VG creates custom emoji keyboard to engage news audiences

By Padraic Woods

Verdens Gang (VG)

Oslo, Norway


Apps are evolving to be more than just functionality available behind an app icon on a user’s home screen. Custom keyboards, widgets, notifications, 3D touch, extensions, and Siri integration are among the many ways developers can now engage with users outside the confines of the traditional smartphone app on the home screen.

Like it or loathe it, emojis have become part of our daily digital conversation.

New emojis are constantly being added so users can communicate with visual icons.
New emojis are constantly being added so users can communicate with visual icons.

If you wish to create your own emojis for your audience or brand, there are a few options available to you.

  1. Create a proposal and submit it to the Unicode Consortium for approval.

  2. Create “stickers” and try to get third-party apps and services to include them (Facebook, Snapchat, etc.).

  3. Create an iMessage extension (available in iOS 10).

  4. Create your own custom keyboard that is either available only within your app or available to all apps on a device.

Create a proposal to Unicode Consortium

The emoji language is determined by a consortium of people whose job it is to standardise alphabets into code that can be read across all computers and operating systems. The approval process can take some time with consortium members not always in agreement with what should be proritised or approved.

BuzzFeed described a spat earlier this year as “Emojigeddon” as consortium members aired their disagreements. Google have also campaigned for improving the gender equality of the emojis created.

Here are some of the emojis recently added.


Many social media apps offer ways of including custom stickers beyond the standard set of stickers bundled within their apps. You can read more about Facebook’s sticker submission process and about Snapchat’s geo-filters.

iMessage extension

Apple has announced support for iMessage extensions in iOS 10 where third-party developers can create features that enrich messages. The apps are available from the iMessage app drawer, and users can download the app directly from iMessage without being sent to the App Store.

This isn’t the first messaging app going down the platform route as companies try to capitalise on the amount of time users are spending within messaging apps.

“Messaging apps, with context and time, have a chance to rival the home screen as the go-to place for interaction,” according to Mary Meeker in the 2016 Internet Trends report (slide 47). The iMessage extension makes it easy for us to create custom functionality our users can install and use from within the iMessages app.

Custom keyboards

Apple first introduced support for custom keyboards in iOS 8 with Android already supporting it for some years already. Since then, there have been a number of third-party developers offering custom keyboards with features such as predictive text, access to GIFs, swipe prediction, search, emoji keyboards, and more.

The advantage of a custom keyboard is that it can be used with all apps that require a keyboard for user input. Google has recognised the universality of this idea and launched the Gboard app for iOS devices that allows users to search from the keyboard and embed emojis, gifs, and links into messages based on what the user has searched for from the GBoard keyboard.

At VG, we identified the custom keyboard idea as a fun feature and a new way to connect with a hard-to-reach market segment.

Here are some of the details behind VGs “Folkets emoji” keyboard (people’s emojis).

Goal: To connect VG with young digital natives who have grown up with smartphones and emoji communication. To create brand awareness and make the VG app a greater part of their day.

Why emojis: Emojis are part of the natural language digital natives use and understand. We started the project by carrying out a survey to see if our users were interested in using new emojis created by VG.

Emojis, stickers, and animated GIFs are all a part of the social media language people use, and custom keyboards have been popularised by many celebrities and companies including Kim Kardashian, the New York Rangers, and Google.

The survey results showed that more than 70% of people send emojis several times a day, 34% had downloaded an emoji package before, and 76% said they would use VG’s emojis if the emojis were “cool.” (There were 323 people surveyed: 54% men, 46% women, 55% iPhone users, 43% Android users, 41% between the ages of 20-29, 48% between the ages of 30-39.)

VG capitalised on local figures and icons to create its own emoji keyboard.
VG capitalised on local figures and icons to create its own emoji keyboard.

What did we create? We created a custom iOS keyboard that is bundled within our VG app. After looking at the installation process on Android and iOS, we decided to begin with creating an iOS keyboard as it is much easier to install and use than a custom keyboard on the majority of Android devices.

The first version of the VG keyboard contained 22 emojis. The emojis are of popular Norwegian landmarks, are from Norwegian popular culture and are of well-known historic and more recent popular Norwegian characters. For example, the king of Norway, Henrik Ibsen (the famous playwright), a popular blogger, and a famous Norwegian statue of a crying boy, etc.

The original 22 emojis were bundled in with the VG app.
The original 22 emojis were bundled in with the VG app.

What about privacy? Users in the majority of cases need to grant “full access” rights to the keyboard developer. Some keyboard developers manage to function isolated within the confines of the keyboard sandbox, but others need access outside of this sandbox and require full access to be able to function.

In theory, granting full access gives the app developer the ability to capture keystrokes from the keyboard.

At VG, we require full access but do not capture any of this data. We do record aggregated data not specific to any one user, but we are aggregating the number of times the VG keyboard was used and the amount of times each emoji was used.

So we know, for example, that 19,000 keyboard sessions have been generated and 7,500 king emojis have been sent.

How did we spread the word? The target group likes to discover things themselves and not have things pushed on them. We began by promoting the emoji keyboard at our hugely popular VG-lista music concert.

The majority of attendees are from the target market segment. The big screens at the concert displayed advertisements for the emoji keyboard, and Snapchat reporters had cut out emoji icons and promoted them through our Snapchat channel before and during the concert.

We also had an interview on VGTV from the concert with a popular blogger who is one of the emoji characters on the VG keyboard. Weeks after the concert, we began promoting the feature and our VG app through mobile banner advertisements on our Web site.

We also created keyboard on-boarding screens within the app explaining how to install and use the new keyboard.

Results: The feature has been available for the last five weeks (it launched 21 June 2016). In that time, the keyboard has generated more than 25,000 sessions and more than 45,000 emojis have been sent. The feature is naturally viral in that users sending emojis are promoting the feature to their friends.

The most popular emojis are emojis of the king of Norway, a reality celebrity, and a beer.

The king emoji has been sent 7,500 times.
The king emoji has been sent 7,500 times.

What next? The hypothesis is that the popularity of the keyboard will drop after a few months as the novelty wears off, as people forget about it, or as they get tired of switching between the default keyboard and the custom VG keyboard.

If the keyboard popularity continues, we will add new emoji packages and involve our users in choosing the next set of emojis to appear within the keyboard. We will add support for an Android keyboard, and we will add a text keyboard alongside the emoji keyboard so users do not need to switch keyboards to add text to a message.

A custom keyboard is a fun and easy way to reach young readers with your brand. It is just one of the many ways app developers can offer new functionality and increase user engagement outside of the traditional app environment.

About Padraic Woods

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