I have a confession to make: I’m a grown woman who peppers pretty much every text and social media post I send with smileys, hearts, stars and various other decorations.

Emojis have taken over my communication—and I’m far from alone. According to Swyft Media, 74 percent of people in the U.S. regularly use stickers, emoticons or emojis in their online communication, sending an average of 96 emojis or stickers per day.

All this adds up to a total of 6 billion emoticons or stickers flying around the world every day on mobile messaging apps.

In a recent post, I had a lot of fun learning about the psychology of emoticons and chronicling a few reasons to use emoticons in your writing and social media.

As emojis grow more and more popular with social media users and marketers, they’re a phenomenon all their own. Here’s a look at what emojis trigger in us, how they’re changing our language and how to try using emojis in your social media and marketing.

psychology of emojis

The psychology of emojis

They’re changing our brains

Though we go through life mostly unaware of it, humans mimic each others expressions and emotions when we’re talking in person. This emotional contagion is a big part of how we show empathy and build relationships.

But online, we’re missing that crucial element of empathy and emotion. Or, we were—until emoticons and emojis.

Scientists have discovered that when we look at a smiley face online, the same parts of the brain are activated as when we look at a real human face. Our mood changes, and we might even alter our facial expressions to match the emotion of the emoticon.

What’s really interesting is that this is not something we’re born with as babies. It’s something our brains have developed in the last few years with the emergence of emoticons and emojis. Essentially, social media culture has created a new brain pattern within us.

They’re changing our speech patterns

Both emoticons and emojis are recognized and processed by the brain as nonverbal information, which mean we read them as emotional communication, not words.

And emotional communication can just as important as words in conveying a message clearly. For example, in spoken communication, researchers now know that if speakers aren’t allowed to use gestures, they becomes less fluent.

Essentially, emojis are doing what the tone of voice does on the telephone and what expressions and gestures do in face-to-face communication.

There’s even evidence that emojis are actually shifting our vocabulary. Instagram discovered that as emoji use goes up, Internet slang like “rofl,” “bae,” etc., goes down as users choose their emoji counterparts instead.

slang vs emojis

In-depth emoji insights on Instagram

On Instagram, emoji are becoming a near-universal method of expression—Instagram reports that nearly 50 percent of all captions and comments on Instagram now have an emoji or two.

The app recently added the ability to use emoji as hashtags, opening up the first chance to gather real data on how people use emojis and what they use them to signify.

These are the some of most popular emoji hashtags on Instagram, along with the words used alongside them in captions or comments:emoji on instagram

It’s clear from the top emojis that Instagram is where we go to laugh, encourage, be inspired and share beautiful images.

In another Instagram emoji study, faces account for 6 of the top 10, pointing toward the idea that people are using emoji to convey something that text alone can lack: emotion. It’s no surprise that the hearts and hand gestures round out the top 10.

most popular emoji

As for who’s using them, emoji use varies quite a bit from country to country but is steadily on the rise pretty much everywhere:

emojis by country

5 creative emojis marketing examples

Now that we know how emojis work within us emotionally and psychologically, let’s take a look at how brands have been using them to show more fun and personality. Here’s a look at 5 cool emoji marketing examples.

1. GE: A full emoji marketing campaign

GE has created a full emoji table of experiments, with a cool science fact or video that corresponds to each symbol.

GE emoji table of elements

2. PETA: Emoji-focused video

PETA created a quick but cutting emoji-focused video campaign that tapped into the emotions that emoji can trigger.

3. CNN: Emoji candidates

CNN has created emojis for all the 2016 U.S. presidential election contenders, so you can tweet, text and more with your favorite candidate’s visage.

election emojis

4. Burger King, Ikea and more: Branded emojis

In fact, creating brand-specific emojis has been a choice of quite a few companies including Burger King, MentosIkea and more.

Ikea emoticons

Swyft Media co-founder Evan Wray, interviewed at AdWeek,  said make-your-own emoji campaigns can work for some brands because they don’t really feel like marketing at all.

“When we offer mobile app users the imagery of their favorite brands, they don’t see it as advertising. They see it as self-expression.”

Normally I might feel a tiny bit skeptical about this assessment, but I am an avid user of Comedy Central’s “Broad City” emoji keyboard for these exact reasons.

broad city emojis

5. Bud Light: Emojis in messaging

A smaller-scale way to incorporate emojis could be to follow the example of Bud Light, who posted an American flag emoji tweet last American Independence Day that got more than 150,000 retweets and more than 112,000 favorites.

3 basic tips for incorporating emojis into your marketing

1. Know your emojis

Before we go emoji crazy, it might be handy to get an understanding of what some of the most common emojis mean and the situations in which they’re used.

Some are a bit more obscure than others, as Instagram shows with its breakdown of words that tend to accompany various colors of hearts:

heart emoji meanings

Genius has a full, annotated list of each emoji by its official description (i.e., Face With Stuck-Out Tongue And Winking Eye), and Hubspot has a helpful guide to some of the more obscure emoji choices.

2. Know how your audience speaks

Linguist Tyler Schnoebelen studied emoticon use on Twitter and found that groups fall into specific habits with certain emoticons, just the way slang terms spread and evolve.

That means how people use emojis and what they use them to signify often varies by your age, gender, location and even social class.

In order to know how emojis could fit into your communication, think about your audience and how they speak to one another and to you. Are they quick and to the point, or are they chatty? Do they use slang or any distinct vernacular? Having a detailed set of personas can be really helpful here!

3. Know how emojis fit your voice and tone

We all want authentic communication from those we speak to both online and off.

Defining your social media voice and tone—then staying true to it no matter what communication changes come and go—can help keep that authenticity strong.

Once you have that, you can determine where the playfulness and emotion of emoji communication might fit into your existing voice and tone.

Maybe it’s a fun way to chat back-and-forth with your audience on social media. Or you could try adding an emoji to a email subject line—here are the 15 most popular ones from Mailchimp:top_emojis in emal


If it feels organic to your voice and tone, experiment and see how your community responds. Emoji probably won’t be a perfect fit for all brands, and that’s OK! Some cool, even newer communication method is probably just around the bend.

How are you using emojis?

The creativity of this new form of communication is only limited by our imaginations. I’d love to hear how you’ve used or might be planning on using emojis in your conversations and marketing. Tell me all about it in the comments!

And just for fun, I used Bitmoji, available on iOS and Android, to create my own custom emoji likeness I’ll leave you with. Would love to see yours, too!

Courtney bitmoji

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Written by Courtney Seiter

Courtney writes about social media, diversity and workplace culture at Buffer. She runs Girls to the Moon on the side and pets every dog she sees.

  • I use emojis extremely sparingly — mainly the occasional smile, frown, or wink. I’ve been concerned they come across as too unprofessional or too “girly”. After reading this I am going to reconsider. Since I write about brain health, I enjoyed learning how they are changing our brains!

    • I found that part really fascinating as well, Deane! Thanks for checking this one out!

    • I love emojis for personal use! They can often clear up ambiguity in writing (how may times have we misinterpreted texts or emails?!). BUT I will never forget when a contractor I worked with always included smiley faces or winks to me in his emails. I was at least 15 years younger than most of my colleagues and felt he was “emoji-ing” down to me. Would he have done that to my boss? Absolutely not! So I think we do need to think about how we use them in professional situations. “Great job, team! :D” is a totally different thing, however. Most of the time I just have fun with it!

  • Justin Chaschowy

    I’m thinking of changing my blogs favicon to an emoji

  • Excellent article! Thanks for sharing the insights, humor and links.

  • I had the same concern as @Deane…but after reading your *earlier post* about emojis, I’ve begun to “loosen up a bit” and include them in my writing! 🙂

    I’m with you Courtney, in that I (previously) thought I probably went way overboard with them (I know I do in my personal text messages!), but in written communication it is SO important to be able to actually communicate the “tone” of what you’re saying… I even use them occasionally in articles on my website! 🙂

    The part about changing brain functions is absolutely fascinating! I’m also a degreed Anthropologist, so this begs the question (in my mind):

    are emojis actually creating a small aspect of human evolution that we can actually SEE taking place?


    • I know, so fascinating to think about! We can emoji away and be part of the grand human evolution. 🙂

  • Farron

    Love this! Seeing emails pop up in my inbox with emojis make me happy and more inclined to open the email – especially clever uses of emojis. I haven’t really seen any emojis used in B2B emails other than for social events though. Has anyone else?

    • Interesting, Farron. I’ve experienced the opposite: I’ve seen emojis as kind of a turn-off when it comes to subject lines. However, that’s probably more representative of the fields I tend to run in when it comes to email marketing (mostly academic or education-oriented products).

      Re: your question, I’ve seen subject line emojis in the micro B2B space (marketing experts) as well as some emails from B2B SAAS companies.

      • Love this discussion, it might be fun to dive into some stats on email metrics as relates to emojis!

  • Really enjoyed this article. Now where’s my Buffer branded emoji? 😉

  • This is a great article – excellent ideas… and fun too

  • Cassie

    Hi Courtney! Have you already seen this article mentioned in this morning’s Broadsheet? Great timing for your piece. http://time.com/3905765/hillary-clinton-emoji/

    • Oooh, I had not! I definitely need to be using the sparkles emoji more!

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  • StartUp Communty

    Wooow… its very good ideas! THX 😉

  • This is too serendipitous – the same day I woke up to this great article (!!) in my inbox, our guys in Prague just completed the emoji button in RiteTag Composer throughout the RiteTag site – and also, in our browser extension as well – so here’s me, multi-scheduling Courtney’s article with Composer from my browser (comes with the extension).

    You’ll see it in Buffer and the Buffer extension as well…


  • This is really a great article! Businesses, it’s time to bring the fun in the digital market with emojis. Emojis can be taken seriously too, and its more engaging… 🙂

    • Great point! You can spread a serious message with them, too, as the PETA example shows.

  • Andy Vale

    Digging the Bill Hicks reference. I see what you did there 😉

    • Oh, cool! I think he’s great, though I have to admit any reference is accidental. Or subconscious, maybe?

  • Love the post Courtney! Expressing emotion with our text online bring a new level of internet communication. 🙂

  • Great stuff on how they play with our emotions. Certainly something that can be very useful in many marketing efforts. Thanks Courtney!

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  • Which browser extension (Google Chrome) is the best to get some sort of “virtual keyboard” to easily select and then enter emoji into text fields?

    • That is a GREAT question; I’d love to check into this and see what I can find!

      • On my mobile device, I use the SwiftKey keyboard app, and next to selecting emoji from a table, this also can actually replace words automatically by their corresponding emoji. For example, type “heart” and you will see a ❤. On my PC, I already would be pleasee if I found an easy tool to select emoji from a table while entering text. Could be a browser extension (for entering emoji on the web), or some other utility I can install (for ubiquitous emoji entry, for web and other applications).

        • I’m trying the Chrome extension Emoji Input right now, so far so good! https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/emoji-input/immhpnclomdloikkpcefncmfgjbkojmh?hl=en-US

          • Got it, thanks a lot, Courtney! ??
            PS: It would be nice if this extension would highlight which emoji work well in Facebook and Twitter (because not all emoji display correctly on those sites, only a subset does).

          • Great point; good call!

          • Albert Freeman

            That point about emojis not displaying properly is something I was going to ask about. Using emojis in marketing can be very good, but it back fires and looks unprofessional if they just display as squares.

            What I really want to know is how do different devices recognise emojis, and which ones appear OK on which devices? I mean, emoji are not treated as ASCII characters, are they? So, how does a device recognise them.


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    • I hold down ctrl, cmd and space bar, for the emoji menu to show up on my mac ??

  • Annamie Murray

    Great article Courtney. 🙂 I’ve been using emjois to communicate with forever, ever snce they were just emoticons, lol. 😀 I find it helps to perfectly convey my authentic feelings and emotions, and helps to show that I am genuinely interested in the person I am responding to. I just wish we had one for hugs, instead of having to type hugs in the message. Incidentally I use a purple coloured heart sometimes because I love the colour, I had no iidea there were specific meanings behind each one. Most of the time will use the red heart though. I also love using the emjois on my iPhone 6. I will often go to my Facebook on there in order to have the benefit of the much better emoticons and emjois on there. 😀

    • Ah, such interesting insights, Annamarie, especially on the colors and emotional aspects of emojis. Thanks for sharing and for checking this one out!

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  • Emojis have major impact on Message delivery and Emotional behavior which we do not even notice in our daily life.

    A “Good Morning” Message Simply references that it is Past 4 am. But a “Good Morning ” Message with “Tea” “:)” and “Cookie” Emoticon can change the whole way of looking at a Good morning Message.

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  • lscarpello

    Question: can we use popular emoji (such as the sets found in iOS/Android) in marketing, or are they copyright-free? I’ve searched and found “open source” emoji, though I’m still not sure if it’s necessary or not.

    • Hmm, that’s an interesting one. I will need to look into this!

  • elynnpittman

    A little late to the game, but I just came across this and it made me think AND giggle. The best combination.

  • Surrey Tai Chi

    This is an outstanding piece, great information and fun to read. Long live emojis!

  • I’m surprised that the ‘heart’ emoji out performed the ‘thumbs up’ emoji. I only reserve that for a few. Side note: I like to ask people if I can see their ‘recently used’ emoji list on their phone — you can tell a lot about a person by the emoticons they use regularly!

  • Thanks for the tips! These are really cute!

  • TextEFX

    Emoji sounds, you can now send sound effects in your text messages with your emojis and text, using TextEFX app.
    Over 170 sound effects to send to your friends. Check it out on the apple App Store now.
    TextEFX text messaging sound effects keyboard. Accessed the same way you would send an emoji.
    Enjoy, hope you like it as much as we do.

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    On the topic of handy, this is also very handy: http://vergelijkverhuisbedrijf.nl