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Emoji's, Stickers & GIFs: Decoding Complex Visual Responses

Emoji’s, Stickers and GIFs have been around for some time now and whether we like it or not, their use is becoming more frequent and popular. However, do we actually understand them, does everyone interpret them in the same way and how can we as researchers decode visual responses to draw out valuable insights?

Development of the use of Emoji’s, Stickers and GIFs

Human communication has evolved dramatically over the last 5000 years from the first written graphics in 3000BC to the rapid telecommunications of today. But the written and spoken word are complex (and sometimes long-winded), so with technological advances and the increasing use of computers and mobile technologies, people are now opting for simpler, quicker, and more universal ways to communicate as our ancestors did all those years ago. 

Most human communication is not comprised of words; it is body language, eye contact, tone of voice, and reaction, and communication online is now trying to convey this with the use of visuals such as emoji’s, stickers, and GIFs.

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Most human communication is not words; it is body language, eye contact, tone of voice, and reaction, and communication online is now trying to convey this with the use of visuals such as emoji’s, stickers, and GIFs.

Emoji’s, stickers, and GIFs are digital images, either static or animated, that are used to express an idea or emotion in electronic communication. Their development aims to help people convey more emotion and expression than the static written word, especially as images are processed quicker than text. They are integrated on many platforms and are very easily accessible for use by all (not just the young!). This ‘short-hand’ communication is simple and adds texture, fun and humanity to chat. The use of images is also expanding within business, with brevity becoming increasingly important with the mass of information we now consume on a daily basis, we are using images as a replacement to words for expression.

The use of images is also becoming more socially acceptable and an integral part of our everyday lives (they are now so popular that there is even a emoji movie, clothing and merchandise!). Technology companies, for instance, have used emojis, stickers, and GIFs to influence and reinforce cultural trends, and companies such as Facebook have used these images to further refine, and monetise through ads, their understanding of users on the platform. A study released in January 2015 by researchers from the University of Cambridge and Stanford University showed that just 150 “Likes” were enough for Facebook to know you better than your friends and family so can you imagine what it can do with 150 of your reactions. In general though, people use these images to make online conversation fun.


How has the use of these images impacted the market research area? As Keith Broni stated, "emojis humanize business communication and allow companies to engage emotionally with consumers”. The effectiveness at conveying emotion is one reason for the growing use of emojis in marketing research.

The argument of whether these images support complex human communication and make communication more efficient is still debated, and can only be known if one is certain that the image is interpreted in the correct manner to which it was conveyed. 

Emojis, stickers and GIFs are slightly different to each other and thus care needs to be taken during use and interpretation. Emojis are part of a Unicode standard allowing them to be universal, they help to cross linguistic and sometimes cultural barriers but stickers and GIFs rarely work cross-platform. Online, GIFs are one of the most favoured forms of emotional reaction and some people feel they can better express themselves through this medium than the written word.  In a recent poll 70% of consumers in the US use visuals like emojis and GIFS in text and mobile messaging and 80%, felt they helped create a better understanding of the thoughts and feelings they were trying to communicate than words. Although the benefit is that these images can also be customised, users need to be cautious as they can look different on different devices and could be interpreted incorrectly especially across differing cultures.  A study from the University of Minnesota found that people can have very different interpretations of what certain emoji mean especially as they are seen differently on different devices and therefore miscommunication or communication errors can occur.

Decoding Visual Responses

There are many benefits of allowing visual responses in market research, as well as being more fun and engaging for the user, market researchers can also gauge reaction and capture emotion and feeling to a question. The use of emojis within survey scales e.g. the use an emojiscore such as and  instead of a ‘likeness’ scale from 1 to 5, is simple and easy for the user to interpret and can make the respondent experience more enjoyable. This ‘fun-factor’ of using an emoji to answer a question has also been shown to keep respondents engaged and encourage them to complete a survey. The true value of using emojis, stickers and GIFs in research is their power to help uncover customers’ thoughts, feelings, and opinions and when used strategically, they can be effective at tapping into the customers’ underlying emotions, leading to better understanding of their core needs. The interpretation of these emojiscores is generally straightforward but there can be limitations to applying statistical calculations in emoji rating scales. Additionally, if emoji, stickers and GIFs are used generally in communication, within a forum for example, market researchers need to ensure interpretation is correct to how it was intended, as one would do with text to confirm there is no misinterpretation.

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There are many benefits of allowing visual responses in market research, as well as being more fun and engaging for the user, market researchers can also gauge reaction and capture emotion and feeling to a question.

Each image has a meaning, and most importantly, key words attached to it. There are tools and techniques online to help with decoding but if there is any uncertainty market researchers should clarify meaning either with the sender or use probing questions to let the respondent elaborate to ensure the context is correct and relates to the subject matter within the research. Researchers should develop analytical tools to track responses to images to allow accurate analysis to provide valuable insight. Sentiment analysis of text is already a widely used technique and algorithms are being developed to allow artificial intelligence to decipher the meaning behind images. For example, recently MIT researchers have developed an algorithm that can detect sarcasm within text that incorporates emoji’s. Although, this algorithm can detect sarcasm better than people, the use of AI to understand emotion and interpret comments and images within large data sets is still very far from capturing the full richness of human emotions expressed through language, therefore it is always best to probe the respondent further for true accurate insight.

The Future of Emoji’s, Stickers and GIFs in Business

It seems that we are only just scratching the surface of the use of emoji’s, stickers, and GIFs within business and that this is just the start of how we are going communicate online in the future.  Images can be packed with insight for market researchers and can convey emotion and feelings better than words online, if used correctly with the correct audience, images, especially animated images, enable researchers to build a rapport with participants very quickly. However, at present, they should be supplementary to other market research data collection methods as opposed to a replacement. Users should use caution to ensure respondents and market researchers are deciphering the images and symbols correctly, and researchers should look to develop techniques and incorporate the use of analytical tools to allow decoding of visual communication by AI in the future.

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Dr Katharine Johnson

Written by Dr Katharine Johnson

With an extensive background in scientific research, technology licensing and business, Dr Johnson’s affinity for data analysis enables her to easily sift through qual and quant data and provide valuable insights for a variety of industries.

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Topics: Insight Innovation, Market Research, Research in Society