What the Rise of Animated GIFs Means for Content

BuzzFeed led the way by using GIFs to report on the Olympics, and other publications like the The Atlantic Wire and Business Insider followed suit.

No matter whether you think they are annoying or alluring, animated GIFs — essentially embedded mini-slideshows of photos that play automatically to make the images appear to move on the webpage — might be a growing force in content.

Not just suited for replaying live moments, GIFs allow publications to further express their voice, such as how The New York Times uses GIFs for its Still Life series with writers sharing images and personal essays.

The GIF is making a comeback by being both functional and allowing any person, brand, or publication to add another form of artistic expression to their editorial content.

“What GIFs do,” BuzzFeed Deputy sports editor Kevin Lincoln said to Neiman Lab, “is sort of bridge the gap between an image and a video, which becomes incredibly useful in sports — you don’t have to wade through and listen to an entire highlight/video, but at the same time, you get the motion and action that makes sports sports.”

While GIFs appear to be the new fad, they’ve been around for 25 years. Now that technology, the usability of the Internet, and hyperactive social sharing have finally met, GIFs are being introduced as a new medium to be taken seriously, which content creators and brands are both starting to leverage.

The GIF, or a graphics interchange format, was introduced by CompuServe in 1987 and gained popularity by being shareable and easy to create. GIFs can be created with Photoshop by creating a MOV file, and additional mobile and web based apps make them easy to create, such as GifSoup, Cinemagram, Snapz, Gickr and Picasion.

 A GIF requires no flash and works in any browser. For years GIFs were popular on MySpace, Fark and Reddit, but “Tumblr’s highly visual structure and reblogging functionality that has enabled GIFs to go viral and find a wider audience,” writes Ann Friedman from Poynter, who believes journalists should start leveraging GIFs in their editorial.

Co-creator of Cinemagraph Kevin Burg sees more factors leading to the rise of the GIF and how it introduces a new way to communicate:

“When MySpace faded away and Facebook took over with an anti-animated GIF policy it cleansed the internet of the sparkly 90’s style GIFs that were so prevalent,” he says. “In the wake of that was Tumblr, which had an artistic and creative community plus loads of bandwidth, a 512kb file limit on GIFs and a super simple way to share them. The spirit of Tumblr then was about creating rich content and lots of people were experimenting with how to use that 512kb most effectively or creatively.”

Cinemagraphs is a shop created by Kevin Burg and Jamie Beck who invented a new art form leveraging the same practice as a GIF, taking a series of photos and isolating a single area that is animated.

“I think of it as a little movie projector, reel and screen all in one, so it becomes a catalyst for art forms,” Burg said. Cinemagraphs are an evolution of the GIF, reducing file size and having the ability to be taken out of the GIF format to HTML5 video and art installations.

Cinemagraph had its start at New York Fashion Week 2011 and has evolved into a thriving business. “So far this year we’ve worked on projects with companies like Google, Tiffany & Co, Microsoft, DKNY, Banana Republic, Puma, and Bloomingdale’s that have been Cinemagraph based and usually have a GIF element,” Burg said.

Burg was among the first to use cinemagraphs in mainstream media with Dogfish Head Craft Brewery last year. The campaign was regarded as innovative by the likes of Fast Company, making the brewing process of the company’s strawberry beer into an artistic narrative. Burg is especially proud of one project with Gilt Taste, in which a lemon is squeezed over a plate of oysters.

While the Olympics may have brought GIFs into mainstream media, the possibilities of the format have just begun to be uncovered. Burg and his partner Jamie Beck are hoping to begin using Cinemagraphs as display technologies in galleries and to further push the envelope in digital communication — as should content marketers.

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