The Surging Popularity of GIFs In Digital Culture

And how marketers can learn to speak GIFs

Richard Yao
IPG Media Lab
Published in
9 min readApr 5, 2018


Source: Podium

Last Tuesday, Google announced it had acquired popular GIF platform Tenor as it looks to help people search for those looping animated images “more effectively in Google Images,” as well as other products that use GIFs, such as its keyboard app Gboard, which Tenor is already integrated with. Google says Tenor will continue to operate as a distinct brand after the purchase, but we can expect to see deeper integration of Tenor’s GIF search engine popping up across Google’s platforms and products.

While this might be a rather minor acquisition in comparison to something like, say, Amazon buying Whole Foods, this deal nevertheless highlights the growing prevalence and significance of GIFs in our digital culture. Google says it now sees “millions of searches for GIFs every day,” and Tenor is as popular as Twitter with roughly 300 million monthly active users driving more than 12 billion searches per month.

Like it or not, GIFs are now an essential part of the digital lexicon that younger consumers use frequently to communicate and express themselves. With this acquisition, Google is making a play for an emerging search ad market, and some smart brands are already catching on.

Why Google Bought Tenor

As mentioned above, Tenor already amassed an impressive audience reach on its own. For comparison, Twitter reported 330 million monthly active users in Q4 2017, roughly on par with that of Tenor. Tenor’s major competitors in the GIF search engine space include GIPHY with 300 million daily active users, and Gfycat with roughly 130 million monthly active users.

The company’s main product, GIF Keyboard, is among the top free Utility apps in both the iOS App Store and Google Play. It is pre-installed on the native messaging app on the Samsung Galaxy S9 and also available as an add-on extension in most popular messaging apps such as Facebook Messenger, Slack, WhatsApp, and Apple’s iMessage. In fact, Tenor’s GIF bot is among the most-used chatbots on Facebook Messenger. Besides, it also powers the GIF search function on social media sites such as Twitter.

By acquiring Tenor, Google could leverage its massive global reach to push Tenor ahead of its competitors and establish a strong global GIF search engine that could potentially monopolize the market. At the moment, GIFs are both easy and difficult to search for. On one hand, generic GIFs, like the popular reaction GIFs for expressing a specific emotion, are pretty easy to find and use, but specific GIFs, such as that one iconic moment or quote from your favorite movie, are much harder to track down. Google may just be able to make all GIFs easily searchable by optimizing the keyword tagging and indexing methodologies behind GIFs.

Source: Tenor

In April last year, Tenor also started monetizing its platform by offering marketers the opportunity to surface branded GIFs with prominent placements. Brands such as Dunkin’ Donuts, AT&T, Sprint, Nestle, Nissan and KFC are paying Tenor between $100,000 to $500,000 for their GIFs — often featuring brand logos and products — to show up in relevant GIF search results, in hope of reaching the GIF-loving consumers and being shared organically, according to a report by Bloomberg.

Google, which makes the vast majority of its revenue from advertising, is always looking for new ways to appeal to marketers, especially as rivals like Facebook, Amazon, and even Pinterest chip away at its market share due to the rise of visual and voice search. Therefore, by integrating Tenor’s GIF library into its image search products, Google is getting in early into an emerging search advertising market where some brands are exploring to reach younger consumers.

Moreover, given the way that GIFs uniquely blend emotions, pop culture references, and memes (more on this later), this acquisition and subsequent integration with Tenor will also enable Google to capture more valuable data on how people feel, how they are communicating visually, and therefore better understand consumer sentiment and interest to inform its ad products.

Why GIFs Are Popular

Even though GIFs have been around for a long time since the early days of the internet, its popularity has only surged in recent years into the mainstream spotlight, thanks to the adoption of fast-speed internet, the increasing use of messaging apps, as well as the spread of meme culture. With more and more consumers, especially those in the younger generations, incorporating GIFs into their daily communication, it’s no wonder that brands are now trying to figure out this hot medium.

There are three drivers of GIF’s enduring popularity (beyond the technical reasons of universal browser support and low bandwidth use). First, it allows people to quickly express their emotional response when words just won’t do. Second, it conveys a sense of identity on the user’s behalf through the pop culture references it carries. Third, it capitalizes on the meme culture that constantly churns out new references that in turn form our larger digital culture.

Compared to texts and still images, GIFs can compress a lot of information into something that’s easily shareable, which is a unique advantage that GIFs had in the early days of the internet before online video took off. Specifically, the most prevalent GIF usages are reaction GIFs, namely the kind of generic GIFs that express a single emotion. Whether it’s joy, sadness, or shock, you can usually quickly find a GIF that perfectly encapsulates how you feel rather than awkwardly trying to put your feelings into words. In the age of mobile messaging and ubiquitous rich media support, the expressive and emotive qualities offered by a little looping animated photo are clearly a big draw for consumers, and thus for tech companies and brands too.

GIFs also endure because most of them also carry the kind of pop culture references that often anchor themselves to a specific identity, since most GIFs are taken from a media product, be it TV shows, movies, or even news clips. Therefore, the GIFs you choose to express yourself with indicate a piece of your interests, beliefs, and even identities.

For example, a football fan and a Disney cartoon fan would choose very different GIFs to express their sadness. A movie buff might be constantly pulling out the perfect quotes from classic movies for the occasion, while a reality TV fan will always have the most ridiculous reaction GIFs on standby. Studies have shown that different countries prefer different GIFs, partly due to the different cultural references that are dominant in each society. (Although some things, like cartoons and memes, do travel across borders.) The underlying logic here is, your personal interests and cultural background determines what you consume in your media diet, which are then inevitably reflected in your choice of GIFs.

GIFs are not only a disseminator of pop culture. Increasingly they are also becoming a major source of digital culture from which popular memes originate. Many memes come from humble and obscure origins, which means they don’t carry any original cultural reference like the GIFs taken from media products do, but nevertheless they become widespread and therefore a pop cultural reference itself thanks to the popular use of GIFs.

In the early days of the internet, memes were mostly still images (often in the format of an image macro), for the smaller file size than the animated GIFs makes them easier to store and transmit. A significant portion of the memes today still exist as unanimated images. However, with high-speed mobile internet now widely available, bandwidth is no longer a concern when it comes to distributing memes.

A popular meme that simply doesn’t work as a still. Source: GIPHY

At its core, a meme is a viral image that (usually humorously) depicts a certain emotion, behavior, or social-cultural concepts, which people identify with and share. It is the digital version of telling a joke without having to type a single word. And GIFs, by virtue of being animated, naturally carries more visual information than a still image does and thus can tell the jokes better. It is no wonder that most people today are choosing GIFs over stills when it comes to memes.

Combined with the emotional shorthand and cultural references they carry, GIFs allow users to simultaneously express their mood, sense of humor, and identity in a low-effort way like no other digital medium can. The efficiency of its expressiveness is the ultimate power of GIFs and the key to its enduring popularity.

Brand Takeaways

Given its important role in our digital culture as both an extension of language, a major disseminator (and sometimes generator) of pop culture and memes, it is no wonder that many brands are trying to learn to “speak GIFs” in order to stay culturally in sync with today’s connected consumers. If your brand wants to tap into the rising GIF culture, here are three suggestions you should heed.

First of all, be funny, but don’t try too hard. On social media, there is already a tendency with certain brands to overuse GIFs in an over-eager attempt to appeal to the younger audience. Not every reply or retweet needs to include a reaction GIF. A well-timed use of GIFs that shows off your brand’s personality is much better than a brigade of mindless GIFs. Use GIFs to contextualize and punctuate your brand messages with a wink, not as the message itself.

Second, be conscientious of the GIFs you choose. Because GIFs also carry cultural references and memes, they may also carry the kind of socio-cultural concepts that could lead to controversy. For example, both Instagram and Snapchat had to temporarily remove GIPHY stickers from their apps due to a racist GIF the search engine featured (the feature has recently been restored). Therefore, it is important that brands not only know their target audience and their cultural references, but also be conscientious of the sensitive social issues surrounding GIF usage, such as the surge of digital blackface, This will only become more important as more brands venture into the kind of one-on-one customer interaction on messaging platforms.

Lastly, get creative with the way you use GIFs. As previously mentioned, GIFs can be a great generator of memes, and early-adopting brands are already experimenting with creating their own viral GIFs to put their brands in front of millions of eyeballs. According to the data Tenor provided to AdWeek, 8 million GIF searches for “goodnight” and 900,000 for “hangover” on its platform are connected to Domino’s. And 12.9 million searches for “dance” result in consumers clicking on a GIF related to Coca-Cola.

For brands, it is important to understanding what role your brand plays in culture, and structuring your branded memes around that. For example, Domino’s is what most people crave after a night out, and Coca-Cola beverages are frequently featured at parties. Moreover, brands should know GIFs are what powers most digital fandoms today, and they offer a great way to engage with your customers in creative ways. In its essence, GIFs are soundless short video clips that play on a loop, which makes them an interesting tool for brand storytelling that brands can get creative with.

Looking ahead, GIFs will be around as long as social media and messaging apps continue to dominate our digital interactions. Will they still be relevant ten years later once we move onto wearables (with less emphasis on visuals and much more on audio and haptic cues) and AR glasses (which prioritize 3D objects over 2D images) as our main personal computing devices? It’s hard to tell. With the facial tracking demonstrated by Apple’s Animojis, perhaps we will soon see a new breed of reaction GIFs that are completely self-generated by users. Or perhaps we will simply make 3D hologram version of GIFs that we can summon into sight whenever we want. No matter how it will continue to evolve, it is clear that GIFs are a unique dialect of our digital culture today that all brands need to be fluent in.



Richard Yao
IPG Media Lab

Manager of Strategy & Content, IPG Media Lab