As noted by Facebook's chief product officer Chris Cox to Bloomberg recently - and then re-affirmed by Mark Zuckerberg himself in Facebook full-year earnings results announcement - Facebook's 'Reactions' emoji toolbar will soon be made available to all users, everywhere. For those unaware, 'Reactions', which The Social Network announced back in October, offers a way for Facebook users to respond to posts with a simple, emotional signal 'other than Like'. The typical use-case of Reactions was explained by Zuckerberg at one of his regular Town Hall Q & A events last year:
"Not every moment is a good moment - if you share something that's sad, like a refugee crisis that touches you or a family member passes away, it may not be comfortable to like that post... I do think it's important to give people more options than liking it."
But before Reactions go site-wide, we thought it might be a good time to reflect on the 'what', 'how' and 'why' of the new implementation to get you prepared for what to expect when those little tiny characters start popping up all over your News Feed. For those looking to better understand the new feature, here's the lowdown - 'Reactions 101', if you will - a guide to help you understand why the addition of the new tool is not only an important move for Facebook, but how these tiny, cartoon faces may also prove to be extremely valuable for your business.
What are 'Reactions'?
For a long time, Facebook users have called on Facebook to implement a 'dislike' button, the logical counter to the now synonymous 'Like'. Rightly, Facebook's resisted such requests, deeming a dislike option too negative, a tool that could lead to a lesser user-experience through bullying and a general sense of rejection (which would then likely result in users actually posting less to the network, a terrible outcome for the company's growth strategy). Facebook's alternative solution was to develop a toolset which utilizes the rising trend of emoji, as well as the most common, one-word responses used across Facebook's network ('haha', 'LOL'). Based on their research, Facebook came up with a set of emoji-type characters which people would be able to use in place of the traditional 'thumbs up' icon to express more emotional responses beyond the simple 'Like'.
Those emoji responses, based on Facebook's data, have been refined down to:
In their first iteration, there was also another option:
But initial testing among users in Spain and Ireland found that 'Yay' was often misunderstood - and really, it's largely redundant either way, given users already have 'Like' and 'Love' as options.
In application, when a user clicks/taps and holds on 'Like', a new pop-up appears from which they're able to choose a 'Reaction' that best fits their response to that content.
Zuckerberg and Co were very keen to keep the user interface as uncluttered as possible, hence the pop-up on hold instead of a new, permanent toolbar. This also means that if you only ever want to use 'Like', you can continue quick tapping, as you normally would, and you'll never need to use Reactions at all. But the numbers show that a rising number of users are interested in using them, and that's what makes 'Reactions' such a clever, and important, addition to the Facebook experience.
Why are 'Reactions' Important?
One of the biggest traps in understanding social media - or really, any trend or behavioral shift within society - is in over-emphasizing your own bias and ignoring the wider logic of the populous.
For many people, emoji are a ridiculous fad, something that the kids do, something that'll die out as soon as people get sick of seeing smiley faces staring back from their feeds. But the available data doesn't support that narrative - in a post on Instagram's engineering blog published last year, the Instagram team presented a graph which showed the steady and sustained rise in emoji use on their platform over time - particularly since the introduction of the emoji keyboard (first on iOS, then on Android devices).
In their report, Instagram's research team noted that:
"If the overall trend continues, we might be looking at a future where the majority of text on Instagram contains emoji."
Such behavior's also evident across other platforms - in November last year, Twitter published a report which highlighted the increase in emoji use amongst their users in relation to TV discussion, of which there's a lot, with millions ot TV-related tweets being shared every day. Twitter even gave emoji their own place in their 2015 annual trends report, highlighting the most used emoji on the network, while also underlining how valuable Twitter sees these options for their users.
Emoji may actually be even more valuable for Twitter, given their 140-character limit - even Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has highlighted that he's well aware of emoji trends on the platform, which may also go someway towards underlining just how seriously they're taking their use.
And then, of course, there's Twitter branded emoji - the latest trend of emoji characters being attached to a hashtag, which has risen to become a significant advertising option on the platform over the past 12 months. Recent reports indicate that Twitter's been able to command million dollar deals for brands to secure their own custom emoji, which are automatically attached to tweets whenever people use specific hashtags for promotions or events.
Make no mistake, emoji are big business, and their ongoing popularity suggests that they're more than just a fading trend.
A big part of their enduring appeal is no doubt the evolution in how we communicate - these days, more and more people are interacting using fewer and fewer actual letters. As part of the wider shift facilitated by greater mobile connectivity, an ever-increasing amount of our interactions are being carried out via mobile devices, with smaller screens (and even smaller keyboards) than we've had in the past. This makes the need for greater communications efficiency, and message brevity, more pressing.
We first saw this with SMS messages, the rise of abbreviations like 'OMG' and 'LOL' which came about simply because they were easier, they made it faster and simpler to communicate within the character restrictions of a text. That new language ethos was then amplified by Twitter (which was developed as an extension of SMS) and many of these abbreviations have now become accepted language, used in TV shows, publications, advertising etc. The introduction of new forms of short messaging have lead to a change in the very way in which we communicate, and that change has now translated into its next phase, which is what we're seeing in the rising emoji trend.
Part of Oxford's logic behind this decision has been the ongoing increase in emoji and emoji-related discussion - as noted by Oxford's research team:
"Although it has been found in English since 1997, usage [of the word 'emoji'] more than tripled in 2015 over the previous year according to data from the Oxford Dictionaries Corpus."
Such trends are undeniable - while you may not use emoji, while you may not like them yourself, the data shows that their usage is becoming a bigger part of our language, a more significant element in how we communicate. Rather than a fad, emoji may actually be a language evolution, necessitated by our shift to faster messaging systems, shorter attention spans and our need to process the ever-increasing amounts of media input presented to us on a daily basis.
Why are Facebook's 'Reactions' so important? Because they move in-line with how an increasing number of people in the world are communicating. And for a social network looking to maintain audience engagement and interest, such progression is absolutely necessary. You can expect to see other platforms follow suit.
What will 'Reactions' mean for marketers?
In a word: insight.
Some Facebook Pages already have a graph like the below, ready to track data from Reactions use within their Page Insights tab:
It's evident from this that Facebook sees analytical value in Reactions, and they're giving Page owners the tools to track them, straight up - though interestingly, Facebook has also made a point of noting that any 'Reaction', at least initially, will be measured as equivalent to a 'Like' in their system. So if someone clicks on your Facebook ad and selects 'angry' in response, that'll actually increase the likelihood of them being shown more of the same content, because any reaction is counted as a 'Like' - and within Facebook's algorithm, likes are indicative of preference. While it's understandable that Facebook wouldn't necessarily have a way to measure the true value of Reactions in the early stages of the roll-out, the measurement of a Reaction as a Like does raise an interesting query - if a user tags their response to something as 'Angry', does that mean they want to see more or less of that type of content?
This is where the complexity of Reactions will come into play - what do each of these responses actually mean, in terms of audience interest and intent?
And then, how will marketers be able to use that insight to better refine and maximize campaign and content performance?
This'll be a major focus for social media marketing types over the next 12 months, and the only definitive way to establish what each Reaction means for your brand will come via experience and use. Different Pages are going to see different results - a news service might see better engagement when they post content that generates more 'Angry' responses (as it'll get more people talking about the topic, and thus, generate more reach), but then a brand selling natural soaps might see better website visits and conversion rates with posts that inspire more 'Like' or 'Love' reactions.
The only way to know for sure is through experimentation. The goal of all content is to generate an emotional response - emotion drives the majority of our responses after all (particularly in regards to purchases), so it makes sense, by extension, that having further insight into a users' emotional responses to our content can only help inform our marketing decisions. But exactly what each response means, in a wider context, can only really be ascertained by seeing how it's used across that expanded scope.
This is the same with all of Facebook's data - one person deciding to 'Like' a Page in response to a post has little meaning within itself, but 1,000 people following that same path is indicative of a trend. When you extrapolate that logic across Facebook's now1.59 billion users, you can start to get an idea of how valuable even the simplest action (or 'reaction') might be, because it's matched up against trillions of other data points and processes, and it's in that wider sample scope that genuine insight takes shape.
In this sense, the only way to know how valuable Reactions will be for marketers is to examine the data after they've been implemented and look for usage patterns and correlations. And they will be there. More data - especially more emotional data - can only be beneficial.
And at some stage, you may just find that Reactions data is able to highlight insights that would never have been discernible via Likes alone. Powerful, indeed, while working within wider trends. It's no wonder shares in Facebook are riding at record highs.