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Most people may think of pure cuteness when they think of "emojis"— graphic ideograms that started in Japan but have since become popular elsewhere—but more and more brand marketers are beginning to think of dollar signs.
Advertisers are increasingly able to infiltrate phone messaging apps by pushing out their own emoji characters. Movie studios, sports teams and other brands are making their emoticons available to a lucrative young demographic that's addicted to texting on their phones using popular apps such as Facebook's Messenger, WhatsApp, WeChat and Viber.
Facebook's Messenger app, for instance, recently featured a pack for "The Expendables 3" as a free download in which Lionsgate is credited as the rights owner. Disney/Pixar was also featured with emojis that let users send a smiling image of Nemo from "Finding Nemo" or Woody from "Toy Story."
A representative at Facebook declined to comment on specifics of the deals.
According to digital market research firm eMarketer, mobile messaging apps are the fastest grossing app category among smartphone users worldwide, with their usage increasing more than 300 percent last year.
Marketers have struggled to find ways into the phone messaging stream.
"Rather than being able to send a smiley face or frowney face, you now have the option to send the next big blockbuster movie—emoticons and stickers with those," Evan Wray, CEO of Swyft Media, told CNBC. The company makes deals with brand marketers to push out emojis and stickers to popular messaging services. "It's really a win-win for the brand, the user and us facilitating everything."
Swyft Media claims that active users of Internet-enabled messaging apps—as opposed to regular text messages—send an average of 96 emojis or stickers per day. The vast majority of those users are young people, and Asia is the biggest market for emojis.
Wray says his company is able to track usage, including location, user's age, frequency, and most popular emoticons sent, which helps brands understand the users they're reaching and what's resonating with potential consumers.
There are two ways advertisers are using emojis. The first is by licensing their images for users to pay to use, thus generating revenue while letting users engage with the brand.
The other is through content marketing, when a brand pays for their emojis to be featured in an app, and users are encouraged to use them for free.
Wray said Swyft is running a campaign with a large movie studio in Asia that wants to create buzz among a young demographic leading up the movie. The studio paid Swyft to push movie assets out across the messaging platforms by injecting them into apps.
Ellie Wheeler, a principal with Greycroft Partners, a venture capital firm in New York, said that all the major messaging platforms—including Facebook—are now trying to find ways to allow brands to engage directly with consumers.
"The benefit of this type of marketing is that you are not interrupting or seeking to changing consumer behavior, but rather adding content into an existing, frequent behavior," she said. "If the content is good, people will use it and engage with it."
As for Swyft Media, Wheeler said its challenge will be to continually broaden its distribution as new apps are constantly launching and consumers typically use several different apps to communicate.
"There's also a risk that the larger platforms seek direct brand relationships to capture more of the economics, reducing the need for a service like Swyft Media for the top apps," she said.
—By CNBC's Uptin Saiidi