoming their own subculture.”

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the name of the company that offers app developers an emoji keyboard. The company’s name is Makemoji, not MakeMoji. Also, the story originally mischaracterized MakeMoji in its initial stages; it was an app that allowed people to make their own emoji, rather than a free emoji keyboard.