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Why Do Emojis Increase Engagement?

Engaging with student customers in 2021 requires a digital language all of its own, even when dealing with a domestic audience. For institutions looking to engage international students there’s the added challenge of having a meaningful multilingual conversation across a variety of different platforms and mediums. While AI technology is making those interactions more possible, there’s an older tool in the digital playbook that has hit the mainstream in brand marketing. Let’s discuss the emoji…       

Update: This week a new report from Brandwatch hit the internet. It explores collective sentiment online between 2020 and 2021 through the medium of emoji. It explores themes like emotional changes indicated over the course of the year, shifts in representation, and emoji usage patterns across generations and gender.

Previously, a study by HubSpot found that over 1/4 of tweets containing emojis got more engagement, while 1/3 of Facebook posts received more comments and shares. What’s more, over half of emoji-bearing posts got more likes. Meanwhile, Instagram interactions are reported to be almost 50% higher if they contain emoticons.

But why are emojis so effective in raising engagement, especially among savvy Gen Z ‘pandemials’? There are hundreds of studies exploring the impact of emojis on interaction. And in a world where digital communication is now more normal than in-person exchanges, the findings are hardly surprising.

Our brains see emojis like a human face

Can this be true? Science says it can. A study by Flinders University in Australia found that the human brain reacts similarly whether a person is looking at a real human face or an emoji. So, we subconsciously associate seeing an emoji with face-to-face communication.

In fact, you could say emojis are more engaging than text because they are closer to replicating a real-life conversation. Which are becoming increasingly rare as we engage in more digital communication.

A recent article from quoted one Gen Z public relations specialist in the UAE: “When I encounter someone who doesn’t use emojis, I immediately sense they are either significantly older than me, or it is work and I have to be extremely professional.” Unsurprisingly, young adults interpret a lot about the human behind a simple online communication. Who do you want your brand to be?  

Using emojis releases happy vibes

Researchers at ACM found that when using emojis, people experience a whole rainbow of positive emotion. These  include: enjoyment, happiness, personal interaction, usefulness, and a feeling of being information-rich. Simply put, using emoticons makes communication feel good.

Dr Linda Kaye noted the “emotional contagion” effect of the smiley emoji specifically, in a recent piece discussing why the Psychology profession should start taking emojis more seriously. The article suggests that marketers have the power to make their audience happy, and associate positive sentiment with their brand, simply by using emojis.   

The benefits here are universal. Use emojis in your marketing and your copywriters get a boost of joy from creating the content. Meanwhile your all-important student customers feel great when they receive them!

Visuals are easier on the mind

We’ve all had a lot to think about recently, so is it any wonder that our brains appreciate shortcuts? According to one study, humans process visuals and imagery 60x faster than written text.

Not only that, the report found that people read just 28% of words on a webpage. Although we wouldn’t suggest peppering you website with smiley faces, it’s certainly worth bearing this in mind when thinking about things like ad copy, email subject lines, and of course, social posts.

Want to portray something simple but wordy? Can you sum it up in an emoji? Your audience will thank you for it!

Emoji users are more popular

At least, that’s the case for social media influencers. An analysis of 31 million tweets and half million Facebook posts found that emojis are used more often by people who are popular or influential on those social media channels.

The research indicated similar findings across other web-based platforms, and even suggests those who strayed from common emoji use were much more likely to be less popular.

To add weight to the theory, based on two separate studies, Psychology Today recently suggested that emoji users even get more dates. How? It seems it all comes back to the art of connection. The researchers noted that “people who use emojis more often may be better at forming connections with others.”

So there you have it: use emojis and everyone will want to join your gang (or university…). 

Emojis = emotion (duh!)

Finally, and most obviously, emojis were designed to portray emotion, guys (we know…you know that). Their origins are debatable. Some credit Japanese artist Shigetaka Kurita, who designed a basic set of emoticons back in 1999. His intention was to signify emotions in chat room conversations. Earlier than that, in 1982, Professor Scott Fahlman of Carnegie Mellon University pioneered the now rudimentary ‘:-)’  to indicate joking in computerised text. 

How should this be applied now, though, and how can we avoid making an emoji blunder? Paul Eckman’s well-known 1970s study concluded that although there are global variations of more complex expressions, the basic 6 display on our faces universally. In other words, the simplest expressions of positivity can give a formal, static message an authentic, human voice. 

Emotion is what what turns a simple exchange of information into an engaging conversation. When an audience is international we know that simplicity is key, and universal styles of communication make everyone’s life easier. 

So in conclusion to one of marketing’s most debated questions of the moment… 

Should you be using emojis to connect with Gen Z customers? The research says YES. By employing the science behind why emojis engage customers better, you can avoid the pitfalls, and use them where they will really have impact. In a nutshell:

  • Keep it simple – for globally relevant appeal opt for basic positive sentiment. The current most popular emojis in use worldwide can be found here.  
  • Be sparing. Less is more, and minimises the risk of confusion.
  • Remember it’s about creating connection, so your copy needs to fit the bill too. Match up your emojis with your core messaging.
  • Have fun – it will come across in the delivery, and that is what makes magnetic marketing. 


The team at Global Young Minds are experts in international student recruitment. We have worked in the HE sector from the earliest days of digital marketing. We offer bespoke consultancy services to education institutions who want to accelerate their digital capabilities to meet the needs of today’s hyper-connected students around the world. 

If you’re ready for us to help you take your digital engagement strategy to the next level, start by taking the Digital Acceleration Assessment for a diagnostic report, and one of the team will be in touch soon.