GIFology 101

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There’s no arguing the effectiveness of the humble GIF. Pronounce it how you like (Jiff? Giff?) because, at this stage, we’re tired of hearing the conflicting arguments. But the GIF (the acronym for Graphics Interchange Format) has come a long way since exploding via email attachments in the 1990s and adorning every Tumblr or YTMND page in the 2000s. We share them to express our feelings, make our friends laugh, and feel like we’re part of one big community. With most publishing and social platforms featuring built-in GIF integrations,  like Giphy or Tenor,  many of us even prefer using GIFs over words.

GIFs can help boost engagement, humanize your brand, and make your call-to-action all the more attention-grabbing because of their relatability and shareability. They also play automatically, and are so short and sweet that  even the most distracted among us can’t stop scrolling to appreciate them. 

They’re used for anything from emails, articles, social media posts, and even job postings. (That’s right, I’ve seen some job postings use emojis!) As with all good things on the Internet, brands are catching on to the GIF action. Unfortunately, in their attempts to stay relevant, many brands start sharing or creating their own GIFs willy nilly before having a solid understanding of how they work.  From taking themselves way too seriously to using GIFs to push their products on their customers, brands are using these little animated images in all the wrong ways, for all the wrong reasons. 

Thankfully, we’ve come up with a simple GIF framework we like to call, GIFology 101. Consider this your essential guide for creating effective, exciting, and eye-catching GIFs that your audience will share and engage with. 

Think about your audience


If you know Phlywheel, you know we always start with insights.. Let’s just get this out of the way:  Don’t use GIFs to promote your brand. We’ll say that again: Don’t use GIFs to promote your brand. They are not ads. They’re content. 

Think of content as  “tiny free products that you’re giving away.” You want your audience to relate, share, and interact with your GIFs. This ‘buzz’ does the advertising for you, which won’t happen if you’re using GIFs as a sales pitch. 

As with any type of content, your audience should be your first thought when using or creating your GIFs. Where do they hang out? How do they talk to one another? What are they interested in (hobbies, sense of humor, TV shows or movies they like, activities they enjoy)? What other types of other content do they consume? All of these questions and more should inform how your content strategy approaches your audience, and how your GIFs will look and “sound”.

In the past, we’ve had clients insist on slapping their logos on GIFs pulled from their videos and images. But consumers are turned off by logos and will be less likely to share heavily branded content. If you’re dead set on putting your logo on every single GIF you create (or image, or infographic or video, etc.)  like you’re branding a cow, then make sure it doesn’t take away from the content. If you must add that logo, keep it small, semi-transparent, and in a corner away from the action. And for the love of all things branded, ONLY put your logo on original GIFs! You wouldn’t walk into the Louvre and put your own signature on the Mona Lisa, would you? 

If you have the resources to create your own unique GIFs (like Google does) you can build a library of unique GIFs to use over and over, and never worry again about relying on external content. What makes Google’s use of GIFs so great is they don’t feel like ads. They’re super relatable, cute, and shareable. Their name doesn’t seem to be plastered all over the place, yet they’re still using Google colors and motifs. This is obviously easier for a bigger brand like Google, but iconography can be a powerful marketing tool.

More than memes


The key to creating shareable GIF content isn’t just as simple as following a trend or trying to make people laugh. Sure, humor sells — and everyone loves a good meme — but if you focus more on delivering value or telling/reacting to a story (as per our pillars of shareable content) your audience will respond. GIFs are short by nature, so they must be given the right context in order to have any meaning that resonates. 

Compared to still images, GIFs can be very effective to promote educational content. There’s even a subreddit with over a million members dedicated to cool educational GIFs, with another one for cooking GIFs, with over two million!

Many fashion brands and magazines use GIFs to promote new styles of clothing or show off ways to wear certain items. For example, in 2018, InStyle shared a post showing their readers 18 different ways to wear a scarf. Using GIFs in this way is a super interactive experience for the end-user, who will project themselves onto the model in the various styles.

As versatile as GIFs are, remember that they might not always be appropriate. For example,  GIFs should be used with caution in response to a tragedy — obviously use your common sense. Also note that the heavy use of GIFs on a webpage could slow it down, so be careful of that, too.

Own your niche


While broad content has broad appeal, it’s the more niche (often mislabeled as ‘boring’) audiences that are the most engaged. Web developers who share coding humor, for example, will appreciate a different kind of GIF than a 12-year-old gamer chatting with his buddies about the latest Overwatch patch. In other words, your GIFs should relate to content that you know your customers will find value in. Speak to them in their own insider language (see our first point).

Here’s an example from our own archives: Phlywheel founder Tara Hunt made a video about how social media has influenced grammar. As part of the Big Rock content strategy, we pulled a snippet about the Oxford Comma from the video and made it into a GIF.  This GIF is the GIF that keeps on giving (see what we did there?) and continually performs well. It’s been shared more than 600,000 times on Giphy and counting. Why? Because linguist geeks (and I use that term in a good way) search for this kind of content and interact with it. “This is so me!,” they probably exclaim, as they excitedly share this GIF about the Oxford Comma with their fellow linguists and eye-rolling friends.

Keywords are… well, key


Giphy is arguably the largest GIF-sharing platform. Large enough for Facebook to take notice, at least. It allows uploaders to tag their GIFs, so they show up in searches. Knowing your audience will help you to accurately tag your GIFs. Consider words related to your brand and what your audience tends to search for, one word or phrase at a time. You’ll want to treat these tags much like optimizing any other type of content for an audience.

For example, if you run a coffee shop, you might make a list of words directly related to coffee: “latte,” “dark roast,” “espresso,” “cafe,” and words that people associate with coffee: “local shop,” “Mondays,” and even “Starbucks.” Once you have a strong list of keywords, do some research. And as with the point of niche audiences, the more specific you are, the better.

Start searching the words on your list and see how many results come up. There’s always a tradeoff here. If only a few results appear, maybe people aren’t making that kind of content — there could be a gap in the market or simply a lack of interest. If millions of results come up, your topic might be popular, but you’re fighting for attention. Your GIFs may get lost in the highly competitive keyword clutter. The trick is to find the sweet spot in the middle; not too popular, but not completely crickets, either. 

Setting up your brand Giphy account


If your brand wants to show up in searches on Giphy (and therefore become a prime source for GIFs) you’ll first need to set up a branded account. If you’re a company or public figure, with content you’ve created yourself or otherwise own, you can be eligible for a brand channel. If you’re an agency creating branded content for a client, please make sure your content is hosted on your client’s channel.

Make sure you meet Giphy’s’s requirements (a domain email address, working website, and social channels, among other basic info), you can submit your application, and once you’re approved, you can start creating and sharing GIFs. Giphy has also helpfully included some tips with your application, here.

It can be tempting to jump from trend to trend in an attempt to stay relevant. But sometimes it pays to pause, research, and device a content strategy before you spend hours aimlessly creating GIFs that could miss the mark. If you’re not delivering value to the right audience, easing up on the self-promotion, narrowing your niche, and carefully curating your keywords, you won’t be doing yourself or your customers any favors.

Get GIF’in!

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