What’s the Buzz Around Emojis in Email Marketing?

Melanie Balke
August 1, 2023

You’ve probably seen it before.

You open your email, and you see cute titles. Things like “It’s Friend Day 💟” or “It’s Time to Save Big 🤑.”

It’s 2023, so you should know by now that these are called “emojis.” They’re pictorial representations of emotions, ideas, people, and places. Since their humble beginnings, when your online emoting capacity ended at a heart and maybe a classic smiley face, tech developers have added so many emojis to the modern digital lexicon.

Now, you can do more than send something a :-) face; you can send them… well… almost anything!

“There’s an emoji for that” is like the modern iteration of the early 2000s saying, “There’s an app for that.” Want to talk about potatoes? There are, in fact, two emojis for that (🥔 and 🍠). Soup? We’ve got that covered 🍲! A wind sock dedicated to the celebration of the East Asian holiday of Children’s Day? Yes! We even have that emoji (🎏). There are even dozens of building emojis. If you really wanted to, you could send an entire email of just buildings. (But, also, don’t do that.)

What I’m saying is that you can emoji your heart (💖) out these days, but is that appropriate?

This blog post aims to break down the use of emojis in email marketing. When should you use it, and does it help your marketing? Stick around to find out!

What Is an Emoji?

Assorted emoji. “A Look Back: The Origins of the Emoji.”

Let’s start the post with a quick history lesson.

Modern emojis (or “emoji,” if we’re being technical) fall into three categories:

  • Ideograms represent ideas and concepts (e.g., “do not smoke” or “crosswalk here”)
  • Logograms serve as stand-ins for words (e.g., 💗 for “love” or 🐕 for “dog”)
  • Pictograms — not the old game! — represent objects and may overlap with logograms (e.g., 💄 for “lipstick” or 🥚 for “egg”)

At first, there were only 172 official emojis. Obviously, that number has grown; as of 2022, there are over 1,800 different emojis!

Carnegie Mellon University’s Emojis

The earliest equivalent to modern emojis in email marketing is from 1982. At that time, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (yes, like the prestigious educational institution) found it hard to tell when their peers were joking around online. Fortunately, Scott Fehlman, computer scientist and modern Professor Emeritus at Carnegie Mellon, had a solution.

Overlapping leaves. Overlaid text describes the invention of the emoticon.

A post to the institution’s message boards, made on September 19, 1982, proposed that colleagues indicate their message’s tone with two simple emoticons: a smiley face and a frowny face. The first emoticons were born!

The idea caught on at Carnegie Mellon, but it wouldn’t see widespread use for another ten years.

The Japanese “Kaomoji”

A few years later, Japanese internet users created something known as “kaomoji” (literally “face characters,” pronounced kah-oh-moe-jee). An early example (“(^-^)”) has been attributed to Wakabayashi Yasushi and was posted in 1986. Unlike Western emoticons, which were primarily used by collegiate professionals, kaomoji were popular with girls, young women, and anime fans. (Bet you didn’t think you’d read about that on an email marketing blog!)

To make a long story short: These “cuter” versions of emoticons were wildly popular, becoming staples of digital communication by the 1990s.

Huzzah! The Emoji Is Born

Dusty cassette tapes. Overlaid text reads, “1995: The first 172-icon emoji set is released.”

Let’s fast-forward again.

The year is now 1995, and a forward-thinking developer named Shigetaka Kurita has an idea. He will create 172 icons — each a scant 12×12 pixels — to be used on pagers. Unlike modern pagers, these devices were wildly popular with teens and young adults, who used the portable communication devices to stay in touch. As The Verge’s Jeff Blagdon explains, these icons were also to be used on the Japanese “i-mode” messaging service.

Though tiny, these icons boomed in popularity. Aside from their ability to condense complex topics into single characters, these early emojis added tone to otherwise bland messages. Their name — “emoji” — is a combination of the Japanese words for “picture” (e) and “character” (moji).

(As an aside, this also means that both common plural forms (emoji and emojis) are correct. In proper Japanese, the plural is emoji; the language does not add an ‘S’ to indicate multiples. However, it’s also perfectly acceptable to create a plural form by saying “emojis.”)

Understanding Emojis in Email Marketing

An emoji selection on a phone screen. “The Basics: Using Emojis in Email Marketing.”

Obviously, we’ve come a long way since 1995.

Technology has changed, and email marketing has long since joined in on emoji use.

You can now attach one of those 1,800+ emojis to your subject lines, adding a pop of color to an otherwise bland message. More importantly, those icons should appear on users’ mobile devices, further distinguishing your content from the rest of the inbox.

The practice was once rare; many brands resisted the shift during the early 2010s. However, the widespread availability of built-in emoji character sets has opened the door to countless subject line emojis. Now, you’ll see many iconic brands using emojis in email marketing. Those little icons can be found in the bodies and subject lines of many modern email marketing campaigns, but their inclusion doesn’t guarantee a positive result.

The Perks of Using Emojis in Email Marketing

Smiling stress toys. “The Perks: Why You Should Be Using Emojis.”

I’ve already mentioned some of the perks.

Subject lines with emojis tend to garner more attention. Studies indicate that an emoji can boost open rates and make it easier for users to pick your emails out of an otherwise crowded inbox view. However, the subject line field isn’t the only place to drop a little character.

Measurable Metric Manipulation

Let’s start with the numbers.

Email marketing gurus have done countless studies on emoji use. Most of these tests have come back with the same result: Emoji subject lines draw more interaction and higher click-through rates. Similarly, emails with emojis in the email’s body text can improve response rates.

However, the numbers don’t tell the whole story.

Say More With Less

Every marketer knows the pain of character limits. One day, you think of the perfect subject line, only to realize that it’s a little too long! It’s an absolute tragedy, but it doesn’t have to stay that way.

Remember what I said about ideograms, logograms, and pictograms?

Emojis are perfect for replacing words and conveying complex ideas. For example, let’s say you want to send an email about lipstick. You may use a subject line like, “Get 3 free lipstick tubes for when you buy one.” This is a real mouthful of a subject line; you can condense it into something much shorter. With emojis, you might make something like, “BOGO 💄💄💄 for a limited time.”


You’ve just conveyed the same information and more in half the space!

Notice, too, that the first subject line would never fit on a mobile screen, but the second option will! In other words: Adding emojis can subtract enough length to turn that humdrum idea into the perfect subject line for desktops and mobile devices.

Add Some Personality

An old boat. “Build Your Brand: Clever emoji use can help you cultivate a unique brand image.”

Your emojis don’t always have to be functional, either.

You can easily add some charm with a distinct, playful emoji!

Don’t believe me? Well, imagine you’re in a subscriber’s inbox. There are two messages. One says, “Get ready for something cool! 😎” The other subject line, identical in almost every other way, just says, “Get ready for something cool.”

Notice how much personality that little sunglasses-toting smiley face adds? Your email marketing can take full advantage of that!

Stand Out From the Crowd

Finally, you’ll also notice that the aforementioned subject line really stands out. It’s visually distinct and unique, guaranteeing that your subscribers will be naturally drawn to the email.

Even body text emojis add some variety to a message. When used properly, a few emojis can give your email marketing campaigns a “body language” of their own. They may even enhance your brand image and awareness!

The Drawbacks of Emojis in Email Marketing

A keyboard with an emoji selector. “What to Watch: Drawbacks of Emoji Use.”

Of course, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows!

Using emojis can be dangerous! You may run afoul of an unknown social norm or provoke an email client. Older audiences — particularly those relying on older operating systems — may not see your emojis, appearances vary on different devices.

Is Your Audience Receptive to Emojis in Email Marketing?

Your first concern is — as always — your audience.

Professional emails don’t generally use emojis. Even a simple emoticon could be too much for some! Similarly, older audiences find emojis hard to make out, especially on the tiny screens of modern mobile devices. In both situations, incorporating emojis will be detrimental to your cause.

Remember: As nice as it is to catch a subscriber’s attention, it’s even better to capture a subscriber’s heart.

Do You Need to Worry About Legacy Software?

An old computer setup. “Compatibility: Think about users with older operating systems.”

Speaking of older audiences, you’ll also want to think about technical limitations.

Operating systems older than Windows 7 will not show emojis. This is a hard limitation, as emoji characters are not part of these systems’ hardware. Should an emoji-inclusive email tumble onto one of these devices, the emoji will show up as a blank rectangle.

Even newer devices can have problems.

Different operating systems have different icons for the same emoji. (A perfect example is the infamous contrast between the average grimace emoji (😬) and Samsung 8.5’s strange, duck-faced version. And, yes, the emoji was so bad that people wrote articles about it.)

The grimace emoji from Samsung’s 8.5 set.
That sure is a choice…

Moreover, older operating systems may not include newer emojis. Companies are constantly updating the emoji list, but no device can retroactively add emojis from thin air! All technology — from powerful desktops to simple mobile devices — requires updates before they can show new emojis. These updates can be refused for numerous reasons, including incompatible hardware or insufficient storage. Regardless of the reasoning, the result is the same: Instead of that carefully picked emoji, your subscribers see a square ().

It’s Not as Unique

While you’d probably have a smash hit on your hands in 2010, modern email marketing has since discovered the power of emojis. Now, it’s not unusual to see emojis in subject lines. That formerly unique feature is rapidly becoming a staple of many brands, and its effectiveness is waning.

However, that doesn’t mean it’s entirely useless!

Emojis in subject lines remain a popular and moderately effective way to make a message stand out. Email campaigns that incorporate emojis can still snag attention, but the effects won’t be as immediate.

Watch for Pop Culture Meanings

Finally, you may run afoul of social taboos.

We all know the subtext of the eggplant emoji. But that’s not the only dangerous emoji! There are many more that may seem innocent but have unique meanings. Yes, emojis grab attention, but you don’t want the wrong type of attention!

3 Tips to Make Your Emojis a Slam Dunk

Faces drawn on eggs. “Tips & Tricks: Improve Your Emoji Use.”

If you’re starting to think that emojis are the way to go, don’t leave yet!

I still have a few tips and tricks for you to use. So, take a second away from that email campaign to check out these pointers!

Don’t Use Too Many Emojis

Let’s start with a practical tip: Never use too many emojis, and keep in mind that this applies to subject lines and body text. Cramming either of these fields with emojis galore will do more than turn off your subscribers. It also runs the risk of preventing your email from landing in a subscriber’s inbox!

There are many reasons for this, but the final destination will always be the spam folder.

Email clients don’t like excessive emoji use, and those emails are frequently blocked. It’s not a personal matter, either. Many scammers use emojis to avoid censors or filters. So, this is a security measure. Moreover, any email that’s more emoji than text is probably a bad subject line.

Double-Check What Emojis Look Like on Different Devices

I’ve already pointed it out, but it’s worth repeating…

Different devices use different emojis.

That cute hug emoji may not be as heartwarming on someone else’s screen. Alternatively, a user’s inbox view may awkwardly compress those emojis in your subject line.

And, honestly, do I really need to add another photo of that grimacing face?

Make Sure the Meaning Is Clear

Finally, you want to make sure that everyone can understand your email.

In other words: If someone opens your email without your emoji, can they still figure out what it says?

Plenty of users still use an older operating system. Similarly, many internet users have trouble seeing the details of those little icons. So, whether you’re using them to add meaning to the body text or as spice for your email subject line, you must always ensure your intentions are clear. Otherwise, you risk alienating a decent chunk of your user base.

Build Your Brand’s Personality

Overlapping leaves. “Find a Pro: Let Us Handle Your Emails.”

Ready to improve your brand image and amplify your email communication?

Sign up for a free strategy session. We’ll chat about your needs and how emojis in email marketing can help you grow. I’ll also show you how a team of on-demand pros can help your company shine. We’ll increase brand awareness, boost your income, and make emojis work for you!

Once you’ve set up your appointment, check out the rest of my blog! You’ll find plenty more tips, tricks, and ideas to improve your marketing message.