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Put a Smiley on It: Should You Use Emojis in Business Communication?

Sean Peek
Sean Peek

Emojis might be fun, but are they appropriate in the workplace?

A picture is worth a thousand words – and an emoji can save you that many characters. Not only that, but they can also often convey what plain text cannot. They tend to add a little extra oomph to your content, whatever it may be (message, web post, etc.). While emojis have become commonplace in text message marketing campaigns and on social media, how, or if, they should be used in business communications is still something to consider.

What are emojis?

Emojis are based on symbols from Japanese comics and express emotion through digital communication. Emojis are informal, personable and often used to inject humor into digital conversation. The idea is to provide a reaction when emailing, texting or messaging someone who can't see your body language. Emojis in a business setting break down barriers in formal communication and bring conversations down to a personal level.

Benefits of using emojis in the workplace

1. They add a personal approach.

If you're too formal and stiff, you might keep away potential customers. Your clients are human beings with feelings. Expressing your emotions as a business appeals to your client's human side and potentially attracts more customers. Emojis also help to build on existing relationships.

TipTip: When emojis are used appropriately, they can help to build a sense of community and a positive atmosphere between colleagues.

2. They act as a display of honesty.

Emojis help you build connections with your clients because they are deemed to be honest expressions. The use of emojis in a business setting gives your customers the impression that you are honest and approachable. Always use the proper emoji for the context.

3. They get the reader's attention.

Besides being eye-catching, emojis emphasize an important message and inject spirit into your communications. They’ve been shown to increase audience engagement. This, in turn, can enhance your brand image.

Drawbacks to using emojis in the workplace

Most messaging programs, even ones for business, offer a menu of emojis. But just because they're available doesn't mean you should use them. Here are some concerns with emojis in the workplace – and some instances where you might get away with including them.

1. They aren't universal.

Even if emojis might be appropriate in the moment, they don't always work as intended. According to Andrea Lehr, brand relationship strategist at Fractl, there is no universal agreement on what specific emojis represent.

"Individuals bring their own personal experience to how they interpret an emoji, so although you might use an emoji with streaming tears after something you found incredibly funny, someone else might wonder why you're upset," said Lehr.

"Emojis can get lost in translation," added Marty Estelle Lundstrom, founder of Polished Professionals and a practicing attorney and certified etiquette consultant with Manners Pro. "While a red-faced emoji might mean 'angry' to one person, another person might interpret it as 'embarrassed.'" This can cause confusion and disconnect between correspondents.

2. They make you seem less competent.

Emojis can make employees appear less competent and unprofessional when used in work communications, which could ruin your reputation as a qualified expert.

"Emojis are a newer form of communication, so if your recipient is older, an emoji can make you seem less competent simply because your recipient was expecting a more traditional correspondence," added Lehr.

Using emojis at work

Despite the concerns, many employees still use emojis – not only because millennials make up a large percentage of the workforce, but because of the widespread adoption of collaborative office tools such as Slack that promote casual work interactions.

Context is Important

Whether you should use emojis at work depends on context. If your workplace is informal, emojis are likely more acceptable, particularly if your co-workers use them frequently.

"Mirroring is a proven strategy for in-person communication, and I believe the same is true online," said PR manager Hillary Hafke. "Emojis are appropriate for some business emails in the same way that jokes are OK in some job interviews. You simply need to know your audience."

Don't use emojis with people you don't know very well. Be careful when messaging your boss, and particularly with customers. If you don't have a comfortable relationship with someone, it's best to avoid anything that could potentially turn them away.

"If you are creating a professional business email for a new client or business client that you haven't met personally yet, I would shy away from the use of emojis in any sort of correspondence with them," said James McCarthy, CEO of Placement Labs. "However, if the email recipient is a co-worker/employee or a client with whom you have a friendly, conversational relationship, then you should be able to use as many emojis as you would like."

In response to a serious complaint or issue, emojis are also inappropriate. Above all, don't use one if you aren't certain what it means, and never replace a word with an emoji, added Seamas Egan, director of sales and marketing at Campaigner.

"Work life without emojis sounds boring to me, but I also understand that there are moments where they are not necessary," said McCarthy.

Know Your Audience

Before using emojis, make sure you know your audience’s demographic. For instance, older people may be uncomfortable with emojis or may not even know what they mean.

"If you're sending an email to a supervisor, executive, or client or work in a corporate environment, emojis may not be appropriate," said Egan. "But for millennials and younger colleagues, or in a startup work environment, emojis may be more popular and acceptable."

FYIFYI: Emojis should be used wisely and selectively in business communications, as not all sectors allow the use of emojis. For example, the legal sector does not allow for the informality of emojis.

How do businesses use emojis?

Marketing

Emojis are often used when the target market is millennials. A simple smiley face tends to grab the attention of younger generations. Do not throw random emojis at your audience without a plan, though. If you’re going to use one, know the meaning of it.

Additionally, make sure that the emoji is relevant to the marketing content and that it falls in line with your company’s online brand. If it's not, any marketing messages will fall flat or feel disingenuous.

Bottom LineBottom Line: In email marketing, emojis have been shown to help increase open rates. However, those emojis must be relevant to the email and to your company. If they are not, they can negatively impact open rates.

Communication

Most of our communication is nonverbal cues. Emojis add emotion to formal conversations, helping to create richer and more meaningful conversations by clarifying the tone of the written conversation. This helps prevent the receiver of your message from negatively interpreting it. Here are a few rules for using emojis in formal conversations:

  • Less is more. Make sure that you use emojis sparingly in your emails.
  • Don't use emojis in email conversations until you identify the conversation style of your recipient.
  • Follow the recipient's example. If they use emojis, you can assume that it’s okay to use emojis.
  • Establish a common meaning for the emojis. It is crucial that the emojis you use in business mean the same thing to everyone, reducing chances of conflict.
  • In the case of professional email conversations, err on the side of no emojis. Professionalism trumps personality.

Slack

Emojis can be used in Slack messages to brighten up a dull mood or drama, or just for fun. Well-used emojis can convey a message faster than a written message. You can even add an emoji to your Slack name. However, only use the approved emojis for your workplace.

Image Credit: artiemedvedev / Getty Images
Sean Peek
Sean Peek
business.com Contributing Writer
Sean Peek has written more than 100 B2B-focused articles on various subjects including business technology, marketing and business finance. In addition to researching trends, reviewing products and writing articles that help small business owners, Sean runs a content marketing agency that creates high-quality editorial content for both B2B and B2C businesses.