A baboon pushes a laptop off the table. You sense its frustration.

Without saying a word, the sender of the baboon GIF has expressed how they feel about the situation and has made you agree. Maybe the ape is reacting to a broken laptop or bad news sent via email. It doesn’t matter. It fully encapsulates the feelings of the situation.

GIFs like the famous baboon pushing a laptop have taken over the Internet. They’re found on social media, in blog posts and in professional email correspondence. But are these GIFs really professional? Should they be a part of your daily content communications strategy?

The only way to know is by exploring the psychology behind GIF use and their context from a marketing perspective.  

GIFs are Ubiquitous in the Marketing Universe

Early last year, Aleksej Durdevic at Digital Doughnut said the GIF would be the Biggest Digital Marketing Trend For 2017. He wasn’t wrong. Their rapid growth and use in both personal and professional environments led to their rise to power. Brands that had never considered using GIFs in marketing before now actively create them.  

Even without context, the numbers are staggering. In 2015, Giphy boasted 50 million monthly unique users. In 2017, that number reached 100 million daily active users.

According to Alex Konrad at Forbes, Giphy has two-thirds as many users as Snapchat, and serves more than 1 billion GIFs on a daily basis. Without realizing it, you likely interact with Giphy-hosted images several times per day.

While Giphy might be one of the largest GIF creation and hosting sites, it’s not the only one, proving that this form of visual content has quietly taken over the Internet.

The Psychology Behind GIF Use

GIFs are a key medium of communication on the Internet that help audiences connect with each other. To overlook them as frivolous mini-videos for BuzzFeed articles means ignoring the power of storytelling in your marketing.  

Pop Culture Creates a Shared Common Among Between Audiences

Pop culture certainly plays a role in why people are so quick to share GIFs. It’s not uncommon for the latest meme to flood the Internet with GIFs that inevitably work their way into professional communication. However, this pop culture tie actually builds social ties between audiences.  

“When connected to pop culture, GIFs also serve as a way to build off of a common baseline and create a sense of community,” startup consultant Andie Katschthaler writes. “The use of a GIF can add meaning to the words in a tweet and connect like-minded people, creating rapport.”

When used well, your entire audience doesn’t necessarily need to have seen the pop culture reference to still appreciate the GIF. It’s OK if they never watched an episode of The Office to understand the sentiment. However, audiences who have seen The Office can feel like they’re in on the joke.   

GIFs Add Body Language and Facial Expressions to the Internet

As a whole, humans are used to identifying visual cues in communication. Between facial expressions and body language, words themselves don’t mean as much as how they are said.

Dr. Carol Morgan points out that 80 to 90 percent of communication is nonverbal. These gestures are often cultural, bringing a society together to help them communicate. Unfortunately, the Internet tends to block a lot tonal cues, which often lead to misunderstandings.   

“The limits of language still chafe in an era when so much casual, conversational communication happens via screens rather than face-to-face,” says Claire Fallon, culture writer for HuffPost Arts. “The GIF allows a sort of proxy face-to-face encounter, conveying a visual cue of your emotional state directly across the web.”

GIFs are tools to add emotional context for better understanding.

GIFs Provide More Context Than Pictures

GIFs also provide more context for the events and emotions of the news than a picture or text otherwise could. For example, Olivier Laurent and Giphy founder Alex Chung dissected a GIF of Hillary Clinton during an October 2015 Benghazi hearing to share just how communicative these small, repeating images can be.

Within a few seconds, you see Clinton sigh, casually brush some lint off of her shoulder, and then return her focus to the committee with a mixture of boredom and confidence.

Through the image, you can clearly see how she feels about the 11-hour interrogation, where a still image might not have conveyed all of that information, or, worse, might have told a completely different story.

A GIF wasn’t necessary to report on the committee meeting, but it certainly captured the feelings of everyone involved.   

businessman adjust necktie his suit

Can Reaction GIFs Serve as Professional Communication?

PR strategist Stuart Bruce argues that GIF sharing isn’t just for startups using Slack anymore. Microsoft’s partnership with Giphy has brought these dancing images to corporate environments, with employees sharing GIFs on Skype and the company’s other commercial tools.

With GIF use going corporate, its perception as a professional medium of communication could increase over the next few years.   

However, most audiences might not be ready for GIF use in professional communication — either for internal emails or external marketing efforts.

For example, the team at Fundera asked 1,000 workers to rate the appropriateness of their email content, with one being the lowest and five being the highest. GIFs received an average score of 1.8, making them the second-least professional form for communication (only behind talking in all caps).

The use of acronyms, emojis and memes all ranked higher as more professional than GIFs, but not by much. Acronyms, the leading result, only had a score of 2.1 for professionalism.

Case Study: Google Makes a GIF its Official Statement

There’s no better example of a GIF fail in marketing communication than Google sending a GIF as its response to a reporter.

In 2015, Richard Lewis at the Daily Dot reached out to YouTube’s spokespeople about their plan to relaunch a live streaming service. Instead of a formal statement, the team at YouTube (owned by Google) replied with a GIF of a little girl shaking her head in shock. Lewis assumed the response was YouTube’s way of saying “no comment,” but the spokesperson corrected him, saying that it was their comment.

“The GIF really was our official response,” the YouTube spokesperson wrote.

Whether the GIF was a joke done poorly or an attempt to be witty, the response fell on its face and became the story.

Evan LePage, former content manager at HootSuite, says confusion is one of the main risks of communicating with GIFs. He says there’s nothing worse than marketers trying to be too cool by using GIFs inappropriately. It’s just as bad as responding with a movie quote from a film no one has seen (or remembers).


Marketers Should Use GIFs in Their Content Strategy

Most companies and industry stand to benefit from testing GIF use in their content. While a poorly used GIF can lead to disaster (at least if you’re Google), there are significant benefits to tapping into these visual tools.  

GIFs Reinforce Your Brand Messaging

Vilma Núñez, founder of Convierte Más, believes GIFs reinforce your brand messaging and enhance your text to help customers remember what you’re trying to say. Furthermore, they also reinforce your call to action.

Instead of adding a lengthy CTA encouraging customers to sign up for a newsletter or click on a link, you can use a GIF that adds an element of fun to the content while drawing attention to and reinforcing the action needed.

Audiences Process Visual Content Faster

If you need to catch your audience’s attention or quickly set the tone for your brand messaging, a video GIF can bring readers in and make them curious about what you have to say.

“You brain processes what it’s seeing on video 60,000 times faster than it processes text,” the team at Contactually writes. “The quick GIF you included in your email is more likely to elicit an understood response from your contact than had you included a bad joke in written form.”

GIFs can also help discuss complex subjects by providing light breaks in between thoughts.

They Enhance Your Storytelling

GIFs can be tools for wordy bloggers who feel stuck moving audiences through their content. With the right placement, they can convey emotions and bring audiences to a new point in the story without paragraphs of descriptions.

“Don’t use a GIF if it doesn’t enhance the story you’re telling or if your message would remain unchanged without it,” Jillean Kearney writes at ScribbleLive. “If a GIF doesn’t serve a purpose, then it’s just moving clutter.”

You might realize an emotional reaction was what your content needed all along. David Frenay at Emolytics says that humans are trained to react first and think second. Many of our decisions, then, are completely irrational because we’re trained to react.

With the right GIF, you can elicit a reaction and make your audiences feel a certain way about your brand before they even begin your story.

If you struggle to elicit reactions from your customers, a well-placed GIF can get them on board with your content messaging.   

Can Brands Afford to Ignore GIFs in their Content Marketing?

If your company hasn’t embraced GIF use in its content strategy, then you likely have two choices: Jump on the bandwagon to create compelling content, or hope the trend blows over.

Marketer Pritha Bose warns marketers against the second choice, though.

She says that as more consumers switch to mobile and engage with GIFs, more developers will work to create GIF-friendly email templates and communication tools. This makes it easier for marketers to naturally add GIFs to their communication strategy to join the conversation instead of railing against it.  

GIFs aren’t going anywhere in 2018. Those who adapt to modern communication are more likely to succeed. Even if you just test a few internally developed GIFs that showcase your products, your content strategy is better off than if you stuck to static visuals, or no visuals at all.   

Images by: Ahmad Odeh, chajamp/©123RF Stock Photo, Oliver Shou

Amanda Dodge