How GIFs Have Evolved from a Teen Trend to a Marketing Force

GIFs, the snappy, looping motion graphics beloved by everyone from teens to retirees, have taken the marketing world by storm—and for good reason. Here’s a look at how the format offers brands a powerful way to make meaningful connections with customers.

What They Are

GIF is an acronym for Graphics Interchange Format. The term—and format—was invented in the late ’80s by Steve Wilhite, a then-CompuServe employee who wanted a way to compress and quickly transmit visual information in an era when internet connections moved at a glacial pace.

Today, some 30 years later, these short, soundless auto-playing motion graphics are ubiquitous. Whether made from iconic pop culture snippets or created with original graphics or stop-motion photography, they’re dominating cultural and digital conversations. Platforms like Giphy, the leading GIF database and search engine, and Tenor, a competitor owned by Google, allow users to send GIFs over text messages, chat forums, and social media—and each have over 300 million users.

Above: A GIF of Chrissy Teigen “ugly crying” at the 2015 Golden Globes quickly went viral. Pop culture GIFs like this one are typically polysemic, which means they take on multiple meanings for different people.

Why They’re Great

The human brain processes visuals 60,000 times faster than text, improving retention by more than 400%—data that leads platforms like Google and Facebook to prioritize the creation of content that’s visual in nature.

By combining the easy shareability of still images with the engagement of video, GIFs are a wise way for marketers to make the most of these statistics. They autoplay, which eliminates the need for a user to hit play, simultaneously providing instant gratification and immediate engagement. The fact that they’re silent makes them easily viewable anytime, anyplace.

In an age in which information is primarily shared and consumed on mobile devices, the ability to catch someone’s attention and deliver a memorable message is paramount, and GIFs can allow a brand to tap into a cultural moment or connect with customers quickly. Nicole O’Toole, creative director at John Brown Media, has seen a steady rise in GIF requests from clients, and regards them as a key piece of a modern content marketing strategy: “GIFs are a fantastic medium that solve for so much of what clients are looking for today,” she says.

John Brown Media clients like Hannaford Supermarkets and Stop & Shop have begun incorporating GIFs as a regular means of communication with their customers, and have seen increased sales as a result. For example, after Hannaford launched a GIF featuring store-brand Maple Pumpkin Butter across its social channels in 2018, it saw 16.2% growth in the product’s sales, a sharp increase compared to the previous year.

“They’re attention-grabbing, quick, to-the-point, and give the opportunity to provide extra value to customers,” O’Toole says. “They’re a great way to show, rather than tell.”

The GIF below, which JBM created for Stop & Shop’s in-store screen displays, offers customers quick and easy tips for using up leftover turkey in a bright, engaging format.