The Adorable Ads that Are About to Invade Your Text Messages
This article was originally posted in the New Yorker.
In October, 1994, Hotwired, the digital counterpart of Wired, ran the world’s first online banner ads. Fourteen companies pitched their wares, including Club Med, Volvo, and Zima. A.T. & T.’s ad, a modest black rectangle withrainbow-swirl borders, asked, “Have you ever clicked your mouse right here?” and proclaimed, “you will.” Forty-four per cent of those who saw the ad clicked on it.
These days, less than one per cent of Web readers click on an average banner ad; the advertising industry talks about fighting “banner blindness.” Internet publishers have compensated by pumping out increasingly large volumes of content in order to obtain decreasing amounts of ad-click revenue. Ad-blocking programs drain billions of dollars from the industry, and media-rich ads have proved to be just as uninviting: ninety-four per cent of people skip pre-roll video advertising as soon as they can.
One solution is to make ads feel personal. We’re slightly more likely to click on ads served alongside our Google search results, and in the past several years advertising strategy has shifted toward social media and smartphones—two customized and conveniently overlapping spaces. Twitter offers sponsored tweets; Instagram is projected to bring in $2.81 billion in ad revenue in 2017; Snapchat has been experimenting with sponsored filters—one promotion featured Slimer, from “Ghostbusters,” bouncing around in the foreground of your selfie.
The last frontier, at the moment, is private mobile messaging—an arena we think of as inherently trustworthy, in part because it has, until now, been ad-free. WhatsApp, a messaging app owned by Facebook, has tested limited corporate promotions, and Facebook Messenger has unveiled branded chatbots: you can ask 1-800-Flowers for bouquet recommendations, for example, and order flowers without leaving the exchange. Just this month, Google began rolling out click-to-message ads, which prompt customers to open pre-written text messages through ads viewed on mobile browsers. (A sample message, generated by an ad for Westin Hotels, tells the company, “Hi, I’m interested in a reservation. Please text me back.”)
The prospect of seeing advertising in a space we use to talk to our friends and relatives might sound dismaying. But according to Travis Montaque, a twenty-four-year-old entrepreneur from South Florida, this is because we don’t understand how fun—how playful and charming and natural—ads on mobile messaging can be. Montaque, who was named to Forbes’s 30 Under 30 list this year, is the C.E.O. of a startup called Emogi, which has raised four million dollars to date, and which currently has twenty employees. In his view, the future of mobile advertising is intertwined with one of the most delightful aspects of texting, which is emoji. He’s betting that branded emoji will be even more fun than regular emoji. He thinks we’ll like them so much so that we won’t mind that they are trying to sell us things.
Emogi recently launched a branded-emoji platform, called Wink, which Montaque demonstrated for me one afternoon at the company’s offices in the Penn Station outpost of WeWork, the startup-friendly co-working chain. (Montaque and his team, which is expanding, have since moved to the Bryant Park WeWork.) Bright autumn light bathed the room; the tropical-house artist Kygo played gently over speakers. A dozen people were coding decorously, and a minuscule Yorkie poodle named Mordecai ran across the floor. Emoji were everywhere: there was a 💩 cushion, a 😂 cushion, fluffy pens topped with assorted emoji, an emoji periodic table on the walls. Montaque, in dark jeans and a pale-blue dress shirt with a white collar, greeted everyone genially, then sat down to run me through a beta version of the new platform.
Wink looks like the standard emoji keyboard that comes with any smartphone, but it’s loaded with a changing array of branded emoji, which pop up above the regular keyboard depending on what a user types. It’ll work like this: A beer brand—let’s say Bud Light—makes an ad buy on the triggers “party,” “drinks,” or “🍺.” The brand then targets the users in the demographic they’re going after: women aged eighteen to thirty-five in New York or Chicago, say, whose Internet profiles indicate that they’ve recently searched for local bars. When these women text their friends “🍺?,” a selection of Bud Light emoji will pop up in their keyboards: a girl riding a beer can like a rocket, perhaps, or a frog sipping a Bud Light, or a💃clutching a beer in both hands. Ideally, these little images will be too charming to resist.
The real challenge for Emogi is persuading apps and brands to adopt this new model of advertising—one that’s as unknown now as banner ads were in 1994. “No one knows how to execute this stuff initially,” Montaque said. “But everyone is asking the same kinds of questions: How do we get more traction in social? How do we use emoji? How do we get in the mobile-messaging space?” He clicked through Wink’s largely automated back-end system, where brands can upload their gifs and emoji, and bid on triggers and users; the ad buy is done within minutes. “We have to be so much better to get adoption,” he said. “We have to convince a brand not to put their money in video on Facebook—they should put it in Wink.”
Emoji have been around since the late nineties, when Shigetaka Kurita, an engineer working for an early mobile-Internet platform, designed a hundred and seventy-six primitive ideograms in an attempt to add emotional nuance to his digital communications. The early images included a cat face, a Martini glass, and several types of hand signals and hearts. It would take more than a decade for these symbols to become a common language: Unicode, the default display system for writing on computers, only incorporated emoji in 2010, and Apple added an emoji keyboard to the iPhone the following year. By 2013, nearly three-quarters of Americans reported using emoji or stickers, according to one study. Last year, based on Emogi’s internal research, emoji use reached ninety-two per cent.
Of course, there are people who have resisted the call of emoji: a small minority, and one that includes me. Despite being a twenty-seven-year-old woman with an unserious personality and a job that revolves around the Internet, I avoid emoji as much as possible and had never, before speaking to Montaque, used one in a text. At the Emogi office, I asked Montaque what his favorite emoji were. He pointed to his laptop, which was decorated with a 🚀 sticker, a 💯 sticker, and a 🔥.
I opened my text messages and showed him the untouched emoji keyboard. Montaque, who has a broad face and a relentlessly cheerful disposition, burst into sincere laughter. “It’s true,” he said, to a colleague. “She doesn’t even have recents!” It was as if I’d said I used dial-up Internet. He laughed some more.
“I told you!” I said.
“You’ve got to text me an emoji,” Montaque said. “It’s time.”
I composed a string of them, hunting and pecking my way through my apparently limited options. “🔍 📝 🍔,” I tapped out, representing me, my note-taking, and what Montaque had had for lunch. I added a 🐶 for Mordecai.
“Please rate this interaction with an emoji,” I typed.
“😍,” Montaque replied.
Montaque moved to New York in “Q4, 2014,” as he put it. He was the kind of kid who sold candy in the lunchroom. “When I was nine, I hired all my friends for a car wash,” he told me. “We washed cars for a weekend, and I paid everyone out twenty bucks, and then I realized I had nothing left for myself after buying supplies.” He paused, then delivered a Silicon Valley punchline. “It was my first startup fail.”
By his sophomore year at the University of Miami, he was working thirty hours a week at a private-equity firm. He credits his work ethic to his mother, a single parent and Jamaican immigrant who moved to Miami at nineteen and started her own business; Montaque spent his adolescence leapfrogging up the chain of command at a local Chick-fil-A, and has nearly a decade of management experience. One day, he came across a factoid: ninety per cent of the world’s information had been created in the past two years. “I immediately became obsessed with what was happening in data,” he told me. Despite knowing nothing about technology, he decided to build a news aggregator, one that would learn user preferences and adjust for them.
Montaque was unable to convince any engineering students to stick around long enough to help him build his product, so hired a team based in Ukraine. Soon afterward, through a roommate’s father, he met Michael Ojemann, who was working as the principal systems architect at a data-management company. Ojemann started helping Montaque, working a few hours a week on their project. At the end of the next year, Ojemann quit his job to work for Montaque full time. And Montaque, preparing for graduation, raised the company’s first three hundred thousand dollars.
By then the two of them had begun to figure something out about emoji. They’d added emoji reactions to their news aggregator—an idea similar to BuzzFeed’s use of stickers that read “WTF,” “OMG,” and “LOL.” They quickly noticed a drastic uptick in user engagement. “People weren’t even reading,” Montaque explained, cheerfully. “They were just reacting. And what industry values consumer reaction the most? Advertising.”
ontaque is a former member of the Unicode Consortium, the group that determines additions to the standardized emoji set. New emoji are rolled out across all smartphones and devices, but the Unicode Consortium is a large organization, and it’s generally slow to make changes. This has caused some outcry—people want to see different skin colors, gay couples, and single parents; they want the gun emoji removed, and better emoji professions for women. It’s also an opportunity for Montaque. He noted the drawn-out process for adding new emoji, which can sometimes take months, shaking his head at the inefficiency. “The other day, I was passing a Subway, and I realized that there’s no sandwich emoji. I was, like, really?”
I imagined a friend texting me to find out if I wanted anything from the bodega, and then I imagined texting back a dozen sandwich emoji in a row. I liked that thought. And I could picture many other people liking that thought enough to actually use a branded Subway-sandwich emoji, particularly if the Subway emoji were as clever as the mocked-up emoji ads that Montaque showed me. Allowing advertising in our text messages seems bizarre at first, but then so did banner ads. Wink, at any rate, will soon be available on several major messaging apps; it will also be available for download on iOS 10. The company is in talks with other apps that involve messaging—dating apps are a particular area of interest.
This type of partnership solves a problem for messaging apps, which have enormous user bases but no easy way to monetize them, and it’s a boon for brands, which would receive not only additional exposure but also an enormous amount of formerly off-limits consumer information. Emogi analyzes emoji use in the same way that services like Chartbeat monitor Internet usage. As with Facebook’s addition of emoji reactions on the Newsfeed, what seems like a fun feature for consumers is really an extended data play.
Montaque was quick to clarify that Wink won’t record text messages. But it will record data around the triggers that provoke branded emoji, and match that data to the information attached to your device I.D.—your location, your Internet profile, the number of devices you’re in communication with. As a service to the brands, it will quantify all of this in real time.“You kind of get an understanding of the types of emotions people are having throughout the day. . . . Like, if a person is sending a heart at a particular moment, you have a geolocation, you have all these other things, you know that at that moment in time this person was excited or they were thinking about coffee at this place,” Montaque told me, with visible excitement. “Wink is just a key for brands to get in the door. We’re going to give them more things as they walk through. We’re going to figure out all the ways they can leverage the data.” Montaque evinced none of the horror some of us feel when we remember how much of our online activity is being tracked and analyzed.
A handful of brands have already tried to break in to branded emoji, releasing single-serving keyboards: in 2015, for example, Burger King made one to promote the return of Chicken Fries. The emoji were cute enough—a series of tiny Chicken Fries boxes, winking and blushing and streaming joyful tears. But you’d have to maintain a troubling obsession with Burger King to use the fast-food chain’s emoji on a regular basis.
No such allegiance is required to be a Wink user—a desire for more emoji options would be enough. Wink will seem like a normal emoji keyboard that’s merely loaded with occasional surprises: sets of charming new emoji that appear and disappear. The looming possibility of advertising in our text messages depends in part on Montaque and his instincts—his sense of what people resist and what people run to, of what kind of options we’ve been craving, and of what sentiments we don’t need to express in words.
At the office, in a nest of emoji merchandise, Montaque toggled through a selection of the branded emoji mock-ups. Some referenced memes or Snapchat filters; one emoji featured branded rainbow puke. Others conveyed information, such as a deal at a chain store. Others evoked particular demographics—working mothers, bored teens—or presented a level of diversity that’s absent from regular emoji. All of them made me feel like I’d just seen a photo of a friend’s new dog. “They’re just cute,” Montaque said, when I asked what made these emoji particularly effective. “Look at them!” He pointed to a branded unicorn. We both laughed, because the unicorn was really, really cute.