It’s easy to disregard emojis as cutesy cartoons. The idea of a 😜 or a 🎉 decorating a list of transactions in a mobile bank app would likely seem ridiculous to many in financial services.

And yet, people of all ages are using emojis to convey a tone, emotion, idea or word in digital chitchats with friends, family and, slowly but surely, even with stuffy bankers.

This seemingly innocuous change in the way people are expressing themselves points to what could become a big challenge for the industry. Beyond voice commands, banks are starting to permit people to text requests — via chatbots or otherwise — using whatever wording they like, rather than requiring rigid commands in bankspeak (for example, “B-A-L” for balance requests). That means fine-tuning their systems to support emojis that customers are already submitting and working to understand what customers want when they go off script (Does 😂 mean someone is happy or crying because he got an overdraft fee?).

Venmo pioneered letting people pepper their payments with emojis for pizza and beer, and even custom ones for music festivals and beyond. Now a handful of other fintech firms support emojis and stickers within their portals so customers can nickname their accounts, celebrate small wins, soften the awkwardness of asking for money owed and more. These include Seed, Simple, Digit, Abe.ai, Chime and Credit Karma-owed Penny.

For banks, the list is shorter: Finn by Chase, a mobile account that the bank is piloting, lets customers assign one of three emojis to their purchases, and Capital One’s Eno, an SMS chatbot, can understand certain emojis. FIS, a global leader in financial services technology, has been testing the idea of using emojis in a few of its conversational banking concepts.

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They won’t be the last to support emojis in a world where the tiny icons have already made their way into a major dictionary and a feature film. According to a 2017 study, seven in 10 Americans use visual expressions, such as emojis and GIFs, when texting or using mobile messaging apps. The latest smartphones now offer augmented-reality-based emojis, providing users with personalized avatars.

“A lot of people write off emojis as being silly,” said Jane Solomon, a lexicographer at Dictionary.com. “But people are actually using emojis in really sophisticated ways.”

Solomon, who is also a member of the Unicode Consortium subcommittee that reviews new emoji proposals, says the symbols should be taken seriously as they can give insight into what the text intended just as facial expressions or tone of voice can clue the listener into what is actually meant.

True, emojis are meant to make an interaction fun — and banks aren't renowned for their playfulness. So whether or not consumers realize they can type in informal questions to a bank remains to be seen. On the other hand, awareness just takes time, and emojis have become staples of digital interactions that banks ought to figure out.

“If banks want to engage deeper, they have to be where their customers are, as well as speak the same language their customers do,” Keith Armstrong, co-founder and chief operating officer at the conversational banking provider Abe.ai, wrote in an email to American Banker.

That does not mean emojis should be dotting every communication. Armstrong says there are times when using emojis are appropriate (think celebrating moments of joy in banking) while companies also need to keep in mind the target demographic of users.

Denisse Goldbarg, chief marketing and operating officer at the mobile engagement platform provider mGage, says emojis’ role will increase because of a larger customer care trend.

“More and more people prefer texting as a means to communicate with a brand,” she said. “Emojis are just part of it.”

Nowadays, someone may post a smiley face instead of typing “thank you so much.”

While even she acknowledges that emojis will not replace every conversation, Goldbarg says they offer something unique.

A picture is worth a thousand words

Certainly, it’s easy to imagine someone sending a bank a 💰 to get an account balance or to send a thumbs-up to confirm a payment or add a frowny-face emoji aside a message so that a bank agent follows up — within seconds.

Already, they are in use to visualize financial wishes.

At Digit, users assign an emoji to a savings goal they set up within the popular automated savings app. Similarly, BBVA-owned Simple supports emojis in renaming goals and transaction memos, among other things. For Digit, one of the top emojis used is an airplane, to indicate saving toward a travel fund. At Simple, the most popular are the money bag, hamburger and red car symbols.

“Emojis offer a simple shorthand for users to visualize progress toward their financial goals on Digit," said Samar Shah, head of operations at Digit. "We’ve set out to make the process of saving money effortless and approachable. Tying emojis into our product gives our users an experience that feels more natural and enjoyable."

To some extent, banks may not have a choice. Indeed, emojis are already proving so popular that even banks that have yet to support emojis are receiving them and they have broken down the digital banking experience in a couple of reported instances.

Picture of a personal emoji
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It is a telling problem. While mobile banking is designed to feel like the bank is at one’s fingertips, the reality is much messier. So if a customer, say, tries to nickname an account with an emoji, the attempt could easily fail, or worse, the account could lock up. “It’s why there are so many challenges in building really great digital experiences,” said Adam Blue, chief technology officer at digital banking provider Q2.

Potential tech hiccups aside, emojis are plenty confusing even when sent to software that easily understands the code. How would a bank, for example, interpret "half-blue laughing crying smiley face" in the middle of a conversation about opening a savings account, as Blue illustrates?

“Tons of emoji are pretty ambiguous in what they mean,” Blue said.

And yet, he sees the problem as an opportunity since the inclusion of an emoji in a text statement can have as much significance as a negative sign next to a number. “Why wouldn’t you want that?” Blue asked.

In the lab

The bank tech provider FIS has been looking into the problem at its innovation lab in San Francisco. Perhaps a customer gets an emoji — or perhaps a GIF of someone dancing— when he contributes to a savings account, for instance. Perhaps consumers can use emojis to nickname their bank accounts or pepper them into their passwords with rules in place, (😆 😆 😆 😆 😆, sorry, you aren’t secure enough).

“We do find them very interesting,” said Doug Brown, senior vice president and group executive of FIS Mobile.

The images, after all, are an important part of a broader theme: understanding what consumers want in their words.

But in banking, there are always risks associated with any seemingly innocent change. The odds for misinterpreting emojis are much higher for a bank serving people across regions and ages than, say, a neobank targeting a mobile-first youthful crowd. Case in point: While an eggplant 🍆 could just mean a fruit to someone, the image is also often used as a symbol for a penis.

There are other potential downsides, including the need to lawyer up. In recent weeks, multiple reports have said Apple is rejecting mobile apps that use its emojis, for instance. There is also the matter of utility: Some banking-related tasks would likely just solicit negative images, such as paying an expensive cable bill. And let’s not neglect to mention regulators and how they would interpret the pictures.

All of which is why FIS will get more information before commercializing any concept. “The worst thing to do is a bad introduction of this,” Brown said.

Brown does, however, expect emojis to have a role in banking. It is just a matter of what part does a smiley face replace the star rating, for instance? Can consumers use them in passwords? Already, Brown believes Zelle the peer-to-peer payment technology that FIS offers banks but is operated by Early Warning should incorporate emojis into its feature set to drum up engagement, just as Venmo has done all along. But FIS does not make the call.

Even so, as Brown put it, bankers should figure out how to process emojis from customers: “It’s coming.”

Mary Wisniewski

Mary Wisniewski

Mary is deputy editor of BankThink. She also writes on a variety of subjects as part of American Banker's bank tech team.