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Why GIFs Are Here to Stay – And Why Really Good Ones Work

GIFs (that’s short for graphic interchange format) are all the rage these days.

As funny clips of TV celebrities doing the happy Friday dance in social media, or animated cats scampering across an otherwise static page of text in an email ad, they are popping up in more and more places.

Marketers in particular are showing a lot of interest. In fact, one of the questions we are most often asked these days is how to put GIFs into marketing emails.

Today, I want to offer a marketer’s insight on why GIFs are so popular, and discuss what makes for a really effective one.

What is a GIF?

A GIF is a type of computer file for sending images, especially moving images. A GIF is generally a short animation of a series of static images, which makes it jumpy. (Think of it as one of those picture books where you create a moving image by flipping through all the pages quickly.)  It lacks the fluidity of a video. But one big advantage is that the GIF file type is supported by most email systems.

The file format has been around since 1987, as the New York Times explained in a 2013 article about the ongoing battle about whether to pronounce the word ‘jif’, as in ‘jiffy’ or ‘gif’, as in ‘gift’. (We side with the hard-G people.)

In recent years, the use of GIFs has greatly increased. Facebook, for example, offers users the option of using a GIF when they post a status update. And GIF integration is one of the core features of Slack, a popular online office communication tool. Which means that a lot of office workers now communicate with each other using GIFs.

Why GIFs are attractive to marketers?

GIFs are being used so much, they have now become one of the ways a lot of people, not just office workers, communicate.

Marketers have noticed this, and are looking for ways to integrate GIFs into marketing. That’s why more and more marketing emails contain them. (There are some examples of marketing GIFs here and here.)

GIFs are popular with marketers because they are good at getting people to engage. They are, essentially, a hook that overcomes our resistance and makes something stand out.

It’s tough, these days, getting something to stand out enough so that people will engage with it. The secret to engagement seems to be in instant gratification. In today’s quick-paced mobile phone world, it’s what everyone wants. 

Who has time to scroll through long documents, or wait two days for someone to respond to an email? We want our information in quick, easy-to-digest hits.

Studies show that people will take a mere two to four seconds to decide whether an email is worth reading. If you don’t hook them right away with something like a GIF, they hit the delete button.

Think of it: Marketing teams spend weeks crafting emails, and recipients delete them in seconds.

Unless, of course, something causes them to engage. And GIFs, which offer a quick buzz of dopamine, are good at doing that.

Why are GIFs so effective?

When they are done properly, GIFs stimulate the brain and get people to focus on the screen. The eye is naturally drawn to moving things, and GIFs do just that.

They also offer the element of surprise, since (at this point anyway) most emails don’t contain animation or videos.

A GIF needn’t look like a jerky video. It can simply be an image of something flitting across a page (say, a cartoon cat ambling across your screen), or the same purse or dress flashing different colours, or animated, moving words, numbers or symbols. It could even be as simple as twinkling stars in the background.

Movement is the key element. It gets attention.

But it’s got to be done just right.

Too much movement can distract people, or prevent people from reading the words on the screen. (And the words are usually where the main message lies.)

So marketers should be subtle in their use of GIFs.

What makes for a good GIF?

I think a good GIF does two things: It communicates emotion, and it creates (or implies) a bond.

Communicating emotion

A good GIF is a shorthand message to convey the emotion the sender is feeling or wants to create.

Think of those Friday happy dances, for example. Now imagine a work colleague sending you a happy dance GIF on a Friday afternoon. Without words, that co-worker has just communicated how they feel. And maybe they made you smile, too.

It’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words; an image-rich GIF can communicate a whole lot in a second or two.

Creating a bond

That happy Friday dance did something else: It signalled that you and your colleague are in the same boat. You are both happy it’s Friday. It’s a feeling you share.

A good GIF creates the feeling of a bond between the sender and the receiver. I communicate an emotion; you get what I’m feeling, because you probably feel the same thing.

Often this is done through humour.

Humour, however, needs a context. What’s funny in one culture falls flat in another. But if I find something funny, and you do too, then chances are we share a cultural connection. We can bond over the same joke because we understand it in the same way.

In marketing, that kind of connection is powerful.

A good GIF finds and builds connections between the marketer and the target audience.

This is a two-edged sword. What works for one generation, or language group, or nationality, will not necessarily work for another. At best, a failed joke can leave people scratching their heads in puzzlement; at worst, it can alienate.

What does this mean for marketers?

Research shows that emails with GIFs produce significantly greater engagement than static emails – 14% better engagement, on average. That is big.

So marketers are beginning to realize that instead of spending weeks creating a white paper or an e-book, they can generate more clicks and likes and shares by taking a few minutes to create and distribute a GIF inside an email.

A few words of caution:

Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Any marketing GIFs should be related to what is being marketed; a good GIF amplifies and elevates your message. This marketing email from Uber is a good example of that.

A good marketer resists the temptation to stick a GIF into an email just because it’s funny. Whatever a company sends out has to be in line with its brand in terms of style, font, colour and general tone.

Remember also that it is very easy to use the wrong GIF. To create an effective GIF, marketers need to know their audience. An email aimed at twenty-something males can push the boundaries more than an email aimed at older women, for example.

Bottom line: GIFs are here to stay. We’ll all be seeing more and more of them in marketing emails. And when you see dancing shoes or snarky moments from TV shows, you’ll understand why.

That’s all, folks.

Pierce Ujjainwalla has years of experience as a CEO, entrepreneur, and marketing leader. He has lived in the marketing trenches at companies like IBM, SAP, NVIDIA, and Marketo, and he launched Knak in 2015 as a platform designed to help Marketers simplify email creation. Visit his personal blog, Unsubscribed!, for more of the insight he’s gained as founder and CEO of Knak.

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