emoticon letterEmoticons are stupid. They’re sappy, and won’t go away, like wet leaves on the bottom of your shoe. Yet they’re indispensable for asynchronous communication. That’s because sarcasm does not translate well to email, texting, or comments at the end of news stories. As silly as it may sound emoticons are not just for high school girls or young lovers. They have their own digital linguistic category called “visual messaging.” They are important for conveying attitudes that can be easily misinterpreted in a way that plain text can’t.  No need for me to insert a smiley face here, because I’m serious.

Now one company is looking to take this whole visual messaging phenomenon – it calls it “emoji and meme style communication” – a bit further by integrating social news content into its app.

Today, Lango, formerly Zlango, released a hybrid app available on both Android and iOS that allows integration of visual components by means of text or sharing through social media networks. While there are already apps out there that either do both or a slight variation of one, Lango is the first US app that generates images from news content.

Users of Lango’s text function, known as “spark,” use emoticons as opposed to text to express meaning. Nothing new there. What is innovative, however, is the curation and the dizzying array of content. Instead of scouring through thousands of emoticons to find the perfect one, its “essence engine” enables auto-suggestion, providing five options. So, if you text, “Want to get some coffee?” a user can choose a coffee icon instead of the text.  In terms of context, on a bi-weekly basis Lango will generate emoticons pertaining to news content. When Kate Middleton has her baby, Lango could produce an emoticon with a baby wearing a crown.

The other component of Lango’s hybrid model is called “flair,” which enables users to create meme style images – choose a background to lay under the emoticon, add some text, and post on Facebook and Twitter. The news content will again come into play. Imagine how many memes a user could generate for, let’s say, Lindsay Lohan’s next stint in jail or another bizarre Charlie Sheen meltdown.

The business model is freemium. Lango provides users 1200 “coins” off the bat to purchase premium emoticon packs (like Gangamo Style), along with the social news content. If you want more of these special emoticons, it will set you back $.99 for a pack.

While the freemium model has been a go-to way to suck people in, get them addicted, and charge for the extras, I’m not sure how hooked people will get on purchasing emoticons. Even if Lango can get users to pony up for the premium emoticon packs, it has been widely reported the number of free-to-paid conversion rate is as low as 1 percent. To have any real chance of success, Lango needs to reach millions. But with a whole slew of emoticon apps already dominating the social text market in the Apple and Android, store, it’s hard to see how it can achieve that.

Perhaps that’s why Lango is also considering an advertising model that allows companies to bid on certain emoticons. If I text, “Want to get some coffee?” Starbucks could bid on branding the coffee icon.

You’d think a product like this would rely on the chance of some of its emoticons going viral, attracting ever greater numbers of users. But if a user wants his friends to see her or his emoticons they must also sign up for an app. That drastically drags down the rate it can spread.

It’s also a matter of time before big players, treating emoticons as mere add ons to existing products, step in, especially if there is some cash to be made through advertising models. Facebook, for example, is reportedly in talks with a Pixar illustrator to create high-end emoticons for its social network.

Lango has raised $25 million since its inception in 2007 from the likes of Benchmark and DAG Ventures.  Good luck to them. Little Smiley Blinking-24x24 copy1

[Image courtesy willlaren on flickr.]