Why GIFs Are A Moving Target for Marketers

By Will Simpson, Giant Spoon

The recent explosion of the GIF format across the Internet has rightly caught the attention of many marketers. However, any brand looking to take advantage of this highly shareable format should have a thorough understanding of the Graphic Interchange Format before diving in headfirst.

GIFs are wonderful and weird and currently ubiquitous because they allow us to neatly package and share cultural moments, emotions, events, and memories — really anything. As GIF Canvas artist Jason “Shooper” Reed said in 2012,“If a picture is worth a thousand words, a good animated GIF is worth 24,000 words per second. By that math, a 10-second GIF is equal to the word power of Moby Dick. If Melville read that he would weep…”

In the last five years, the Internet has truly bowed down to the awesome expressive power of the format, though the technical specs and official names have evolved somewhat.

Platforms like Giphy have exploded in popularity in recent months — as both a repository of existing GIFs and a destination enabling fans to create and share their own animated creations. Almost everyday a new GIF-related platform or service is debuted, whether it be Tumblr introducing technology that enables users to convert videos and images into GIFs, or Instagram recently unveiling Boomerang, which allows users to create 1-second “loops,”(which are not GIFs by technical definition, though they serve a nearly identical function). Apple has even developed and incorporated GIF-like technology into the latest iteration of the iPhone with Live Photos. Even VSCO’s recently debuted DSCO app bills itself as a “high-quality GIF maker” despite the fact that its output is in MP4 format.

This evolution of the short-form, looping format by some of the biggest names in tech demonstrates some of the implications that the GIF format has had on the way we communicate and share information. We might be calling these outputs different names, but they all stem from the communication behavior that was created by original Graphic Interchange Format.

The progression and adoption of GIF methodology illustrates how cultural communication is shifting. We are finding clever ways to enhance and personalize our communication with one another. We’ve all been guilty of misreading the tone of a plain old text message, whether missing some sarcasm or reading too much into an ellipses, however it’s next to impossible to misinterpret the intention behind a GIF.

Though GIF keyboards obviously won’t replace texting, GIFs and their bedfellows have fundamentally altered the way we talk to one another. They’ve added color and customization into our communication habits, integrating culture into the intimate corners of our daily lives like never before. Iconic movie clips and beloved TV characters now stand in for us when we want to express happiness or disappointment. Drake’s instantly iconic “Hotline Bling” dance moves do the trick when someone on the group thread asks who wants to go to the club tonight, and Alicia Silverstone’s “As if”gesture does a pretty stellar job of expressing disinterest in going to a country concert. GIFs have enabled us to communicate with culture.

Given these emotive and communicative capacities, we’ve seen the speedy integration of GIFs (and their compatriots) into interpersonal communication platforms. Messaging services like PopKey, Riffsy and the very recently unveiled Giffage have sprung up, weaving GIFs into our texting habits, enabling us to transmit GIFs in our conversations with the same ease that we might send an emoji. Facebook Messenger has officially adopted a GIF button, and the brilliant inter-office messaging service Slack has a built in GIF generator (courtesy of Giphy). The autoplay and auto loop features on Instagram have enabled GIFs to be shared (albeit as MPG4 files), and you’d better believe that Boomerangs push directly to the Instagram app.

At any point during the near 30-year history of the GIF, it would have been easy to brush it off as a silly, throwaway animation; more than picture but not quite video. The recent cultural adoption of the GIF format confirms that this is a legitimate evolution in media. It’s a unique opportunity for brands, artists, and fans, really anyone who participates in culture. We’re seeing the GIF being used as performance art, as a means of recapping important shared moments, ‘relaying news, a way of illustrating cooking recipes.

We now have the chance to weave our brands into the personal lexicons of our fans and consumers. If we can repackage our content and brand DNA into artistic, hilarious, engaging GIFs, people will use our brand to communicate in their daily lives. Iconic properties can create utility content, branded content that fans actually seek out to integrate into their keyboards and habits. We can create art, emotionally poignant moments, move at the speed of the culture in an authentic and relevant way. Brands and agencies are constantly worried about “speaking the language of the internet” and keeping pace with those oh-so-shifty “millennials”. The GIF gives us an opportunity to really do this, we just have to use a little creativity coupled with a thorough understanding of the opportunity at hand.

This may seem easier for some brands than others, and you might think that the marketing teams behind entertainment properties seem to have an edge, but GIFs can truly be used by any brand. This is where is gets tricky though — you need to have understanding of the culture and be able to think creatively about how your brand might integrate into GIF culture. This is easier said than done for sure.

On the other hand, just because GIF technology exists, doesn’t mean that marketers have to flood the space for the sake of creating branded content. Marketers have a tendency to trend-hop in hopes of staying relevant but the GIF offers us the chance to ask, “Why should I do this?”

Before “GIF-ing” from the hip, ask:

1. Is there an element of your brand that is visually appealing?

2. Does creating a motion graphic demonstrate a product advantage or special feature?

3. Is your brand a part of the entertainment world? (TV, Theater and Music all pretty much have license to GIF, at will.)

4. What value can a consumer find in your GIF? (i.e. Does it convey a universal human emotion?)

5. Is it shareable? Or is it simply super cool to look at?

GIFs are tremendous opportunities for brands, but only those that are willing to understand the behaviors and implications of the GIF in modern communication should test the waters. So go download PopKey and the Giphy app, and get to GIF-ing, you’ll be surprised at how much fun it is.

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