Although it turns 30 this year, the GIF is still figuring out its place in the world — perhaps more so today than ever before. From its humble pre-internet beginnings, this rudimentary file format has evolved into a vehicle for memes, social media reactions, and other online fun. Its ubiquity and simplicity also makes the GIF a powerful way for brands to communicate with users on social media and other digital platforms.

First introduced in 1987, the Graphics Interchange Format made color image transfers possible across slow modem connections. Despite its many flaws, the GIF has survived far longer than anyone expected, largely due to an important evolution that came when the internet browser Netscape Navigator, launched in 1994, introduced the animation loop. From then on, GIFs took on a new life as the primitive animations that we know and have come to associate with internet culture.

Animating text attracts attention and makes a message stand out.

In 2007, the launch of Tumblr paved the way for a new era. GIFs were widely shared on this new platform and the GIF tag is still one of the site’s most popular. This also coincided with the explosion of social media and smartphones, which gave rise to a new phase in digital communication.

TechCrunch reported that the average American now spends five hours per day on mobile devices. To satisfy ever-shortening attention spans, users embrace tools that allow for maximum impact with minimal effort. Often, words aren’t even necessary to communicate efficiently. You can say more, much faster with the right reaction GIF than with a text or email. The internet meme, meanwhile, is a phenomenon that reflects the cultural zeitgeist and represents humor in its simplest form — thanks in large part to the rudimentary GIF file format.

What has made GIFs the gold standard of internet animation is, in many ways, its limitations. The simple file format can be trusted to load in all early web browsers and works across all platforms.

GIFs are now embedded in many of the leading messaging apps and platforms. If you can’t find what you’re looking for there, chances are there’s something that conveys just the emotion you want on Giphy, the world’s largest library of animated GIFs.

Regardless of the content and messaging, dynamic animated graphics attract attention more efficiently than static imagery. Our propensity for these animations is something that’s hard-wired into us: When we detect movement in our peripheral vision, our instinct tells us to turn attention towards that movement. In today’s crowded marketplace, digital marketers are increasingly utilizing GIFs as a way to compete for our attention.

How brands can harness GIF power

For brands, using GIFs allows for broader storytelling and more dynamic marketing strategies. “You can communicate far more in a GIF than you can with a static image and copy,” says Kara Vorhes, creative director of Harmonica, a Los Angeles-based agency specializing in PR, social media, and content marketing. “GIFs allow for theatrics — you can set your audience up for a big reveal, or tell a story with a bigger narrative arc,” she adds. For example, brands can use GIFs to showcase multiple products in a single image, or make brand assets like mascots come alive and interact directly to the customer.

Lifestyle brand Life is Good has built a hugely successful business selling apparel featuring feel-good, inspirational messages of optimism. The brand famously does not do any advertising, but utilizes GIFs on social media to bring its T-shirt designs to life, and sometimes to animate its brand mascot, a smiling stick figure named Jake.

Narrative messages are another effective use of GIFs — using a short animation to tell a specific story or make a reveal. When announcing that their product would soon be available at Toys “R” Us, Bloom Baby — a brand that makes natural, hypoallergenic baby wipes — did so with a simple, playful GIF. The key here is to make the animation short. Keeping it under 10 seconds is a good rule of thumb; after that there is a greater chance that users stop paying attention.

Baby wipe brand Bloom Baby used a simple, playful GIF animation to reveal that their product would soon be available at a new retailer.

According to a report by technology market research firm The Radicati Group, 2.4 million emails are sent every second, and the average email user receives hundreds of emails each day. Using animated headers in email newsletters can improve open rates and cut through the clutter. Thrive Market, an online purveyor of healthy foods, sometimes uses GIFs in their email headers — an effective way to make seemingly mundane products (like canned tuna) come alive.

Using GIFs in email headers, as in this example from a Thrive Market newsletter, can make products come alive.

Brands are also using GIFs as a way to bypass Facebook’s 20-percent text rule (a policy which does not allow any image with more than 20-percent text to be promoted) when they want to use more text. GIFs are currently excluded from this rule, but adding more text to an ad is not necessarily the best marketing decision. If you want to include more text, it might be best to opt for a video with captions in order to improve the user’s experience.

As is often the case when popular culture is co-opted by the corporate world, there are limitations for brands using GIFs. “It’s hard for brands to participate in GIF culture the same way civilians do, purely because of the legality around who owns the IP. Unless you’re Bravo, you don’t get to do reaction GIF with NeNe Leakes,” Vorhes explains. Staying authentic and focusing on what works for a specific brand or product is key in order to use GIFs successfully in marketing.

“Cultural references won’t do the work for you,” Vorhes says. “You have to rely on your own assets and your own storytelling.”

The GIF fills that gap between when a static image is not enough, but a video would be too much. Like any digital-communication tool, it is merely a vehicle for a message; however, used in the right ways, it can be a very powerful tool for brands to stand out in a visually saturated media landscape.

Effective ways brands can use GIFs:

  • Show variety: showcase multiple products in a single image/slideshow.
  • Bring marketing to life: animate artwork or products in interesting ways.
  • Make a reveal: use visual storytelling to build up anticipation and end on a big reveal or surprise.
  • Express emotion: use a brand mascot or similar to create reaction GIFs or demonstrate various emotions.
  • Animate hero images: add dynamic graphics at the top of things like emails newsletters.

Top image by sergey causelove