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The emoticon’s place in online research

The emoticon’s place in online research

Becky Sarniak

Sep 04, 2013

Emoticons are graphic depictions of facial expressions that people use in text messaging, emailing, facebooking, instant messaging and more. They are a fun and useful substitute for the nonverbal expressions we miss when communicating through a screen instead of face-to-face.

iModerate’s IM-based conversation platform embraces these symbols, such as the smiley face, so naturally it’s a world we have been compelled to explore. What we have discovered are some definite utilities in these fun little signs, and so we started using them to aid our research.

So what are the benefits? What’s the relationship between emoticons and the interactions between respondent and moderator? When should they be used and when should they be avoided?

To find out I went right to the source and talked to our moderators (:

Why do you use emoticons?
When I asked our moderators this question, three main reasons rose to the top:

Acknowledgement of respondent:  Emoticons can help show that that you are paying attention and that you appreciate what the consumer is saying.

Building Rapport: Sometimes it just takes a smiley face to put consumers at ease and build trust. Using an emoticon can serve to provide reassurance on a topic that is sensitive for consumers or relax them if the questioning becomes too burdensome or personal.

To express emotion or react to a comment: Emoticons allow the consumer to see cues that the moderator might otherwise, if in person, express. It’s often easier and more personable to share a laugh with a smiley face or a winky face over text than it is to explain to the respondent that you understood their joke.

In their words
“I use the smiley face for a chat if the respondent is getting mad that my questions are redundant, for example “even though it may be obvious 🙂 from our chat thus far, why…”   – Scotty

“To build rapport with the respondent…To let respondent know you’re a “real” person with feelings and you can relate to them.” – Shelley

What benefit is there to using emoticons in online one-on-ones?
Beyond making it easier to acknowledge, engage and react to the consumer there are two other main benefits to using emoticons which our moderators expressed. First, they help to make the moderator seem more human.  It’s a way of showing the consumer that the moderator is letting down their guard. This makes the individual they are chatting with comfortable and the conversation flows more naturally. The second benefit is that these symbols help create an environment where the discussion feels less formal. Softening the tone of a conversation with an emoticon often gives consumers the confidence they need to be more open and honest while answering the questions.

In their words
“I’m glad we are allowed to use them at our discretion. I feel like it almost makes us more human and friendly on the other end and reminds people that we aren’t just a computer.” 🙂 – Kristy

“[It’s] quick, and humanizes the moderator. Sometimes, it can also bring a respondent out of their shell or warm them up to you.” – Brianna

“When you want to keep a respondent that doesn’t seem as engaged (again, to build report and relate to them on a personal level).” – Shelley

What drawbacks are there? What do you have to be cognizant of?
When I asked about the drawbacks and things to keep in mind when using emoticons, there was no shortage of input. From the limitations to the misinterpretations that can be conveyed through using emoticons, one thing was certain – your respondent should be the first to use an emoticon. That way you know that the person you are speaking with understands what an emoticon is, what it stands for and how it is used. Just as important, you won’t risk alienating someone who finds them silly or unprofessional.

Other drawbacks and things to consider include:

  • There is always a possibility for misinterpretation of the meaning of the emoticon by the consumer.
  • Emoticons have a limited ability to convey complex feelings and reactions.
  • Careless use and over use of the symbols can give off the perception of insincerity.
  • Some clients and consumers feel they are unprofessional.
  • They are not always appropriate for serious or sensitive topics such as medicine or finance.

In their words
“I think it goes back to the interpretation piece … it’s hard to know for sure, all of the time, what someone’s intent is, and because we can’t see their facial expressions or body language, we’re interpreting big time – so if I misread someone, it would be (as we call it in the counseling biz) an error of misattunement, and it could cause the respondent to feel misunderstood and not heard.”  -Karen

“One really has to be careful using emoticons. Respondent not moderator should dictate use. Rapport must be created before the use of emoticons in my opinion”. – Gretchen

 “When I’m speaking with professionals recruited directly or about sensitive topics (doctors for medical studies, investors and most political jobs), I try to avoid emoticons as I’m afraid they’ll make it seem I’m not taking the chat seriously enough or maybe not being respectful of the respondent’s time”. – Chelsea

In talking with our moderators, it seems that emoticons can be useful tools, but only when used appropriately. This can vary from situation to situation and person to person. Whereas they can serve to build rapport in an online conversation, emoticons shouldn’t be used to ingratiate yourself to those you are chatting with; this can seem ingenuous and ultimately damage the relationship you have built. At iModerate we tread lightly, let the consumer make the first move, but when we feel it’s appropriate we don’t shy away from a good (:

Becky Sarniak

Becky Sarniak

Research Manager

What I love about research is learning about people and what they think. Discovering the reasoning behind behavior and what motivates people to move from a plan of action to action itself.

iModerate allowed us to not only connect with this hard-to-reach audience but to get a deeper understanding of their feelings on the subject of public service. iModerate promised at the outset to expand and clarify the quantitative findings in a way traditional online survey research has previously been unable to, and they delivered on this claim. As a result, we were able to expose the emotions shaping the perceptions of the class of 9/11.

Marc Porter Magee, Partnership for Public Service