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Are Emoji the Next Big Thing in SMS Marketing?

One of the best things about instant messaging is the ability to send emoticons and emoji to convey a feeling with just one image. Many of us are familiar with the pictures that appear, like an actual yellow smiley face. Sometimes though, we might just see the characters instead. What we see, and whether we see anything at all, depends on the application, the OS, and the device. Compatibility across systems is not guaranteed, and that’s especially true for SMS messaging.

But many companies are trying to use them in their SMS marketing anyway. There are technical issues with using them though, as well as questions on whether it’s good marketing practice.

Technical issues

There’s a lot more that goes into an SMS message after you hit send than you might think. Before it gets whisked off through the network it needs to be encoded. There are different character sets to choose from that are usually country, but sometimes network, dependent.

Most mobile phones are Global Standard for Mobile Communications (GSM) based, and use the GSM character set. The basic GSM set includes all the Latin alphabet and numbers, and many common symbols on a keyboard – but not all of them. The extended set includes some of those additional keyboard symbols.

Another standard used on some networks and phones is Unicode. This character set is much broader and includes characters for different languages such as Japanese and Arabic.

Naturally, you need to be using the same, or at least compatible, character sets in order to send and receive SMS messages. This is a tricky thing given the hundreds of different types of mobile phones available and the many different networks they use.

What it all means for SMS messaging

Before I get into what works and doesn’t for SMS messaging, I wanted to first note the difference between emoticons and emoji.

Emoticons are faces created mostly from standard keyboard characters – GSM characters. Examples are 😉  🙂  😀 . You’ll recognise them for sure. They were created about 34 years ago by an engineer who felt there needed to be a way to let people know you’re being funny or joking in an email message. Since then they’ve grown to be near-universal symbols of many happy or sad emotions and are often replaced by picture versions – depending on the program being used to view them.

Emoji on the other hand are a standard set of characters used to depict all sorts of images from country flags to flying ducks. They are based on the Unicode character set. How each emoji appears depends on the platform and the fonts installed, though what each one means (the name usually) remains the same. The emojipedia.org website says there are 845 emoji characters that are commonly supported across messaging programs, but that iOS 9.1 supports 1,620. That’s nearly double the common set, which makes the issue of compatibility clear.

Getting back to SMS messaging, emoticons are generally supported across most networks and phones using the GSM standard. But there are some characters that take up extra space.

The extended characters require two character slots rather than one. A normal GSM SMS message can have 160 characters. If you type the following a smiley emoticon, :), you’ll have used two characters so you have 158 more. But if you want to use a big mouth happy face like this :] or :} it will count as three characters and you have only 157 more. Both the ] and } are part of the extended set.

If you decide to use the extended character set (whether in emoticons or not), you’ll have fewer characters left for the rest of your message. But that could be well worth it to send the perfect emoticon.

To see what characters are in the basic set and which are extended, you can view this page that includes a table of all the characters.

But what this also means is that you can likely send emoticons safely over SMS to most networks and phones. How they appear will depend on how the handset decodes the emoticons. It may change the basic smiley to a yellow smiling happy face. Or it may appear just as the characters. But in both cases the reader will know what you mean.

Using Unicode

In order to send true emoji, you’ll need to use Unicode. This can still work for SMS messaging, but there is one significant issue. Because of the way the Unicode set is encoded, each SMS can only be 70 characters. So instead of 160 characters with the GSM set, you’ll have less than half that available per message.

This doesn’t have to be a problem, but you do need to be aware of it when you chose to send this way. If you’re using an online SMS provider, or you’re on a pay-per-message mobile plan, it will take three messages to send the same number of characters as one GSM (70+70+70 = 210, more than 1 GSM but you’ll need all three to get to 160 in GSM).

Using emoticons or emoji in SMS marketing

Everyone loves a good smiley face. Depending on your marketing tone, brand image, and customer base, sending one along with your SMS marketing messages might be a good idea. It’s up to you though, to do the testing and customer research to find out if it will work for you.

And if you do decide to use them, you probably also want to test out how they look on a variety of phones and networks. Or at least inquire and research what is supported so you know your customers get the message you were sending and not something else.

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