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Recently, I was working with a customer service rep of an online subscription service. We had signed up for a free trial, and then forgotten about the service with accounting automatically paying the monthly fee.  Realizing our error, I pulled up online chat and asked for a refund. The reply was prompt and courteous, yet firm.  They had a 30-day cancellation policy and we were now 60-days out, so we were not entitled to a refund.

Hmmm….  What should I do? Ask for the manager? Push back with the rep? Or just give up and move on? I posed the question to nearby colleagues in my co-working space.

“Use the frown face.” Suggested my neighbor (She is always battling with state and local agencies for her clients, and often in these negotiating situations.)

“Really? A frownie face?”

“Yes, just try it.  What do you have to lose?”

“L” I typed into the chat box.

A few seconds later, I received a less formal, more empathetic response. “Let me see what I can do.  I’ll talk to my manager and get back to you with a reply via email.”

And sure enough, our account was credited! 

This is when I realized the power of emoticons. Emoticons, though they may seem frivolous, trivial and even unprofessional, put a human “face” on the constant barrage of digital communications streaming across our desktop and mobile screens. Emoticons (and emojis or animated emoticons) help us realize that there is another real human at the other end, and switch our thinking from data management to one-to-one dialogue.

So in marketing, when are emoticons appropriate and even useful? 

Research is just starting but Stanford-trained linguist Tyler Schnoebelen has found that use of emoticons varies by geography, age, gender, and social class—just like dialects or regional accents. The use of emoticons therefore depends on the norms of the communications styles of your customer base.

  • One-to-one customer service

In online chats (like the one above) and even email exchanges, the use of emoticons can keep the communication friendly and positive. Studies on customer complaints show that customers want to feel heard and responded to – and that this is even more important than the problem itself. Emoticons can help with that personal, empathetic touch.

  • Internal or partner work groups

Increasingly our work groups are dispersed to locations all over the world.  We often have clients, partners, even work colleagues that we have never met in a face-to-face event. Our team sessions are often via Skype and web meeting hosting services. In these sessions, emoticons can inject personality and lighten up the harshness of typed debates or criticisms.

  • Social Media

This is of course where the thumbs up, like, follow and many other symbols entered the lexicon of our merged professional/personal lives. Emoticons are even preferred here versus lengthy word-based descriptions. According to AMEX OPEN Forum, emoticons can make a large difference in your engagement rates because they make communication seem more human and real. For example, posts with emoticons:

  • Receive 33% more comments
  • Are shared 33% more often
  • Get liked 57% more often
  • Email marketing

Emoticons are now being used in subject line as a way to capture attention and generate just enough interest to get the recipient to open the email. The effectiveness of this approach depends on your target audience, your message and your overall brand and style.

Do you use emoticons or emojis in your marketing communications?  Share your tips and results below.