Face time: Will emojis change the way marketers conduct consumer research?
The emoticons popularized on social media have become a way to speak consumers' language, and major brands have taken note, so why haven't marketing researchers followed suit?
Despite the fact that 3 out of 10 surveys start on a smartphone, marketers are still deploying strategies for polling audiences that were developed specifically for desktop-based research. Such research can give insights into consumers' habits and preferences and can help marketers identify key pain points around a brand or product, but traditional approaches don't always translate across devices, as dropout rates are 20% higher on mobile than on desktop, according to the Advertising Research Foundation. That rate dropped in half when emojis were used in mobile surveys because it let participants share their opinions faster and with fewer words.
For marketers, the higher survey completion possible with emojis could mean more reliable data and fewer wasted dollars.
"Research folks need to pay really close attention to how marketers are using emojis and start adapting them into their tools as quickly as possible," Chris Bacon, ARF's executive vice president of global research quality and innovation, told Mobile Marketer.
Visuals have become mainstream facets of daily language. From emojis and GIFs to photo-sharing and videos, these visually based elements can be critical for communicating a message's emotional nuances that text just can't capture. They're also associated with SMS, social media and casual conversation — not typically considered fit for the professional world.
A May 2017 study by ARF suggests that that might not be the case, as the impact of visual communication isn't limited to chatting with friends and family. Major brands like Pepsi, Miller Coors and Always have begun to weave emojis into their marketing toolkits, so why can't researchers?
Perhaps it's time to lean in to new types of survey formats and start speaking mobile consumers' language.
"The evolution of emojis as a new language is part of what precipitated [the study]. But the problem was that research folks just don't design surveys to be mobile-friendly," Bacon said. "Since we saw that people were already communicating with emojis on their mobile devices, we thought 'what would happen if we wrote our surveys in emojis — or at least the responses?'"
Thumbs down for desktop-designed surveys
According to Bacon, too many questions, small text and excessive open-ended queries are top reasons people check out midway through. Consumers just don't have the time or interest for cumbersome surveys, especially those who are on the go.
"The No. 1 thing is to always respect your consumer. We can't have surveys that go more than 10 minutes. It's just tedious and disrespectful of their time," Bacon said. "At the same time, use normal language. Don't use a 10-dollar word when a 10-cent word will do."
Regardless of what pushes respondents away, abandoned surveys mean lost money and wasted time for marketers, who invested $13.7 billion total in online customer research in 2016. Just recently are marketers exploring survey formats that are more thumb-friendly and better designed for small screens.
Breaking down ARF's study
ARF's research aimed to determine whether using emojis in lieu of traditional, text-based responses would reduce drop-off rates without compromising the data.
Participants were shown an emoji image of food and asked a variety of questions, including "How likely are you to eat this food within the next 30 days?" and "Do you eat this food more often because you think it's healthy?' They were then asked to respond using one of the given emojis: thumbs up, thumbs down or a question mark. This multiple-choice format aimed to leave little room for misinterpretation or botched results.
For marketers, emojis in surveys can be particularly valuable in conducting product development research. A range of emoticons can be used to gather respondents' reactions to new product concepts or features, or simple thumbs up and thumbs down symbols could provide a clearer "yes/no" opinion from a large group of consumers.
Emojis don't have a place in all types of surveys, however. For health, legal, political or social issues, Bacon suggests steering clear of the emoticons and sticking to the more traditional format, as the casual symbols aren't particularly appropriate for research on opinions of the death penalty, for instance.
A final, open-ended question in the study asked respondents what a particular emoji meant to them. Many emojis hold a different meaning from person to person, which Bacon says can add response bias to data.
"It's like anything, you have to use them with care. Stick to the basics like the smiley scale. Don't try to get into emoji faces with sweat or grins or heart eyes because they're more easily misinterpreted — and that's the last thing you need," Bacon said. "When you ask 100 people what they think of something, you want to make sure each one of those 100 people interprets it in the same way.'
Emoji's place in future research
While emojis are developing into a more universal type of language, survey researchers will not be the ones to spearhead that evolution, Bacon said. Instead, they'll likely follow in the footsteps of brand marketers.
"The biggest thing is to share how you're going to use [participants'] data. People are glad to tell you what they think. We see that with Yelp reviews," Bacon said. "Let people know you heard them, that you value their feedback and that you're going to do something about it."
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