Memes, Emoji Phrases, and GIFs: Staying Relevant in Online Communication

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emoji messages, emoji text, emoji phrases

Nothing could be more true about the ever-changing nature of marketing communication than the introduction of emojis into popular forms of communication, and marketing pieces. One could argue that emojis were just the beginning of a number of changes inspired by communications in the digital age that I’ll refer to as “down-generation translation”.

Before going too deep into the conversation about how things like memes, emoji phrases, and GIFs affect communication between people and marketers, it’s important to first understand how these things first became popular.

The creative agency now known as IMRE (previously 5Loom) created this timeline of emoji development and history, rich with insights as to their use today:

history of emojis infographic emoji messages, emoji text, emoji phrases

A Breakdown of Strict Language Rules in Marketing

One of the last entries on the above emoji timeline infographic is particularly telling of times to come:

2013: White House uses emojis on its Instagram account.

As the infographic correctly muses, 5 years ago, this would have come across as complete gibberish. It certainly would have hurt the credibility of the current administration in office. But now, hardly anyone would give a caption with emojis a second look—even if it was coming from a government institution. Oh what a world we live in!

To give a personal example of emoji use by brands in the wild, I recently came across an email from Orbitz. The subject line said “low price roundtrip tix now.” Notice that “tix” in there? When I first started in digital marketing, that would never fly.

This all begs the question: just because a marketer can get away with the use of causal terminology, emojis, and funky phrases torn from Urban Dictionaryshould they?

The Down-Generation Translation

Any given person in any given generation thinks that they’re the defining generation. Brands that use memes, emoji phrases, GIFs and similar methods of communication are aiming to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

Breaking down the idea of a defining generation is easy to do when you think in terms of music.

For example, when Elvis initially came into popularity, his antics made him popular with the nation’s youth, but their parents decried him as a bad influence. As that younger generation grew up, and with many generations to come, Elvis became known as a classic, shedding his previous bad-boy image in favor of one featuring him as the “King of Rock and Roll”.

Before and after him, the same situation has played out many a time for many artists. Generations share conflicting opinions, which eventually meld together with the passing of time.

The takeaway here is that you’ll never be a part of the defining generation. At least, not forever, and not in the context of all other generations. Even the young beautiful humans of today will have to come to terms with the fact that another generation will eventually steal their fire. But regardless of what generation you’re a part of, we all define the “right now”, and this distinction connects us all together.

The Right Now of All Generations

The lowest common denominator between all living generations is our shared “right now”. And to get more specific, as of the publication of this article, our “right now” is made up of memes, emoji phrases, and GIFs as elements of our common language.

Adapting can be a challenge for the generations unfamiliar with this type of communication. As someone who’s been in marketing for the past 15 years, and who’s witnessed a complete upheaval in terms of industry best practices throughout the years, it’s still hard for me to accept this type of change.

But even though I’m fighting it a bit, it’s time to accept the fact that most people won’t pick up the phone anymore to communicate, even if you persistently call them. I shouldn’t be surprised by how many people in my generation (and older) are fully committing to the new right now of communication that includes emoji phrases. Even my own mother, who got her first computer just 7 years ago, has seemed to master the art of emoji communication. It seems like everyone wants to try on this new language with a good old college try!

An important takeaway for marketers is that we all have to adapt and evolve. And we all have to accept and roll with the right now if we want to make an impact with the people who are ready to buy—right now.

So, as marketers, we can sit here and plan how to talk to this and that generation. We can try to build “perfect” demographic profiles and personas. But ultimately, we have to speak the current universal language if we want to remain relevant across generations.

While you might assume that things like emoji phrases should be limited to seemingly informal communications like Snapchat, this evolving form of language seems to have no bounds—including professional emails, and even public-facing messaging on Linkedin. Try to understand the implications of Facebook upgrading their basic “like” functionality to their new reactions—it will now be forever easier to say more with less.

Up-Generation Translation (and the Implications for Marketing)

Besides down-generation translation, there’s also the opposite: up-generation translation. In order to describe this concept, I’d like to introduce you to Lightbug Ana. In some ways, Ana is more mature than me, though I have 10+ years on her. Smart, quick, and deeply thoughtful, Ana knows how to up-translate.

Here’s what she had to say on the topic:

No matter which rung of the marketing ladder you occupy, a critical component of success in this business is the ability to authentically connect with your audience. When this piece of the pie is missing, appealing to your customers can become quite difficult. And, when it comes to getting them to buy your products or services, it can quickly take a sharp detour into the land of the impossible.

So, how do you overcome this obstacle? My biggest piece of advice is to speak to your audience in the same ways they speak to one another. I’m not talking about mimicry. People can spot a phony from a million miles away. I’m saying it’s important to do your research.

The best way to get people to relate to you, and ultimately your message, is to speak with them in relatable ways. Take a look at where these people congregate online and IRL, see how they refer to things, understand the jargon they use and follow suit. This rule of thumb has been incredibly useful for me when communicating on behalf of my clients and has also come in handy when it applies to having conversations with older generations in my personal life.

As an old soul, but not-so-old working professional, I “up-translate” as a means of conveying ideas and relaying messages in way that makes sense to colleagues and superiors that belong to older generations.

I have come to find that it is easier to get people to rally behind a new concept or innovation when I explain it to them using words that are easily identifiable to them. When messages are relayed to an individual on their terms, using their terms, it provides a shared foundation upon which new conversations and innovative ideas can be built.

This just doesn’t work for older crowds. Half the time I have no idea what my thirteen year-old cousin is talking about when she delves into the intricacies of teendom in 2017, but through the beauty of Urban Dictionary and a little inquisitiveness, I push myself to learn her context. And, as a result, my convos with Gen X and Gen Z (or whatever they’re called) have become more fruitful, nuanced and rewarding.

Memes, Emoji Phrases, and GIFs: Staying Relevant in Online Communication

Generation after generation, it’s important to learn the new language while maintaining what you know about the old language. But when it comes to marketing, the new language always wins. It’s hip, fresh, and real. You can feel it, and even if it’s one generation off… it will still catch the attention of the “right now”.

If you want to succeed, you’ll need the new common denominator. However you choose to proceed with this information, just make sure to cut yourself a little shy of being featured on “Brands Saying Bae”.

How does your brand work to stay relevant with your customers? We’d love to hear your insights! Tweet at @LightspanD, and we’ll share the best ones.

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Since founding Lightspan, Mana has quickly established herself as one of Chicago's leading voices in social media and digital marketing. A decisive problem-solver fluent in five languages, Mana believes in clear objectives, simple solutions and the power of purpose in marketing. Credos: "No excuses" and "Find a way!"
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