April 11, 2016

Social Media Marketing: To GIF or Not to GIF?

There’s a question we need to be asking ourselves about GIFs, and it has nothing to do with pronunciation. Far more pertinent than a hard or soft G is the question of when we should add GIFs into our social media and content marketing strategies.

Let’s walk through the issue.

Technical Definition

Let’s start by defining what a “GIF” is. It is an image file format that supports both static and animated images. (You can learn about “GIF” and other Multimedia terms here.)

When people talk about GIFs, they are usually referring to the animated ones, and for the purposes of this post, we will be referring to animated GIFs only.

Though not always the case, GIFs often start off as video files, which are then converted into GIF files.

Colloquial Definition & Possible Misconception

When the general population says GIF, it is probably referring to something like this…

…a snippet of video, usually something from pop culture, that expresses a particular feeling better than words. Or, what I’d like to call a reaction GIF.

But this is also a GIF:

And so is this:

This GIF also happens to be a cinemagraph. This GIF also happens to be a cinemagraph.

As content creators, it’s important to make the distinction that a GIF is a file format, and not a content type. The format lends itself to various styles and content types.

Okay, So When Should I Create a GIF?

When coming up with moving-image content for your brand’s social media channels, it’s tempting to leap to the conclusion that you want to create a GIF, when oftentimes your concept would be executed better as a video.

When making that distinction, keep a few things in mind. One of those things is file size. GIFs load more efficiently when the file is smaller, and in fact certain platforms have a size limit. Twitter, for example, supports GIFs that are up to 5MB but videos that are up to 512 MB—which, as you can imagine, hold much more information. The simpler and shorter the GIF, the better. If your concept involves a long narrative, or a complicated or elaborate movement, think about making it a video instead.

Another limitation to consider is the amount of colors. GIFs are an 8-bit depth format, which means they can only have 256 colors. This makes it more suitable for vector-based animation or images with solid areas of color, rather than photographs or videos. When you convert video footage into a GIF, you may notice a loss of quality.


There are ways to minimize the loss, but depending on your file size limitations, it might not look perfect. The fewer colors you use in a GIF, the more complex your animation can be without sacrificing quality, all the while maintaining a low file size.

If your goal is to showcase beautiful cinematography, or if clarity and detail are important to your story, a GIF probably isn’t the way to go. It may work with some tinkering, but if you can accomplish the same things in a video, then why not maintain its full quality?

Other Considerations

I want to include a moving instrumental that will make my audience cry.

GIFs don’t support sound, so you’d want to use a video.

“I want my image to loop seamlessly.”

GIFs are perfect for this, which is one of the main reasons you would choose them over video. You can create the illusion that a short video is much longer by repeating a short segment forever or hypnotize the viewer with an enchanting cinemagraph.

Your GIF will loop on Facebook and Twitter*. Videos won’t; the user would have to press the play button to watch the video again. However, Instagram videos do loop, so you won’t have to worry about uploading a GIF there.

(*For now. We know how quickly the social media platforms can change their functionality, so it’s important to keep up to date.)

Still Confused?

Here is a simplified guide. Consider these loose guidelines rather than hard and fast rules, as there may be exceptions:

Tags: Best Practices, Creative

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