Claire Bergin
Claire Bergin 13 April 2016
Categories B2B, B2C, Content, Technology

Why Emoji Marketing Could Be Excluding People from Your Conversation

Last November, Oxford Dictionaries made history by not naming their “Word of the Year” after a word at all. For the first time ever, an emoji character known as “Face with Tears of Joy” was named “Word of the Year” for 2015.

Why? According to Oxford Dictionaries, the “Face with Tears of Joy” emoji was chosen due to its overwhelming use worldwide. In short: emojis can extend beyond language barriers to be used as a “nuanced form of expression.”

That’s pretty powerful stuff. A smile used to be universal, but now you may have a better chance with emojis. Have emojis affected our day-to-day interactions to the degree of breaking down language barriers? Absolutely. Are they the new shorthand method of communicating, the golden egg to cracking the millennial demographic? 

Maybe so, but not for everyone.

Major brands are all aboard the emoji craze, from Chevrolet disseminating an entire press release in emojis to Coca-Cola sponsoring a special soft drink emoji on Twitter. Thanks to Domino’s Pizza, you can now have a delicious slice at your fingertips simply by tweeting a “pizzamoji.” But while marketers everywhere are embracing emojis, they may be excluding a large portion of their audience.

“Why Did You Send Me ‘house with a Yard’?”

BBC Radio recently hosted a podcast on how smartphone users with disabilities interpret emojis. The main interview featured a media professional who is blind and uses the iPhone VoiceOver software. To demonstrate, he asked his colleagues to text him emojis they use in everyday conversation.

The podcast hosts quickly found themselves trying to explain the greater significance of several emojis, breaking down jokes and relating emoji’s acceptable uses in pop culture. Like in the case of our “Word of the Year,” the “Face with Tears of Joy” wasn’t always used to convey that one was crying tears of joy as a literal reaction. It could often be used in a “laughing until I cry” scenario, or “this is so good, it cracks me up.”

Wired explored this phenomenon more in-depth, noting that “Emoji is like any other language. It changes. It evolves. It reflects the times, and the people using it.” Although Unicode chooses which emojis to include on the Emoji keyboard and dictates their standards, emojis are constantly expanding beyond their definitions.

As the BBC Radio podcast hosts discovered, screen readers can interpret what an emoji literally is by relaying the Unicode definition; in one of their examples, iPhone VoiceOver interprets an emoji as “a house with a yard.” Yet how is a house with a yard relevant to the conversation? Is there a deeper meaning? Is there a greater social reference taking place that users with disabilities aren’t able to interpret because they can’t see it in its original form – a visual object?

In contrast, many screen readers are getting better and better at interpreting emojis. The BBC Radio interview went on and the VoiceOver user was able to get the gist of an emoji conversation, with occasional context from the hosts. However, there isn’t much support when an emoji doesn’t work, either when the context is missing or it is just announced on a screen reader as simply “image.”

​“Image Not Found”

That’s where things get even murkier. Remember Chevrolet’s emoji press release at the beginning of this post? If you examine the press release page’s source code, the entire press release is just a picture of a string of emojis, a .jpeg, without any alt text. If a screen reader attempted to interpret it, a blind user would likely just hear one word, “image.” No context, no further information. An entire marketing campaign now unreachable to them.

Dove also recently introduced “curly hair” emoji, yet when the iPhone deciphers them in VoiceOver mode, the emoji is again read as “image,” with no description of what appears on the screen. And Dove and Chevrolet aren’t the only ones – KitKat is even petitioning to get the word “break” recognized as an official emoji of two KitKat bars snapping in half.

But if the Unicode description for the emoji is “break,” a blind user has no context for the emoji. Break what? Why? They have no way of knowing the greater social relevance or its evolving significance – that the emoji is actually of a KitKat bar – if it can’t be properly described by a screen reader.

Why It Matters

At Siteimprove, creating an accessible web for all is one of our most important values. It’s not only an ethical, but a legal responsibility in many countries. Higher education institutions in the U.S. have faced off with the Department of Justice just this past year due to lack of accessibility on their websites. In Canada, the clock is ticking down on the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) requiring all provincial websites to be fully accessible.

Here in the UK, Equality Act 2010 mandates that “A person ... concerned with the provision of a service to the public or a section of the public (for payment or not) must not discriminate against a person requiring the service by not providing the person with the service.”

While the EQA doesn’t explicitly mention websites, the follow-up Statutory Code of Practices under the EQA does explicitly state that websites fall under “the provision of services mentioned,” and websites must provide equal access for users with disabilities.

Emojis may seem less pressing in comparison, but for a user with disabilities, they can be another reminder of a web not built for them. As mentioned above, technology has indeed come a long way, and many screen readers can interpret emojis to some degree. Yet it isn’t always a guarantee, and what can seem like a creative marketing approach can end up excluding an entire audience.

A smiley face isn’t just a picture of a smiley face anymore – it conveys a mood, a pun, or now, even social references. Odds are high that an emoji holiday campaign could be a fun approach to an endless season of shopping and sales, or spark a quick laugh. But 39 million people may not be in on the joke.

To find out more about making your website accessible and to see why we advocate for accessible web for all, download the Siteimprove Must-Have Accessibility Handbook.

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