Sometimes, a technology emerges long before the world is ready for it. Usually, when this happens, the technology languishes and disappears, but occasionally it stubbornly sticks around long enough to be truly useful. Such is the case with animated gif images, those moving pictures that used to litter Tripod, then Geocities, then MySpace pages. Unfortunately, the slow connection speeds on the internet in those days made them impractical for all but the smallest and most rudimentary of graphics. With the rise of high speed internet and plentiful bandwidth, however, email marketers are re-discovering these little relics as a powerful and effective tool in the battle for inbox attention.

An animated gif, as any long-time resident of the internet knows, is a very primitive form of animation on the web. In essence, it takes the very concept of animation to its most bare-bones principle of cycling through a series of images that are just slightly different from each other rapidly to simulate motion. Perhaps their biggest strength is that since it is an established standard image format, support for animated gifs is very high among email clients. In fact, of all major email clients, the only two that will consistently fail to load them are Apple Mail and Outlook 2007. Fortunately, even if the image fails to animate properly, it will still display the first frame as a still picture, meaning that as long as all the vital information from the animation is in the first frame, it will degrade gracefully all by itself.

So why would you want to use an animated gif in your email creatives? Because when done right, they work. In a controlled test, retailer Bluefly found that email click-through rates went up by 5% for recipients of a sales newsletter with animation compared to one without. Not only were click-through rates higher, the visitors from the animated email also spent 12% more on the site than the non-animated version.

In another test, Lake Champlain Chocolates found that their click-through rates jumped by 200% when using animated images.

Using animated gifs in email marketing is not as simple as it may sound, though. As with any tool in your creative design repertoire, it is important to know where, when, and how to use them properly.

  1. The format does not allow for sound, so use clear, concise, and obvious text to convey your message.
  1. The image files themselves can get quite large, especially when multiple colors are used. Keep an eye on the file size.
  1. Compressing images too much to make the file smaller can seriously distort the image. Focus on quality first, and if you can’t include your full message in a short-enough video to maintain a small filesize, consider using a different format.
  1. Animated gifs are a novelty, and like any novelty, they should be used sparingly and with clear intent.
  1. Readers don’t have a high attention span in email. Use short, snappy messaging, or use the animation to guide the eye rather than to convey long, elaborate ideas.
  1. Picture quality is rarely going to match up to a full in-email video. Don’t try to make a masterpiece – embrace the limitations of the medium.

Several major online retailers are using animated gifs to great effect, including Williams-Sonoma using it in their header to draw attention to ship dates, as well as Harry & David, who use a falling animated snowflake to entice readers into scrolling down. In both of these high-profile applications, the creative team used the gifs not as a means of primary messaging, but rather as an eye-catching way to draw attention to and provide support for the rest of the creative.

Animated gifs have managed to stick around long enough to be useful and useable, and while we’re finally approaching the days of web video with HTML5 and CertifiedVideo, they still have their place to grab attention and point it to where we, as marketers, want it to go. As conversion aids, they can be an invaluable part of a strong creative. Just remember: Keep the above six tips in mind and don’t overdo it.