Emojis evolve into organized business, spin millions for artists, apps, IP firms
Emoji－it's the newest intellectual property or IP in China's Creativeville that is spawning millions of yuan for its creators as well as peddlers.
The digital-age image-based art form is also creating a whole new line of business that is estimated to see double-digit, perhaps even triple-digit, annual growth in the next few years.
For the uninitiated, emojis are standardized sets of stylized images like smileys, usually animated, that express a range of emotions or short messages (like hello, hi! and other kinds of greetings, exclamations, snubs).
Emojis, an evolution of yester-year text character-based emoticons, are part and parcel of most messages exchanged by users of instant messengers, social media, email and the like.
Users love emojis because they help spice up their messages with slick meanings, or moods or mind states, that are best expressed quickly not in words but through interesting or funny images.
With hundreds of millions of users now on social media like WeChat, a widely used emoji could prove a money-spinner and a precious commodity, an IP worth its weight in gold.
Mao Tui (not her real name), 22, a collegian in Anhui province, can testify to the power of emojis. Until four years back, she was just a normal student, dependent on family support to complete her education. One day, just for fun, she drew a cartoon character.
She named her character Zhangcao Yantuanzi, or Budding Pop, a chubby, adorable boy (or girl, since gender is not indicated, about 4-years-old), with a tuft of grass, rather a couple of green leaves on a stem, for hair.
Soon, Budding Pop evolved into a series of drawings express-ing a range of emotions for different occasions and moods. They were digitalized and animated later.
More than half of China's population－say, 650 million people of the 1.3 billion nation－have had a tryst with Budding Pop since. The emoji has been downloaded more than 800 million times through WeChat, the killer all-in-one app of Tencent.
Through tips from WeChat users doting on Budding Pop, Mao today earns a decent monthly income.
There are tens of thousands of people such as Mao in China these days who use their artistic talent to create emojis and rake in the moolah. Their investment, besides their talent for creative drawings, includes hardware like a PC or an electronic drawing board and soft-ware like open-source drawing apps, all costing no more than a few thousand yuan.
And returns on such investment could be handsome. A WeChat user can tip up to 200 yuan () per emoji at a time. Tencent claimed it had more than 900 million active WeChat users in China alone at the end of September 2017. Apparently, they send out 38 billion messages every day. It, however, declined to share details like the number of emoji downloads and the number of messages with emojis last year.
"An emoji creator's income depends on the popularity of his or her work. The more she is wel-comed by users, the more she will earn. The maximum I've earned is tens of thousands yuan per set," said Zhang Xuchen, 39, a part-time emoji artist in Beijing. "I know some emoji artists who earn over hundreds of thousands of yuan."
Zhang, who is a forklift truck driver in Tianjin, has created 12 sets of emojis so far. A set takes at least one or two months to create, he said. Typically, other emoji artists may spend one to three months to create a set.
The most popular set of emoji among Zhang's creations－it is called Huaijiu Xiyouji, inspired by ancient Chinese novel The Journey to the West, a story about four characters who go on a pilgrimage in search of Buddhist scriptures－has been downloaded more than 22 million times and exchanged more than 400 million times in e-messages in cyberspace.
It's not just individual artists who stand to earn from emojis. There are creative design firms and groups of artists sprouting all over like mushrooms. They hire artists to create emojis, which are then peddled to WeChat and the like.
For its part, WeChat earns user loyalty and stickiness by providing them with content they love. Although the app's officials declined to disclose financial fig-ures relating to emojis, it is conceivable WeChat may be earning a commission on paid-for emojis, if not a cut from users' tips for emoji artists.
Then there are IP specialists such as Block 12 that leverage emojis for licensing deals with movie producers, TV channels, product makers, comic book publishers and such. For instance, Budding Pop is already featured on toys, bank cards and in films.