It all started with the smiley face.

I recently received this hidden message at the end of a business email @~)~~~~. Confused? Look sideways – the client wanted to send me a rose and used this emoticon to portray their sentiment. In another situation as I waiting for confirmation or an impending order, rather than a signature on a contract, I received a “thumbs up” emoji in a text message. That’s it.  Recently I saw a CarMax advertisement that used the acronym “WBYCEIYDBO.” Haven’t seen the ad?  It stands for “we’ll buy your car even if you don’t buy ours.” This commercial serves as a reminder that perhaps the acronym thing is here to stay.

So, these three true-life incidents prompted me to come up with suggestions for when it’s appropriate and ridiculous to use emojis, emoticons and acronyms in your professional communication. It would seem to be common sense, but based on these instances and others, it’s time for a primer.

Let’s start with some definitions, collectively referred to here as Symbols:

Emoticon: originally used to portray emotions, these are keyboard configurations for emotions, facial expressions and others things now, such as objects and animals, such as : ) for smiley face (colon, closed parens)

Emoji: a mini digital icon to say something in pictures rather than words, such as this: 😊

Acronym: an abbreviated word formed from the first letters of a phrase that becomes it’s own word, such as LOL (laughing out loud) and for the purposes of this blog, meant to describe digital communication terms

There are some situations where it is never appropriate to use any of the above:

  • Formal business communication including letters, emails, proposals, e-newsletters and website content. This is especially important for communication with people you don’t know. Keep it formal and let them make the first move.
  • Certain Symbols such as those with curse words in the acronym (WTF – never!) or Symbols with potty humor or other things that might accentuate your immaturity (pile of poop), cluelessness or lack of sensitivity. Don’t let the frequent use of certain phrases desensitize you to their long-form meaning, which could be off-putting or offensive.
  • Symbols with an ambiguous meaning such as a wink – is this flirting or does it mean OK? No need to test it with a valued customer or your boss.

And, a thumbs up emoji does not take the place of a signature on a contract – LOL!

There are some situations where it could be appropriate depending on your industry, your position, your relationship with the colleague or client, the intent of the message, the Symbol used or the platform used. Consider these factors and go for it if:

  • You want the tone to be informal or light.
  • You are texting or using a casual communication method such as Facebook.
  • You know the person.
  • You are using universally accepted Symbols. Does anyone really remember what TTFN* or GMTA** mean?  Don’t make them feel uninformed and force them to look it up.

There are some situations where it’s almost always OK:

  • Your name is Shigetaka Kurita (the emoji creator).
  • You work for Apple, Google, a cell phone company or another high-tech firm and are using text messaging.
  • You are communicating via text. Keep in mind that this could appear disingenuous if you are just doing it to do it. There is nothing worse than someone adding a random symbol – sometimes not using the right acronym – to look cool. OMG – this is so not cool.
  • You want to end a back and forth conversation. A good Symbol often indicates the end of a discussion.
  • Symbols are your thing, you have a library of creative keyboards and you are using them appropriately, sparingly and on a case-by-case basis.

From the simple smiley face to the intricate scream face, emoji marketing is the NBT*** and will the subject of a future blog.  Just for fun, here are some interesting emoji statistics and facts.

Leisa Chester Weir

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*Ta Ta For Now

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***Next Big Thing

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