You may regularly pop an emoji or three into your personal emails, or send a GIF or a meme along to one of your chums. These visuals are fun, easy to use, and tops for getting a few laughs. Certainly they can be just as effective for adding a boost to your content marketing—as long as they don’t blow up in your face.
Believe it or not, you need an intricate understanding of these images’ backstories and possible hidden meanings if you want to get it right.
Many brands have been burned by not truly grasping the social references these ideograms represent. But you don’t have to be one of them.
This article, which is adapted from Karine Bengualid’s session at WriterAccess Academy, delivers what you need to know about effectively using emojis, memes, and GIFs in your digital marketing efforts.
And it starts with a keen quote George Saunders wrote:
“Humor is what happens when we’re told the truth quicker and more directly than we’re used to. The comic is the truth, stripped of the habitual, the cushioning, the easy consolation.”
He called this rapid-truthing.
At the very core of emojis, memes, and GIFs is rapid-truthing at its best, with only a visual element. In the case of memes and GIFs, there’s also limited room for characters. There’s no other choice than to get your point across as quickly as possible.
And voila, rapid-truthing.
The emoji, meme, or GIF you choose pretty much determines the underlying message you’re trying to convey.
Grumpy cat: Unhappiness about something trivial.
Distracted boyfriend: Shiny object syndrome.
Woman yelling at cat: Difference of opinions, sometimes very big differences or misunderstandings.
Why Include Memes, GIFs, and Emojis in Our Content?
The short answer is humor. Humor in marketing has the power to transform ho-hum, forgettable content into marvelously memorable marketing. Memorable marketing, in turn, makes it more likely people will:
- Relate to and share your content
- Feel like you “get them” and become drawn to your brand
- Think of you as unique, with a distinctive voice
- Easily differentiate your company from your competitors
- Feel comfortable with your brand
- View your brand as more human, which builds the relationship
- Become loyal followers and fans
- Peg you as one cool company
It’s been said a zillion times that we buy from people we like, and humor is one of the speediest ways to increase your likeability across the board.
Disruption Stops the Show (and Scroll)
Early on, we are trained as humans to recognize patterns. We are used to things flowing along as expected. So used to it, in fact, that we tend to scroll through page after page after page of expected content without missing a beat (or frequently absorbing a word).
When something disrupts the pattern, however, it stops us in our tracks. We stop scrolling. Pay attention. Let out a chuckle. Perhaps take the time to leave a comment or pass along the content.
This validates the notion of why emojis, memes, and GIFs are so popular and funny.
They interrupt our expected patterns and get us to pay attention. This can be particularly useful for B2B brands, especially in an industry where incongruity is truly rare.
Emojis vs. Emoticons: What’s the Difference?
We’ve all heard the term “emojis,” and you may or may not have used it interchangeably with the term “emoticon.” But is there an impactful difference between an emoticon and an emoji, and which came first?
Emoticons came first. Dating back to the 1980s, emoticons use existing keyboard symbols to portray emotions. The name is a mingling of the words: “emotion icon.” The two original emoticons were used to distinguish jokes from serious statements:
- Jokes 🙂
- Serious statements 🙁
Emojis were created in the late 1990s by a Japanese communications company. The name comes from the words “e” and “moji,” which loosely translate into “pictograph.” Emojis are actual pictures that portray everything from vegetables and animals to elements of the weather.
Emojis are extensions of the Unicode character set, not regular symbols found on our Western keyboards. That means the software you’re using needs to support them. If it doesn’t, the emoji will be displayed by a blank space or placeholder icon rather than the intended ideograph.
Different software may also depict the same emoji in different ways. You want to make sure the emoji being depicted on the reader’s end matches what you meant as the sender.
If you wanted to compliment someone on being a beautiful dancer, for instance, you’d want to make sure an attractive dancer was being depicted. The dancer emojis on Apple and Twitter are quite a bit different than the dancer found on Google.
- Emoticons are strictly for depicting emotions in text-based messages. They appear the same on any Western keyboard.
- Emoji depict emotions as well as other images. They require Unicode, and your intent may get lost or twisted in translation between operating systems.
When they portray emotions, emojis can be referred to as emoticons (even though they are much more colorful than their predecessor cousins).
While you’re probably safer using the original emoticons in your marketing, emoji are more eye-catching and provide a greater number of options. Just make sure you don’t go overboard like Goldman Sachs did in this tweet that appeared on Neil Patel’s blog:
What Are Memes?
In its simplest definition, a meme is a funny image, video, or text that’s shared throughout the internet. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” in 1976, originally referring to a unit of cultural information spread by imitation. Those units could consist of phrases, skills, ideas, or certain fashions.
The concept of internet memes came about in the early 21st century, referring to media containing cultural information that’s typically shared through social media, email, and various websites. Although the original image may have been purposely altered by the original creator, memes are shared without any additional changes made.
Memes have become more and more prevalent in our culture. It’s the way many choose to communicate—not only amongst their peers, but with the world.
Although it may seem on the surface as if memes are used to minimize the importance of certain events, they actually play a very important part in some of the defining events of the 21st century.
Memes related to the pandemic, for instance, served as an important psychological coping mechanism for many.
In addition to helping us cope, memes can:
- Shame our own or other’s actions
- Help us relate to others
- Build camaraderie and empathy
- Point out the obvious
But no matter their purpose, they all serve to bring about laughter.
The most successful memes have a number of traits in common. Effective memes are:
- Short and simple
- Understandable and relatable
- Witty and unique
Because some memes may stray into the risqué, you want to understand the intent or the purpose of the meme before you pass it along. If the meme is off-color and off-brand, bad things are bound to happen.
Let’s Talk GIFs
GIFs are gaining ground right behind memes, both in the personal and professional realm. Whether you pronounce it with a hard G (the correct way) or with a soft G, a GIF is an animated image with no sound that lasts a few seconds and plays on a continuous loop.
A GIF is usually a clip of a video, movie, TV show, or other pop-culture related content that was snipped to capture one particular idea. Since a meme is an idea that spreads, a GIF is also technically a meme.
But here’s where it gets complicated.
- All GIFs are memes
- But not all memes are GIFs
A GIF just refers to the format, which is a soundless animated image.
- Meme = the idea that gets shared
- GIF = the file format used to share the idea
You can use GIFs to show emotions, and there are many classics that continue to be used to repeatedly amuse. Some all-time favorite reaction GIFs you might recognize:
- Bart Simpson fading backward to hide in the bushes
- Little boy who starts crying when questioned by newscaster
- Bald man boogying with a funny smile
- Kermit the Frog going nuts
- “Side-Eye Chloe” to express confusion and concern
Where Should You Use Emojis, Memes, or GIFs in Your Content?
The simple answer is everywhere. The detailed answer is also everywhere. You can use all three forms of expression in:
- Social media posts
- Your sales pages
- Your websites
- Speaking decks
- Sales decks
- Sales pitches
- Any other form of communication
The trick, however, is to be sure to incorporate some guidelines for using these in your brand style guide. Understanding the do’s and don’ts when it comes to using GIFs, memes, and emojis in your content can go a long way within your organization to ensure they’re not used inappropriately, overused, or even underused.
Creating a Style Guide for Memes, Emojis, and GIFs
If your brand has voted to include memes, emojis, and GIFs in your content marketing, set consistent ground rules with a style guide.
What to Include in Your Style Guide:
- Where you use them and where you don’t use them
- Which ones are OK and which ones are off-limits
- What messages you wish to convey with emojis, memes, and GIFs
- Which topics should NOT include memes, emojis, or GIFs due to their importance or seriousness
- What GIF and meme sources, such as TV shows or movies, are on the yes or no list
- For human emojis, which color variants you’ll be using
- Whether including memes or GIFs that are racy or include obscenities is appropriate, and in what contexts
All of these points are important to clarify from the get-go, as you want to stay true to your brand. Sure, memes, emojis, and GIFs may seem like harmless fun. But if they don’t align with your company vibe, they can do a lot of harm to your relationships and overall reputation.
Where to Find or Create GIFs and Memes
Now that you have a game plan for using these perky visuals without ticking off your audience or betraying your brand, it’s time to mine the best sources.
The rise in popularity of emojis, GIFs, and memes means most social media platforms have an easy add button. Your phone keyboard may already have an emoji option, and you can add other keyboards to include GIFs and memes in your communications.
The above is a screenshot of an iPhone with an emoji option as well as a GIF keyboard for sharing either one while messaging.
To find your perfect GIF, simply type in the sentiment you want to convey and, voila! You’ll get a readymade selection from which to choose. Simply pick the one that works best for you.
A few of the most popular meme sites, which allow you to either find the perfect image or create your own, include:
These sites have a huge repository of existing memes, plus templates you can use to make a meme that is uniquely yours. Simply select an image, add the text, and download your new creation to use as desired in your digital marketing campaigns.
And don’t forget our friend Google Images. The whole point of a meme is to be shared, copied, and disseminated through the internet. In this particular instance, copying a popular meme—or even a non-popular meme—that you find from a Google image search is actually acceptable.
For GIFs, some of the most popular sites include:
GIFs are a fun way to increase engagement with your marketing efforts. If you’re interested in learning more about creating and leveraging them to grow your brand, you can try the GIF university program called “GIF It to Me, Baby.”
If you’re a personality-based brand, you can create GIFs of yourself using video clips or a series of still images with overlaid text.
As noted, emoji libraries are often accessible right from your keyboard when you’re in a software program that supports them. Phone keyboard emoji options may be labeled as such, or they may be indicated by a smiley face icon.
On a laptop or desktop, you can try the “insert” option in the program you’re using to see if emojis can be inserted into the text. They may be included under the “special characters” options in some programs.
For those bored with the standard emoji library, making your own emojis can be the way to go. Custom emojis can make your brand really stand out, especially if you create an entire series of emojis that align with the look and feel of your company.
You’ll find a ton of emoji-making apps on the market. The best one for you depends on the device you’ll be using and the end result you want to achieve. Sources packed with options to consider:
You can also try Angel Emoji Maker for creating a fast and easy custom emoji.
How Do You Pick GIFs, Memes, or Emojis?
Choosing the right GIF, meme, or emoji boils down to two things:
- Picking a spot where your point will be accentuated by using an emoji, a meme, or a GIF
- Distilling the core message of your point into a short-tail keyword search
Picking the Spot
First, let’s cover picking the spot, which can be tricky—or not.
You may get lucky. A perfect spot and perfect visual idea may come to you naturally as you’re writing. In that case, search for it, pop it into your content, and keep moving forward.
But that’s not always the case, and it’s not always that simple. When you’re not sure where it should go, it’s sometimes easier to wait until the piece is completely finished and then go back to look for the main points you want to emphasize.
Before you start popping GIFs, memes, and emojis willy-nilly throughout your content, keep in mind they are not the only way to draw attention to a particular point. You can always highlight a specific piece of info using:
You can determine if a GIF, meme, or emoji is appropriate by asking yourself what will best resonate with the reader. Visuals tend to give a specific point extra oomph, especially when there’s humor involved. But adding too many too frequently can dilute their overall impact and effectiveness.
If you do indeed want to move forward with a visual, look for something that you really want readers to remember—the core message of that section.
Once you’ve found your core message, you need to set it up like you would any short-tail keyword search.
Search for Short-Tail Keyword
If you don’t have a specific GIF or meme already in mind, you need to find one that has an image and message that fits with the tone you’re trying to set. The only way to do that is to truly understand what you want the meme or the GIF’s message to convey to your target audience.
Remember that memes and GIFs—and even emojis—have very specific meanings. The best way to find them is with a search of keywords that relate to the meanings. Creators will use hashtags to make it easier to pinpoint a specific meaning and tone.
You’ll get even better results if you go beyond traditional keywords. Think outside of the obvious and try to be as specific as possible.
As an example, if you search for “funny”, you’ll get things that are:
But you might not get somebody laughing. So “funny” may not deliver the results you are looking for when used as a keyword for searches.
On the other hand, a more specific keyword will likely get you closer to the image you want. Instead of “funny,” you can search for things like:
- ROTFL: rolling on the floor laughing
- LMAO: laughing my a** off
Specificity is key, because things like “teehee” will give you a different result than “LMAO”—even if “funny” is closely related to them both.
For instance, the results for teehee would be:
The results for LMAO would be:
Understanding what you are trying to convey and what the actual GIF or meme conveys is very, very important in order to be able to pick out the one that best describes the core message you want to emphasize.
The more specific you are, the better your results will be and the better your message will be conveyed through a meme or GIF.
Warning: Hidden Meanings of Memes and Emojis
Now that you have the rundown on why, how, and when to use memes and emojis, a final checkpoint awaits. It’s imperative you know if the memes or emojis you want to use have any hidden meanings that could land you in a world of trouble if used improperly.
Meme History and Backstories
Memes that may appear harmless or plain silly on the surface may have a freakish backstory, strange political ties, or other attachments you don’t necessarily want associated with your brand. Just ask Wendy’s.
The fast-food chain responded to a tweet asking for memes with one of Pepe the Frog drawn as the Wendy’s mascot—unaware the once-innocuous cartoon amphibian had evolved into a symbol of hate. Although Wendy’s quickly deleted the tweet and issued an apology, research ahead of the post’s creation could’ve saved them and their marketing team some headache.
KnowYourMeme.com is a good site for searching the history and evolution of memes. Simply enter a search term related to your targeted meme, then enjoy results that include the meme’s overview, origin, spread, and related examples, if applicable.
Secret Emoji Meanings
The secret meanings of emojis should also be on your radar. Emoji meanings continue to evolve, so you may want to do a quick search of current meanings before you send out anything questionable. Here is a very small list to get you started:
- Goat emoji: Greatest of all time, not just a cute little animal
- Cheese or pizza emoji: I love you (because who doesn’t love cheese or pizza, right?)
- Silent face emoji: Keep quiet or else; you’re being threatened
Then we get into eggplant and peach territory, and things like the love hotel (which can mean brothel). Not all secret emoji meanings are as harmless as our friend the goat’s, so it’s important to be sure of the possible interpretations before you use them. You don’t want to accidentally send your audience some racy coded message.
A longer list of secret emoji meanings is available from Karine Bengualid at: TheLetterK.ca/CMC2021.
Summing It Up
As you can see, memes, emojis, and GIFs are packed with a real punch, so it’s imperative to ensure they’re delivering the type of punch you want. Hopefully the info we shared can help ensure your punch is always on target. When used in the right place with the right meaning for the right target audience, memes, emojis, and GIFs can be a wildly successful part of your messaging and overall marketing strategy.