When the Oxford English Dictionary announced the 'Tears of Joy' emoji as its word of the year last November, the world responded with surprise (otherwise known as the 'Face with Open Mouth' emoji) and amusement (yes... the 'Tears of Joy' emoji).
Can a little yellow face with tears of mirth rolling down its cheeks really be considered not just a word, but the word that best summarises communication in the year 2015? According to one of the world's oldest and most influential dictionaries, yes it can: "Emoji have come to embody a core aspect of living in a digital world that is visually driven, emotionally expressive, and obsessively immediate," says the OED.
Language is a living, breathing thing that evolves according to the needs of its users. In the age of social media and smartphones, emoji (the younger, cooler brother to 'emoticons,' the colon-hyphen-right parenthesis combo your Mum still uses in all her text messages) now form part of the fabric of our global language, helping people from all over the globe to communicate with each other online. They're so powerful, you can even get arrested for using them in the wrong way.
The people at Facebook, which rolled out its emoji-like Reactions last week, know this better than anyone. In a blog post announcing the global launch of the five 'Like' button alternatives (Love, Haha, Wow, Sad, Angry), product manager Sammi Krug admitted that users wanted "more ways to easily and quickly express how something you see in News Feed makes you feel."
Which is another way of saying that given the emojexplosion of recent years, the 'Like' button has become a pretty blunt tool. And this isn't only the case for users, but for advertisers, too.
Despite some misgivings amongst linguists about the syntactic value of the six Reactions now available to Facebook users, advertisers can't wait to get their hands on the data the new feature will offer up. And for good reason; Facebook Reactions promises advertisers a deeper understanding of their target audiences than ever before.
While Facebook has long helped advertisers understand what people 'Like', Reactions can help them understand what people are feeling. This added insight will help them to build a more accurate picture of who their audiences are, and how they respond to different types of content.
This knowledge, in turn, will enable brands to more accurately tailor their ads for specific audiences, improving user experience and also (hopefully) return on Facebook ad spend.
Until now, being able to effectively measure sentiment has evaded the ad industry, with tools relying on keyword measurement delivering hit-and-miss results. By rolling out Reactions, Facebook is leading the broader industry trend towards better, more targeted personalisation in ads.
But in order to take advantage of this opportunity, brands will have to learn how to speak emoji, and fast - by investing in tools and strategies to help them interpret the new Reactions-based data sets, and acting on them in real-time. As any advertiser will tell you: data will only get you so far. The next step is understanding, and even in an age of digital communication that's something only humans can do.