Emoticons for brands: The dos and don’ts

The smilies, frowny faces, and sideways looks that people type using keyboard symbols are fun and lighthearted, but they’re not appropriate for every business conversation.


Are you a serial emoticon user?

I’ve been known to include a smiley face or two in my tweets and Facebook posts. It’s a sign of humor, a signal to my recipients that I may be stating something a little tongue in cheek.

Emoticons have become part of the online lexicon. Whether it’s on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, you name it, emoticons show up in some way, shape, or form. As more people have used emoticons online, the trend has spilled over into business communications.

We’ve all seen it—an email or note from a colleague with a smiley face at the end. But does that mean it’s acceptable, or should be?

That depends. Let me lay out a few scenarios and when I think it is and isn’t appropriate in business.

Appropriate uses

Scenario 1: I’m sending a private message on Facebook to a partner I work with closely on a project. I want to share a funny anecdote as part of the note and include a smiley face.

Scenario 2: I write a tweet that is lighthearted and pokes fun at a mainstream trend for a fun-loving client I work with; it includes a smiley face with a wink at the end.

Scenario 3: I’m sending a text to a business colleague I know well, asking him about a potential partner I’m considering. I add a quick joke at the tail end of the note with a smiley face.

In my view, appropriate uses fall into two big camps: When you’re emailing/texting/private-messaging someone you know very well in business, or when it makes sense for a playful brand or company you represent.

Inappropriate uses

Scenario 1: You’re sending an email to your manager discussing client work and you throw a smiley face in as you make a joke about the client.

Scenario 2: You’re writing a short article for your company’s intranet, and you decide to insert a smiley face in the post to convey some humor, even though it’s a serious topic. Scenario 3: You’re penning a short email to your client wishing a great Memorial Day weekend, and you add a smiley face to the end simply out of habit.

In general, I would probably refrain from using the emoticons anytime you’re communicating with your manager or boss, communicating with your client (unless you know them very well), or communicating with a mass audience, internally or externally, about a serious topic. The same goes for a brand that is generally more serious in its tone.

So, what do you think? When is it appropriate or inappropriate to use emoticons in work situations?

Arik Hanson is principal of ACH Communications. A version of this article originally ran on his blog, Communications Conversations.

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