Scientific reports and news stories are starting to say the same song: Emojis are a confusing communication tool. This argument is happening while Slack, the fast-growing, emoji-inspired business talk app, is becoming a multi-billion dollar company.
I think we know that emojis and other alternative communication will be a bigger part of our future and aren't sure what to make of them quite yet. However, the communication problem isn't really the medium, but how we are using it. It reminds me of email in the 1990s: People were so enamored by it that they assumed it could supersede all other forms of communication. It took years for us to realize that certain conversations were better face-to-face or out loud, rather than in written form. When new communications arrive, we see the benefits well before recognizing the limitations.
Don't be afraid of emojis. Consider these three simple guidelines:
Give context (before or after): Emojis pack a lot of power (as do all pictures), but emojis are ultimately made for reaction, not initiation. You rarely, if ever would start a conversation with an emoji, as they themselves are reactionary figures rather than standalone statements. There has to be context provided either before or after the emoji is used. For instance, if you are at a crucial meeting and your colleagues are back at the office waiting for your feedback, then you may send a quick :) or :( to briefly update them. However, without everyone involved knowing the importance of the meeting, the happy or sad face wouldn't make any sense.
Send like punctuation: Emojis aren't great at beginning conversations, but they are brilliant at ending them. Have you ever had a continual text back-and-forth that has run its course, but you're not sure how to finish it? The right emoji can end a correspondence well and with finesse. They also can serve as a reaction-based affirmation, almost like nodding your head quietly while someone is talking to you. If someone is in the middle of a long series of texts to you, a well-placed emoji can confirm that you are still listening.
Use sparingly with strangers or acquaintances: The misunderstandings come not from emojis being vague, but because, more so than words, emojis are best used on an established view. The brands that struggle with emojis either don't know their intended audience or are hitting the wrong audience. It's the same with personal communications: emojis can be interpreted in different ways and the better you know your colleague, the better you can envision how they will interpret the emoji.