How to Use Emoticons and Emojis in Business Communication

Some weeks ago I wrote an email with the purpose of landing a guest post at the prestigious KISSmetrics blog. Aiming for a somewhat informal tone, I finished a sentence with a :). Then I deleted it. Then I typed it again.

:/

My doubt about including the emoticon stemmed from not wanting to appear unprofessional in any way. The question stuck with me: are there any guidelines about using emoji or emoticons in business communication?

Emoticons – the font-based representation of human faces, like :) – and emoji – their graphical counterparts — are popular for a reason.

We love emoji. They’re fun, light-hearted, and convey a broad range of emotions efficiently and in a way that words sometimes can’t.

Slack

People use them to express themselves more accurately. They help to convey tone – for example when making a joke – and avoid misunderstandings. But there’s a risk of sounding like a high school kid as well.

I'm not talking about your collegial Slack-talk here, but about times that you need to make a professional impression — in service, sales, or other. So here are some tips for professional emoji use.

1
Use emoji to convey tone

Research shows that the use of emoji actually makes experts appear more friendly and competent.

The problem with written communication is the space it leaves for misinterpretation. Psychologist Albert Mehrabian famously claimed that only 7% of our communication is verbal. 38% is vocal (our intonation) and 55% is nonverbal (our body language).

Emoji are a tool to communicate a big part of that nonverbal communication. Emoji-free written communication can suffer from the ‘negativity effect’, which happens when the message is interpreted more negatively than intended.

Help Scout shows how emoji and exclamation marks can be powerful antidotes against the negativity effect.

Bar chart showing answers on why people make use of emoticons and emoji.

Whether it’s in email or chat, in professional communication emoji are best used to get the toning of your message right.

This also puts a limit on the amount of emoji to use. Most platforms offer a wide variety, ranging from egg plants to fireworks. These are funny in private communication, but for business communication you’ll want to stick to the face-like emoji.

2
Take on a minimalistic approach

While emoji are used to clarify the emotional undertone of a message, a research by the University of Minnesota showed they leave plenty of room for misinterpretation.

People were asked to indicate how ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ an emoji was, and they found big differences between the interpretations.

This was largely due to the differences in emoji fonts between smartphone platforms. A grinning emoji looks quite different on an iPhone than it does on an Android device.

A comparison of the grinning emoji across smartphone platforms.
Source: GroupLens.

And they were rated quite differently in their ‘positivity’, like with the “grinning face with smiling eyes” below.

How the different representations of the same emoji are interpreted in their positivity, which could be crucial for the use of emojis and emoticons in business communication.
Source: GroupLens.

For the use of emoji in business communication, this means that you would do better to avoid the emoji that are higher in risk of being misinterpreted.

Here’s an overview of the level of confusion with various emoji across platforms.

The level of confusion per emoji across platforms.
Source: GroupLens.

But I’d go further than that, because some emoji are universally positive, but still used in different ways. Take the ‘wink’ emoji ;). People agree that it’s positive, but that still leaves room for misinterpretation. Some people use it to signal their friendliness, while others use it to indicate irony or a double meaning. Stewie can phrase it better than me:

There are really only a handful emoji to use in professional communication:

The few important emoji for professional communication.

3
Put a cap on your emoji

There’s but a small difference between being perceived as a ‘friendly and capable’ professional or an overly emojinal teenager.

Cramming your messages with emoji will obviously make you look unprofessional. But how many you can afford to throw in there depends primarily on your communication channel.

Emoji in email are fine, but they should be used with modesty. I personally only use them at points that a sentence could be misinterpreted, and I try to limit it to once per email. You can add more when you’re writing a longer email, although emails are better kept short. Do try to keep it below 1 emoji per 3 paragraphs.

Live chat and messaging, however, are much more accepting of emoji than email. That’s probably because of the informal effect of chat.

That means that in live chat or messaging support, emoji can be used once in every few sentences. But do make every emoji count. Every emoji should have a purpose. There’s no reason to use duplicate emoji, just like there’s no reason to use duplicate exclamation or question marks:

Excessive use of emoji and exclamation marks.

4
Use social mimicking

In the end, whether the use of emoji is appreciated or not depends mostly on the person you’re interacting with.

  • Age. There’s a popular belief that mostly the millennials use emoji, but Emogi’s Emoji Report shows that they are popular all the way up to the silver surfers. I can confirm this looking at my WhatsApp interactions with my parents, although a research into the interpretation of specific emoji across age groups would be interesting.
  • Gender. The Emoji Report shows that women are more fervent users of emoji than men. The Definitive Book of Body Language explains that women are more expressive in real-life facial emotions as well, so those two might be related.
  • Culture. Kristie Wong describes how how the Japanese and Americans differ in their use of emoji, which shows that culture can have a real impact. I haven’t found any research on it, but cultural differences between industries and companies probably also play a role. There likely is a difference in emoji acceptance between a marketer from a tech startup and an accountant from the municipality.

To be on the safe side, you can use social mimicry – using emoji in your communication only when your partner does so. When their tone is formal, better to exclude emoji. That also means it’s a good idea to save the use of emoji until after you’ve become more familiar with the person.

If you still want to get that informal tone in your writing, you can also practice it without emoji.

So did I use that emoji in the email? I did. And although I don’t know whether it was because or despite of the emoji, I also landed that guest post. Check it out here.