Animated Gifs: Best Uses and Best Practices

January 19, 2021 | 7 minute read
Chad S. White
Head of Research, Oracle Digital Experience Agency
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Until there’s better support for animated PNGs, CSS animation, and video in email, animated gifs will remain the safest and easiest way to add motion to your campaigns. Once you’ve created an animated gif for an email, you can reuse it in social media and other digital marketing campaigns. We use them regularly with both our B2C and B2B clients to great success. 

Animated gifs are effective for:

  • Video previews

  • Highlighting product options, such as different colors, patterns, sizes, or configurations

  • Displaying an assortment of products

  • Product demonstrations or service instructions, whether it’s showing how a dress flows or how a backhoe can remove a boulder

  • Reveals, including before-and-afters and price/discount reveals

  • Mobile app and software demonstrations or navigation instructions

  • Conveying urgency (think: countdown clocks)

  • Drawing attention to calls-to-action

  • Atmospheric feel (think: fireworks, rain, falling snow)

  • Humor

However, there are some concerns you should be aware of when using animated gifs. Let’s talk about those.

Keep Animated Gif Files from Getting Too Big

Animated gifs are essentially multiple images bundled up together in a single file. That means file sizes can get huge in a hurry if you’re not careful. That can make your email or the image slow to load. However, it can be tricky to know where to draw the line on image file sizes, says Nick Cantu, Senior Art Director for Creative Services at Oracle Digital Experience Agency.

“The best practice is to keep all email image sizes at less than 800 KB total. But lately, we’re seeing emails average in the 2-3 MB range—with some brands far exceeding that!” he says. “We recommend monitoring emails with heavier image totals to see if there’s any performance loss. But when it comes to a single animated gif, the ideal is to get the file size as small as possible without losing quality.”

If you need to reduce the file size of your animated gif, then consider...

Limit the number of frames. In emails, animated gifs are almost never video-quality. That’s not the expectation that email subscribers have. So, if you have a more complex animation that you’re adapting to email, or your animation is simply too big, then delete some frames from the animation, says Cathie Richter, Designer in Creative Services at Oracle Digital Experience Agency. 

“Reduce the size by deleting every second or third frame from the timeline,” she says. “Once this is done, adjust the time on the remaining frames to compensate for the deleted frames.”

Limit the number of colors. The more complex your image’s color palette, the bigger the file size. So, limiting it can trim the size of your animation. But, this approach is only advised in special situations, says Veronica Presley, Senior Designer for Creative Services at Oracle Digital Experience Agency.

“This can work great on illustrations and other graphic elements,” she says. “Photographic elements will quickly degrade when colors are limited. This doesn't mean that it can’t work for some photos, but it’s generally best to use as many colors as possible while managing file size.”

Compress the file. While there are a number of file compression apps and tools out there, those probably won’t yield the best results, says Cantu. 

“I prefer adjusting the settings in Photoshop’s ‘save for web’ panel, playing with the colors, frames, dither, lossy, and other options,” he says. “This allows you to compare multiple versions side by side until you are comfortable with the balance of quality vs. file size.”

Use a cinemagraph. Rather than animating an entire image, a cinemagraph animates just a portion of an image—such as just the exploding fireworks in the sky of a landscape, just the ruffling of a woman’s dress in a city street scene, or, just the screen of a smartphone as a couple hover over it.

“Cinemagraphs are popular, eye-catching, and a smart way to add animation,” says Cantu. “Because the majority of the image is still and only a small portion is animated, it usually results in much smaller image sizes.”

Decrease the image dimensions. If all else fails and the file size of your animated gif is still too large after considering all of the tactics above, then decrease the dimensions of the image.

Looking into the future, the good news when it comes to file size concerns is that the rollout of 5G wireless networks, which offer speeds 10 times faster than 4G networks. This will alleviate file size issues for all kinds of digital marketing campaigns as more consumers will buy 5G phones and service plans over the next 3 to 5 years. Marketers will still need to be mindful of the data demands of their campaigns, but load times will become somewhat of a non-issue, especially for consumers in urban and suburban areas where 5G service is likely to be the most widespread.

Focus on Above-the-Fold Placements

Because animated gifs take more work to create, ensure that you’re getting the maximum impact from them by creating ones that you can place above the fold in your campaigns. This way, they can be seen without the subscriber having to scroll. This helps grab your subscribers’ attention as they flip through emails in their inbox.

“This is a major piece of direction we provide clients,” says Cantu. “Be strategic with the placement of your animated gifs. Larger gifs should be used within primary sections. As you go lower in the campaign, animations should decrease proportionally in size.”

Animations are best used in secondary and tertiary content blocks when a message is on the longer side, says Presley.

“Small animations further down in longer campaigns,” she says, “can keep the surprise and delight factor going, providing additional visual interest and motivation to keep scrolling.”

Recognize that Animation Can Distract

Thoughtless and frivolous uses of animated gifs can actually hurt the performance of your campaign. This happens most often when animation is added for animation’s sake, rather than used strategically to convey or support the message and to lead the recipient’s eyes to key content and calls-to-actions.

Marketers increase the danger of animation distracting when they use two or more animations close enough to each other that they’re likely to appear in the same viewing pane. Now the viewer really doesn’t know where to look, and may skip all the content in between the two animations.

“That last thing you want is for your campaign to look like Times Square with a million messages vying for your attention,” says Presley. “It should be more like fireflies in a field, gently leading your eye from one to the next.”

Cantu adds that he’s been a fan of background images lately. “Think lights flickering softly or snow falling in the background,” he says. “Simple elements like those add interest to a campaign, but also keep the focus on the main message. As a bonus, simple elements like this usually use fewer colors, which results in smaller file sizes.”

If You’re Promoting Video, Use Animation

While email marketers have been wishing for good, broad-based support for video in email for over a decade, it still doesn’t appear to be on the horizon. In the meantime, animation is a great—well, acceptable—substitute. Just bundle a few frames from the video into an animated gif, put a play triangle in the middle of it to create a strong call to action, and link it to the landing page with your video.

Support for Animated Gifs Isn’t Quite Universal in Email

While support for animated gifs is way better than it is for animated PNGs and CSS animation, it’s not quite universal yet. Animated gifs are supported in every major email client...except older versions of Outlook desktop—namely, Outlook 2007, 2010, and 2013. While those email clients are losing market share every day and support for Outlook 2007 and 2010 have already been sunsetted, B2B marketers should be mindful of the lack of animated gif support, since their subscribers are the most likely to use Outlook desktop.

In those cases where animated gifs aren’t supported, the first frame of the animation is displayed as a still. B2B marketers should design their animations with this in mind.

“This is especially important to consider if your animation includes a message that builds on itself,” says Presley. “For example, if the animation adds one word of a headline per frame, you'll need to make sure the first frame includes the full headline to avoid some of your subscribers misunderstanding the message completely.”

A final consideration is whether animated gifs are appropriate for your brand at all. The short answer is yes. Regardless of your industry or your audience, every brand should consider using animation in your campaigns, at least occasionally.

That said, some brands will find that animation is a much more frequently used tool in their toolbox because of their brand voice and their audience, says Cantu. 

Brands with younger audiences that live in the world of TikTok find that having extra animation and movement performs really well in their messages,” he says. “For other brands, you need to be selective and test to find the right balance and use cases for your subscribers.”

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Need help with your digital marketing campaigns? Oracle Digital Experience Agency has hundreds of marketing and communication experts ready to help Oracle customers create stronger connections with their customers, partners, and employees, even if they’re not using an Oracle platform as the foundation of that experience. Our award-winning specialists can handle everything from creative and strategy to content planning and project management. For example, our full-service email marketing clients generate 24% higher open rates, 30% higher click rates, and 9% lower unsubscribe rates than Oracle Responsys customers who aren’t.

For help overcoming your challenges or seizing your opportunities, talk to your Oracle account manager, visit us online, or email us at OracleAgency_US@Oracle.com.

Want to better understand your email marketing risks and opportunities, take advantage of our free Email Marketing Assessment. Our experts will check your deliverability, review your email creative, audit your signup process, do a partial competitive analysis, and more. If interested in this free assessment, reach out to us at OracleAgency_US@Oracle.com.

Chad S. White

Head of Research, Oracle Digital Experience Agency

Chad S. White is the Head of Research at Oracle Digital Experience Agency and the author of four editions of Email Marketing Rules and nearly 4,000 posts about digital and email marketing. A former journalist, he’s been featured in more than 100 publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Advertising Age. Chad was named the ANA's 2018 Email Marketer Thought Leader of the Year. Follow him on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Mastodon.


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