From Oxford Dictionaries naming U+1F602 (‘Face with Tears of Joy’ to the uninitiated) as its 2015 Word of the Year, to last year’s rather regrettable Emoji movie (how does one score 8% on Rotten Tomatoes?), these little symbols have become a popular and widely used form of self-expression.

Caspar Grathwohl, president of Oxford Dictionaries, sees emojis as “the answer to the limitations of written script in an increasingly digital – and visual – world”. It’s a new language that can create shorthand and new meanings or symbols. However, it’s also one that is being used in very different ways depending on geography, gender, age, personality type and a host of other variables.

A further challenge is understanding what Emojis mean in their particular context. Let’s go back to U+1F602 , it’s mainly a happy emoji, but 30% of people also use it to express sarcasm and 15% even use it to display sadness.

With this level of nuance in mind – and being gluttons for punishment – we decided to develop a new sentiment tool – an emoji decoder if you will – to help us understand what people are really expressing through their digital communications.

The plan was the new tech would allow us to build on the existing AI tool we use, which interprets sentiment in written text. Feeding in granular data from emoji usage, that goes beyond positive/negative/neutral, we’d gain a much deeper level of insight on (a) given subject(s).

Before making that leap, we needed some context and so conducted an online study of 3,500 emoji users to gauge the motivations and use scenarios for how this visual language is being used in the UK. While many of the results were in line with our expectations, there were others we felt were worth sharing.

Smile like you mean it

The first thing to note is that, despite our stoic, stiff-upper lip reputations, Britons are actually most likely to be using emojis to express positive emotions – smiles, laughter and even affection. In fact, the top 10 most used emojis across the whole of the UK are almost all smiley variants, the only exception being the shocked face:

As literal symbols of our feelings, it may be unsurprising that consumers are most comfortable and keen to use them when sharing happy and positive news (53% of users). We are slightly more reserved about sharing more vulnerable feelings, but a substantial 30% of users share them alongside sad or bad news and 15% even use them with tragic news.

Man! I (don’t) feel like a woman

Interestingly, propensity to use emojis to express a variety of feelings differs most distinctly by gender – more than age, social background or ethnicity.

Women use emojis more frequently than men, with 69% of female emoji users sending them daily as compared to 53% for males, and are more likely to see them as a shortcut or better alternative to words to representing how they feel. As such, they also use emojis to express a much wider array of emotions than men, and are much more likely to express both overtly positive and distinctly negative feelings via emojis.

From the flamboyant dancer to the dramatic confounded face, female emoji users over-index on use of all the highly expressive emojis. For example, women are around two-thirds as likely as men to be frequently using often dramatic emojis like Loudly Crying Face, See-No-Evil-Monkey, Sleeping Face, Face with Cold Sweat, Face Screaming in Fear and Face with Tears of Joy:

In fact, the only emojis men are more likely to use than women are Fisted Hand Sign , Skull , Smiling Face with Glasses and Neutral Face .

It’s notable that all these emojis downplay emotion or are – consciously – expressionless. There has been much debate around traditional gender roles recently and Robert Webb drew praise last year for opening up in his memoir ‘How Not to be a Boy’ about the emotional damage done when boys are encouraged to behave in ways that are considered ‘gender normative’ (i.e. unemotional etc.)

Looking at Target Group Index, we can see these highly gendered attitudes continue to be borne out. Men are a third more likely to agree with the statement ‘real men don’t cry’ than women and are also 10% more likely to strongly agree that they ‘don’t like to show their real feelings’.

Similarly gendered emoji usage suggests this outlook also translates to the digital space. It seems males are less comfortable in casually sharing overt and complex emotions using emojis than females.

Young at heart

Age is another big factor in emoji usage. Older emoji users send them with a frequency that might be surprising, with 69% of emoji users aged 45+ and 62% of those aged 65+ sending them weekly.

Half of those over 55 say they use emojis because they are ‘a fun way to talk’ – statistically the same as the 18-34 year olds. However, older people are the most likely to struggle to find the right emojis to represent themselves: over a quarter feel age is catered for poorly in the choice of emojis available to them. In fact, fewer than one in five of those aged 65 plus say they find it easy to represent themselves, their lifestyles or their views using emojis.

Do you mean what I mean?

Clearly, something designed to make communications easier has evolved to become anything but, and it’s a language that’s only going to continue becoming more complex! However, there’s a wealth of untapped data available for marketers that do learn to read it properly. It’s high time the industry started taking emojis seriously, know what I mean…?

Rachel Rowlinson

Rachel Rowlinson