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April 25, 2020

In this article, I am going to go over a recent study by the Nielsen Norman Group observing the performance of gifs used in email marketing. The results are surprising and relevant for small e-commerce businesses.

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By the way, if you’re an Etsy seller, aspiring creative or student, or small e-commerce shop owner, you need to have an email list. This is one of the most important things you can do for yourself and business. You can start one free with Mailchimp or use my favorite provider: Flodesk.

What is a Gif and Why They’re Used in Email Marketing

A gif is actually a file type (like .png and .jpg) but with the capabilities of frames- aka, animation. If you text, are online or have an email account, you’ve no doubt seen them around. They are thought to be engaging and fun. Usually they are. That’s why in email marketing, big brand companies and small businesses have embraced using gifs in their email marketing. After all, if a flat image is engaging, then surely an animated image will only engage more readers.

The Results:

To quote the article’s summary: “On average, people have a more positive reaction to emails without animated GIFs compared to those with animated GIFs.”

This is surprising. After all, isn’t animation always considered more engaging than flat images? Going to a movie theater is surely more fun than reading a graphic novel. Okay, that’s not totally true. But you know what I mean so don’t @ me. I love graphic novels.

The study had 55 respondents who reviewed 14 emails with gifs, the other set of respondents of 66 people reviewed emails without gifs. The emails viewed were real big brand emails with two variations: one with gifs and one without. The emails were shown at random order and people were given two criterias: trustworthiness and value then selected a set of words to describe the email. The words ranged from “exciting” to “dull” for example.

The results are startling. On average, the article writes: “adding animation to an email increased its negative word count by 40% and decreased its positive word count by 30%.”

Science Backed Reasons Why to Rethink Using Gifs

A key finding in this study was that people found emails without gifs more trustworthy, clear and straightforward. Emails with gifs were described as “annoying” and “distracting”.

I think it comes down to gifs being seen as tacky or gimmicky, as if the company is trying too hard to get your attention. I am reminded of the waving inflatable tube men who flail around to attract you to a sale. This may be too harsh of a comparison, but I think there may be similarities in the approaches. After all, if I see a random ad with lots of blinking lights, text changing and shifting colors, I may instinctively be wary to click on it.

Another thing to consider from this study is the word “distracting.” I think gifs can detract from the message an email is trying to communicate, especially if the words or key information are what is being animated. For even a brief second, your message is missing in action as it changes. Making sure your pivotal message is omnipresent and clear is so important. I wrote about this very thing in my hero section article and carousel article.

Can We Never Use Gifs in Emails Again?

No. I think there can still be a place for them but they must be used thoughtfully. I say this because the study does not conclusively claim any gifs are always unfavorable. If your gif image is in any way distracting from your message or only there to be decorative, you should reconsider using it. Look at these two examples.

This gif not only seems to load slowly but the core message disappears momentarily
Part of the core message is briefly invisible and distracts from the “40%”. The overall message is rendered unclear. Is everything 40% off or only the boots and shoes? What if I miss that part of the ad and believe everything is 40% off?

Also note how both of these images take way too long to finish their animation loop and make their point. Think about our short attention spans. I don’t think I would stick around to watch the whole animation run its course if it was in my inbox.

The next two gifs are used more effectively. They don’t distract from the message nor are they there to be there. Instead, they may be subtle or illustrate your message or product.

This does not detract from the messaging, and the animation only illustrates how the product works!
Similarly, this illustrates how the product works and may even help alleviate any intimidation prospective customers may have in learning how to use the product.

More Concerns to Think About: Don’t forget about the file size of your gif. If it’s a large file size, it doesn’t matter how perfect it is if it takes too long to load. People will bounce. Take the time to ensure your alt tags are helpful and clear for disabled people.

Moral of the story: use gifs sparingly and purposefully.

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