Presidential duties: starring in University gifs

University of Central Arkansas

Any social media manager would tell you that the key to connecting with an audience is being authentic and relevant. That means being up to speed on “what the kids are doing these days,” as well as using digital assets like emoji and gifs to take part in a conversation.

But how can one manager understand references from every gif out there? Jon-Stephen Stansel’s solution is to make his own. “I would spend 15 minutes finding the perfect gif to send to one student on Twitter,” explained Jon-Stephen Stansel, digital media specialist at the University of Central Arkansas. What took him so long? It’s the perfect storm of having an abundance of reaction gifs to choose from and simultaneously not always understanding the context, movie, or television show reference. “I want to be sure the gif I choose is appropriate, that the student will understand the reference it’s making, and that I’m not alienating anyone,” he said.

How could Jon-Stephen be sure that his gif choice would be appropriate, relevant, and inclusive? He made his own. Now, UCA has a pack of gifs featuring mascot Bruce D. Bear and University President Houston Davis to use.

Gettin’ GIPHY with Bruce

Bruce D. Bear is UCA’s mascot

The idea for UCA gifs was brewing long before Jon-Stephen saw an opportunity to get the project off the ground. When mascot Bruce was in the office for a photo shoot, Jon-Stephen took advantage of it.

“I said, ‘give me 15 minutes and I can film some reactions,’” Jon-Stephen explained. “I came up with some cue cards with different emotions on it, and just had Bruce go through them all.” In half a day’s work, from shooting to final edits, Jon-Stephen had half a dozen reaction gifs featuring the beloved mascot ready to go.

Using GIPHY and monitoring gif use

After the gifs of Bruce were developed, Jon-Stephen was sure to verify the University of Central Arkansas GIPHY account. Not only is GIPHY a great spot to store the growing gif collection, but it also allows them to be shared publicly and searched for by users. The primary goal was for current students to use the gifs, but it quickly became a resource for other departments on campus. “They don’t always have the time to make their own digital assets, and so if I can get those smaller accounts to use branded content, that’s a win,” Jon-Stephen said.

UCA uses GIPHY’s “packs” to sort gifs for users

Not only does GIPHY serve as a popular source for gifs, but it is also the gif platform used on Instagram, Facebook Messenger, and Twitter. Because of this, gifs on GIPHY get a lot of exposure. With a verified account, Jon-Stephen is able to see a small set of analytics, including gif “views.” View numbers can grow quickly, but Jon-Stephen warns that it could be misleading. “When you search for a gif, a lot come up. So when you tag your gifs with more generic terms, your gifs get more views, even if they’re not used,” he explained. These terms can include emotions (“nope” is definitely an emotion), holidays, or other common higher ed terms such as studying, spring break, and graduation.

“A view is counted every time a GIF has been served through GIPHY’s services or technology. A single view is counted when a GIF is served, regardless of how many times it loops. A GIF view on GIPHY is a sign of relevance, shareability, and popularity.” — GIPHY Support

Presidential gif-ing

Houston Davis, president of the University of Central Arkansas

As Jon-Stephen saw students using the gifs more and more, he wanted to expand the UCA gif library. As popular and distinctive as Bruce is, there were other options John Stephen could choose from on campus. He created a poll on Instagram to ask students what UCA gifs they wanted to see next, and the answer surprised his team — President Davis.

Jon-Stephen coordinated a video shoot by first developing a list of popular gifs that he wanted President Davis to re-create. “Our president was rearing to go. It didn’t take much to talk him into it,” John Stephen said, “he even brought his own suggestions of some emotions and reactions that he wanted to do!” With an excited actor on board, Jon-Stephen was happy to get a full hour of President Davis’ time.

The video shoot

Jon-Stephen took lessons learned from his shoot with Bruce as he started with President Davis. “The expressions have to be even bigger,” Jon-Stephen advised. “Subtly doesn’t work well in gifs.” Even though President Davis was camera-ready and excited to participate, Jon-Stephen found himself quickly falling into a director role during the video shoot in order to get the big expressions he needed. “If you don’t get the acting you want, it’s ok to tell them; it’s ok to ask the president to do something different to make it work right!” Jon-Stephen said.

Instead of cue cards, Jon-Stephen brought along an iPad with all the gifs loaded up, so that President Davis could get the moves just right.

President Davis recreates the “Good Job Kid” gif

Making a gif

How do you go from video to gif? The quickest and easiest way is using GIPHY’s gif creator. It allows gif creations from video files, YouTube or Vimeo URLs, or even a series of photos to be arranged flipbook-style.

Similar to gifs, “stickers” are animated images that can be included on platforms including Instagram and Snapchat, which requires a little more work and graphic design skills. “I had to go through the school of YouTube to figure it out,” John-Stephen admitted. He recommends using Adobe Photoshop to make gifs and stickers. Aside from Photoshop and GIPHY, there are other gif creators online (and free!) such as Make A Gif, Biteable, or the smartphone app Tenor.

A video from The Verge on how to make animated stickers and gifs using Adobe Photoshop

The rise of the gif

As Jon-Stephen’s UCA gif library grew, so did the number of times he saw them being used natively. While involving President Davis and Bruce resulted in funny, relevant, and relatable gifs, Jon-Stephen noticed more users gravitating toward the animated sticker collection on the channel. “Non-stickers don’t even make it into our top five most-viewed, or even in our top 20. That’s probably because current students are using Instagram more than Twitter,” Jon-Stephen said.

And, of course, the gifs breathe new and authentic life into President Davis’ Twitter account (and let him get a little snarky).

“We want the community to have something that they can use and help spread the message,” explained Jon-Stephen, so he has folded gifs into the digital strategy for holidays, campus events, and any other occasion he can think of. Not only is his goal going forward to have a robust gif and sticker collection for every event during the year, but also letting the community know these fun digital assets exist. According to Jon-Stephen, the easiest way to do spread the gif-love is to use them far, wide, and often on UCA’s social channels, as well as gain support from key figures on campus such as President Davis and smaller departments on campus.

“I’m a hard ‘G’ all the way. It stands for ‘graphic!’ Herman Melville thought we would call Moby Dick ‘the whale,’ and we don’t do that, do we?” — Jon-Stephen Stansel

Author’s note: I know Jon-Stephen Stansel is likely sick of talking about this topic, but I am so thankful he took the time to give me a quick gif lesson. A big thanks to Emilie Poplett for making this sound awesome.