If you haven’t been following the GIF craze as of late, you haven’t been paying attention. GIFs are returning to be one of the most utilized graphics formats. The GIF (Graphics Interchange Format), introduced by Compuserve in 1987, is a compressed graphic format ideal for performing image transfers across the slow modem connections of the time. So, it’s resurgence as a quick video short format is a logical use of the format and is the only one that allows the sort of quick animations that are becoming popular with memes and the like.
Animated GIFs were very popular when they first gained prominence on the Internet back in the 90s, but their use dwindled as they were mostly cartoons that didn’t have a professional look to them. However, recently, they have been rediscovered as a means of clipping video segments into small three second or so statements. Crazy reaction shots, cats clapping, clips of Joey from Friends baritone-ing, “How you doin’?”, an animated President Obama dropping his mic at the White House Correspondent’s dinner are all examples of communicating points of interest or statements of some kind in quick visual elements. The animated GIF is credited with popularizing a new form of communication. Not only does hyper-abbreviated video allow for more nuance and emotion than a smiley-face emoji ever could, but the limitless nature of GIFs also means that picking the right one has become more than just a means of conveying a particular sentiment.
“If I’m sending a Top Gun GIF with Maverick and Goose, that has a different ‘I love you’ relationship from a Disney GIF you might send to your daughter,” says Jeremy Liew, a partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners, which is a Giphy investor. “That context, that emotion, gets layered back into a text-messaging platform that has historically lacked it. And that makes it more meaningful, more powerful.” The result is that “GIFs are a kind of social currency,” says Dominic Poynter, group communications strategy director at the ad agency Droga5. “The ability to use GIFs in a skillful way that is fresh and new and completely on point has become really important. It’s like being able to text really well. Or take a good selfie.”
One of many companies involved is Giphy which has capitalized on its cultural currency to amass an audience of 300 million people who see a GIF from Giphy every single day, triple its total since just December of 2016. They share more than 2 billion GIFs a day across Giphy.com and the many platforms where Giphy is embedded: Facebook, Twitter, Tinder, iMessage, Slack, and even Zendesk, should you ever want to send a Ron Swanson slow burn to a customer-service rep over a late delivery.
Although these numbers are not wholly comparable to other social networks, they are still likely the envy of Snapchat (173 million daily users) and Twitter (the company does not disclose daily users, but Recode has estimated the total at 157 million), both of which are publicly traded companies. Most people look at the digital advertising landscape and see an unbreakable Facebook-Google duopoly poised to dominate for the foreseeable future. But, whenever conventional wisdom forms, there’s often a ripe opportunity to upend it.
Meanwhile, it appears that there is a general trend toward the six-second ad format. Large online ad hubs such as YouTube and Facebook have both moved to that format. Websites such as giphy.com and imgur.com have the tools to create the formats online. Perhaps most important, these short formats allow for commercials that look nothing like advertising. If it’s good, it’s stuff that people want to use—to communicate, to laugh, to inform. It’s communication at its finest.
The resurgence of the animated GIF emerged out of the realization that 80% of all the searches were cultural content such as TV, movies, and celebrities. So, the potential is there and companies such as Giphy and Imgur have jumped on this format.
Entertainment companies have begun to partner with companies such as Giphy to garner more fan engagement. This allows interactions with fans that go beyond traditional formats providing for fans of shows like Bravo’s Real Housewives to avidly upload GIFs of their favorite characters’ eye rolls and aggressive retorts as the shows air. In fact, all of the Bravo content on Giphy is user generated, says Adam Zeller, VP of social media for Bravo & Oxygen Media, who credits the company for supplying fans with the tools, such as the Giphy camera and keyboard, to create their own content. “What we like to say at Bravo is that a picture is worth a thousand words, and a GIF is worth a million,” Zeller says.
GIF monetization is a newer topic of conversation. Beyond view counts, which were only introduced in late August (much to marketers’ relief), and information on where a GIF travels (from Facebook to Twitter to iMessage, for example), brands and shows are mostly in the dark as to who’s viewing their GIFs.
At this point, brands are accustomed to using platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to target, say, young women under the age of 25 who are horror fans, in advance of a film release or new TV season. There will be new types of different technology around tracking for advertising partners. It will likely be comparable to what Facebook and other social platforms are utilizing. Unlike Facebook, though, which has asked brands to pay for the traffic it once provided for free, the idea is not to charge consumers for the current formats.
The animated GIF has the potential to be more than just a conversational helper but a kind of ambient, always-on channel, much like the radio, or in more contemporary terms, like Cheddar, the digital financial-news network for millennials launched last year by former BuzzFeed president Jon Steinberg. “When not watching 5 episodes of Ozark,” Steinberg wrote in a Medium post last month articulating his vision for what he calls post-cable networks, “people are going to want to watch something, live . . . to see ‘what’s happening in the world.’”
The increasing popularity of the Animated GIF is visible in popular media. Recently, the ad agency CP+B created a campaign for Hotels.com in which its spokes character, Captain Obvious, runs for president. At the same time it made the spots, it put the expressive goofball in front of a plain white background and captured a series of reaction shots, from a sarcastic “okay” to an enthusiastic “raise the roof,” and posted them to Giphy. The goal was for the GIFs to be used in social discussion around actual live events in their own social media. These Captain Obvious “ran for President” GIFs have been viewed more than 150 million times since inception. In another recent example, Converse had a hit with a set of reactions from Millie Bobby Brown (Stranger Things) tied to a back-to-school campaign. The secret to playing in this platform, however, is to be part of the conversation and not just insert yourself into it.
The idea behind the animated GIF is to own the six-second ad format and create ads (or convince brands to create ads) that exude that genuine spirit—though, tellingly, this medium is still very nascent and it’s taking a long time for marketers to understand the value of what a short-form piece of video means in their value chain. Tenor is another GIF company that is preparing to roll out paid ad campaigns with brands. How will this drive success for them? Similar to TV ads, and any highly successful medium, the first question is, okay, did we get the exposure that we wanted? Did it get exposed to the right target audience, and was it in the right environment? But then the next question is, ‘Okay, great, now we got exposed. Did it help my business?’ That’s where the hard part is in trying to prove that out to marketers.
While working toward this goal, animated GIFs have something critically valuable to brands: Access to the private feelings of hundreds of millions of consumers. There are very few places that connect where everyone is, and everyone’s talking, and can tell you why they’re talking about you in every possible context. When thinking about that from a revenue ad platform point of view, that’s the real power of the format. It’s a potentially tremendous opportunity with the ability to determine demographic specifics, users’ tastes and interests combined with an understanding of their emotional behavior in the same way that we learn massive amounts from Google Search and what people are searching for on YouTube.
However, keep in mind that a person may not be utilizing a GIF for the purposes of the content of the GIF so much as for the feeling or emotion the GIF conveys. They’re probably searching for happy or sad or LOL or some kind of reaction. The idea, then, is to ensure that your brand shows up with the funniest, or best, or most humorous, maybe even the coolest, content in that context. Those are the types of emotions to play off. When someone is feeling like something is awesome or amazing, it would be ideal to be one of those brands that is chosen as a means of sharing.
Advertisements have been exploiting this for years in television and other popular media. Coca-Cola, for instance, says, ‘Open happiness.’ With GIFs, we can show brands, content producers, news places, all of them, that you don’t have to tell anybody to ‘open happiness’ anymore. We can just understand if you are synonymous with happy. Make your brand synonymous with “happy” and you’re on your way to successful awareness.
PTC Computer Solutions works extensively on building relationships, not emailing or posting things for the sake of it. Spend time understanding who you are sending to and what they may be interested in reading. Give them more of what they want.
As edited and modified by David WB Parker, President and Founder of PTC Computer Solutions
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By David W. B. Parker
PTC Computer Solutions