Emoji are the new hieroglyphics, and also one of the most popular forms of communication in a growing mobile world. Greg Wacks has been at the forefront of the social trend, first with Snapchat and now helping lead emoji conversations into the next decade as global head of content for emoji and sticker company Emogi.
Truly, Wacks has been in the thick of popular culture for the bulk of his career. The self-proclaimed Gen Xer started in television at MTV, helping create hit shows like TRL, Jersey Shore and MTV Beach House. He later joined LiquidThread, overseeing branded content for Mondelez, North America. In 2014 he went to a new pop trend – messaging – as US head of creative strategy at Snapchat, and in 2017, founded Episode, a strategic consultancy helping publishers, brands, and non-profits bring their stories to life with engaging video content and creative strategy. He sees emoji and sticker conversations as a new wave of pop culture.
“I actually think this is going back to the glory days of content. When I was at MTV, it was the zeitgeist, where people went to find out what was happening in the culture, and what was cool. And now we have an opportunity to do that with a new form of communication, which is stickers. There’s no reason why a Gen Xer, who is not native to technology, shouldn’t have the opportunity to also express themselves in a highly visual, highly simple way,” says Wacks.
Wacks aims to bring a creative perspective and innovation into messaging, a space that’s still mostly untapped by brands and marketers, though the company has a head start. It was while he was consulting with Episode that he found a new focus on the emoji world, when he began advising Emogi founder and chief executive Travis Montaque on a differentiated, active approach to content in messaging.
“I was advising Travis and subsequently the rest of the team starting in March 2017, shortly after I left Snapchat,” says Wacks, adding that he was officially hired at the start of June at Emogi. He noted that his time at Snapchat helped prepare him for his role at Emogi.
“Snap was the second startup that I had been at…it was an intense two-and-a-half years, being one of the very first people in the door in New York, so it was a lot condensed into a short period of time. I took a moment and took a step back to really see where my skillset could be applied, doing something really relevant to my interests at the intersection of content, brands and my interest points, and I never thought messaging was the space that helped that. I think Travis did a very good job on upselling me on the power of messaging,” he says.
Wacks states that Emogi differs from other players in the space – like Giphy or Tenor, that are building large databases of searchable content with massive reach – through Emogi’s predictive technology and the ability to understand the context of conversation and emotional content, and then serve up content based on how people were actually talking, and messaging and chatting.
“The technology that existed here did a lot of that predictive layer, which I thought was fascinating. Which is very much how people are used to using standard emojis that are on your keyboard – if I type the word ‘pizza’ I’m going to have a little pizza emoji that gets suggested. But the power when you start to layer in the context around it, like, ‘am I full from eating too much pizza, or am I hungry and I really want pizza?’ That layer, that our tech understands, actually enables, from a creative perspective, to surface up content that’s so much more relevant than a standard evergreen, static pizza emoji.”
Emoji for brands
From a campaign standpoint, the holy grail for a brand is understanding where their consumers are, where their sentiment is, what they’re talking about and how they’re feeling at any moment, says Wacks. If brands understand that, and a company can reach them with content that is hyper-relevant to them in a particular context, that creates success.
“If you take a look at the advertising in the early days at Snap that I was involved with helping to build, it was purely top of the funnel. It was all about awareness, because it was a video ad that ran between stories and users had the choice to skip over it,” he says. With Emogi’s context layer, however, a brand can see, for example, if someone is feeling tired in the afternoon and is talking to a friend about wanting to go get a cup of coffee. Emogi can then serve that user a piece of content that’s relevant and captures what that emotion feels like.
The coffee example was taken from a campaign the company did for McDonald’s. The chain was pushing its McCafe line, so they wanted to own the word coffee. Says Wacks: “In the same way you have brand exclusivity around certain words at certain times, we can build that for a brand, so during the flight, they own the word coffee. So, any time a user within our ecosystem types the word coffee it would trigger their content to come up in our tray. To take it one step further, we’re also able to understand they were trying to hit people in the morning going for their coffee run, so we made a lot of expressive content that had the sun rising and McCafe, or a businessperson running out the door.”
During the campaign Emogi was able to optimize reach because they saw that people were talking about coffee in the afternoon, so they created content that captured that point in time as well as mornings.
“Ultimately, they came to us, they had a very specific objective, we built content around that, and then we were able to optimize during the campaign because we were able to see a difference in what they had established in their initial objective. The same thing happened with Mucinex during cold and flu season. They started to see that it was a lot longer than they thought it was, so we were able to extend the life of that campaign,” says Wacks.
The Emogi process
Emogi gets business a number of different ways, either brand direct or through agencies, but, like most marketing client relationships, it starts with that brief and what their objectives are. Then Emogi dives deeper into the process and can build a campaign around certain keywords they want to capture.
“Our approach is similar to how any brand would approach a platform but the difference is that we can actually own keywords, and potentially time of day, and things that are a little more unique to messaging than a video ad on a platform like Snapchat or Instagram,” he states.
Like much on the messaging front, Emogi is able to serve content that’s triggered, but their content is animated and expressive, not static. While a lot tends to be branded content, the company finds that people embrace rather than push away branded emoji.
“What we’ve found in some of the research that we’ve done is users actually prefer branded content, sometimes four times more than standard content. If you’re served up a static coffee emoji versus two hands high-fiving with McCafe coffee cups that’s much more expressive, you’re probably going to be drawn to the content that’s way more animated and expressive, whether it has a brand integrated or not – it’s inherently more engaging, up to 300% more than static,” states Wacks.
Emogi builds their entire custom emoji and sticker content in house with a full content studio Wacks oversees. They usually build 15 to 20 pieces of content per campaign with varying levels of branding. “Take Tide,” says Wacks. “They wanted to capture ‘laundry’, that idea of college aged students doing laundry. They had a series of assets we created for them. Some had Tide branding, some very light, some were just in their color palette,” which he said was a success.
“Our team is super collaborative and incredibly efficient. Because we actually are native to this environment and we understand messaging really well because of the data we’re getting, our team is able to create content that is based off a lot of the engagement data,” he says.
Success is gauged by seeing if the content’s being shared at a high rate, or sometimes by impressions, if the word was triggered. In a non-branded environment, the company follows a calendar much like how a television network would think about programming the year. “We’re actively putting together a programming calendar where everything looks different in the emoji ecosystem. That could be anything from a holiday or tentpole moment like Pride Month or July 4th to time of day – what does morning look like? What does Wednesday look like? That should look different every week. We should have content that changes and is dynamic. From a longterm perspective we’re looking at big media partnerships and sports partnerships. There’s no reason we can’t be the sticker provider for a major sports league, or eSports. Gaming is a massive opportunity,” says Wacks.
Wacks sees Emogi as being “very dynamic” over the next few months and into the next year with how they program and put content in their ecosystem, and he sees a bright future for how brands can interact, thanks to Emogi’s ability to target words, phrases and times of year.