GIFs In Emails: When Not To Use Them

by Federica Rustico

12 min read
Last Updated: May 26, 2023

In life, context is everything. Something that seems appropriate in one instance could be completely inappropriate in another. Let me elaborate what I mean. I recently scheduled a doctor’s appointment. While I was in the waiting room, I noticed they had motivational quotes on rotation on the screen. As I started reading them, I was appalled by what was written. One of them said “my problems are like a circle, they keep repeating themselves”. While that quote isn’t appropriate in any context, please ask yourself if a doctor’s waiting room is the place to screen them? Exactly. I asked myself who was handling their communication and why they hadn’t been fired yet! I mean, there were people in there with some very serious health issues. The last thing they needed to hear is that there is no hope for them, that their problems aren’t going away. I was mortified. 

While motivational quotes (the right kind) are a cute idea in general, a doctor’s office is not the place for them (especially for these really negative quotes). They were completely inappropriate and made me feel uneasy. But cutting back to the chase, what I really want to say is that using GIFs in your email marketing can be a great way to grab your readers' attention and spice up your messaging with some visual appeal. However, just like any other marketing strategy, they should be used carefully and in the right context. Today, I’m going to take you through some scenarios where animated GIFs in email marketing are not recommended. 

1. When the majority of your audience uses email clients that don't support GIFs

First and foremost, keep in mind that not all email applications can display GIFs. While the vast majority of email programs and web-based email systems nowadays support GIF display, certain older or more rudimentary email clients may not. You should probably rethink including GIFs in your emails if a sizable percentage of your readers are using email programs that don't support them. For example, older versions of Outlook do not allow the display of GIFs, therefore they will appear as still images instead. This applies to Outlook 2007, 2010, and 2013. GIFs cannot be viewed in Lotus Notes, which is an email client made by IBM. Lotus Notes does not support the display of GIFs. GIFs cannot be viewed in Windows Live Mail since the email client is no longer being actively developed and is therefore no longer supported. It's possible that some mobile email clients, including the email software that comes pre-installed on older versions of Android or iOS, do not allow the display of GIFs. But Lucky for you, There are a number different approaches to determine which customers are still use older email clients, including the following:

GIFs in emails: when not to use them
  1. Email client reporting is a feature that is offered by the vast majority of email marketing platforms. This feature enables you to see which email clients your recipients are employing in order to open your messages. This can offer you an idea of which customers are using older versions of email clients, some of which may not enable the display of GIFs.
  1. Surveys: you can learn which email clients your customers are using by either conducting a survey or asking for input from them on which email clients they are using. This information might provide you with a more in-depth comprehension of which customers are utilizing older email clients.
  1. Demographic data: you may also examine the demographic data of your customers to see which demographic groups are more likely to use older email clients by doing an analysis of your customer data. For instance, elderly customers may be more inclined than younger customers to make use of earlier versions of email applications.
  1. A/B testing allows you to send out two different versions of the same email, one of which includes a GIF and the other of which does not, and then track the open rate, click-through rate, and conversion rate of each version. By doing so, you will be able to assess how the GIF will impact the performance of the email and determine whether or not it will be beneficial to include it.

2. When the GIF is too large in file size

How big your GIFs are should also be taken into account. While GIFs are a fantastic way to spice up your emails with some visual appeal, they may also significantly increase their overall size. People with limited data plans or sluggish connections may have trouble downloading such huge emails. Keeping your GIFs at their smallest possible size and/or utilizing a compression tool to further reduce their file size will help you avoid this issue. 

3. When sending sensitive or confidential information 

For the same reason, if the content of your communication is private or very sensitive, you should probably avoid utilizing GIFs to convey the message's meaning. Although GIFs are a novel and interesting approach to get people's attention, they can also be a nuisance. Stick with a more plain and professional style if you need a quick response or are sending sensitive information in an email.

  1. Personal information: Emails that contain personal information, such as a person's social security number, bank account number, or credit card information, should be regarded as confidential and protected from access by unauthorized parties.
  1. Legal documents: Emails that contain legal documents such as contracts, non-disclosure agreements, or legal briefs should be regarded as secret and safeguarded from unauthorized access. 
  1. Financial information: Emails that contain financial information such as investment ideas, financial reports, or budget plans are to be regarded as secret and ought to be safeguarded from unwanted access. This is because financial information is considered very sensitive.
  1. Company secrets: Emails that contain company secrets, such as product development plans, marketing strategies, or confidential business information, should be treated as confidential and protected from unauthorized access. Examples of company secrets include marketing strategies, confidential business information, and marketing plans. If you want to giggle with your colleagues, you can exchange GIFs on Slack!
  1. Employee information: Emails containing employee information, such as payroll, benefits, or employment records, should be regarded as confidential and should be safeguarded from unauthorized access. 
  1. Medical records: Emails containing medical records or other sensitive personal health information should be treated as confidential and should be protected from unauthorized access. From my previous example, you understand how inappropriate a GIF would be in this context.

4. When the GIF is not appropriate for the audience or message

Using GIFs that are not appropriate for the message or audience, such as using a humorous GIF in a serious or sensitive message. 

  1. A serious message: an email informing clients of a data breach or other severe situation could seem less serious or insensitive if it contains a GIF. Not to mention, an email informing someone they didn’t make the cut, or an email with sensitive information with bad results. 
  1. A formal message: sending a GIF with a formal message, such as an email introducing yourself to a potential business partner or professors, may make you seem less serious or professional.

5. When the email is in an industry with strict regulations

Furthermore, GIFs can be problematic in fields like healthcare and finance. Using GIFs in email marketing may look unprofessional or even be against the rules in some of these fields because of these rules and laws. Just like the example I mentioned earlier, when you’re dealing with people’s health or finances, straightforward communication with no humor is the best. For starters, the use of email marketing is governed by a number of regulations and guidelines in the healthcare and finance sectors. Inappropriate or illegal use of GIFs in email may result in compliance concerns and legal implications.

Clients in both sectors expect a high standard of integrity and reliability from their service providers. Customers' trust and faith in the organization could be damaged if emails used GIFs instead of text. Plus, let’s not forget that privacy and security are paramount in both sectors, as employees must deal with highly personal and private information such as medical or financial records. Email recipients may be less likely to read the entire message or take the desired action if you include a GIF.

6. When the email is targeted to older customer segments

The whole point of email marketing is that we can segment our audience based on a variety of demographic and behavioral data in order to deliver the same message catered to the customer’s preferred communication style. This means that you can still use your GIFs for your customers, just not for all of them! For example, you should think twice about using GIFs in email marketing if you’re dealing with elderly customers. Why? For starters, it's possible that elderly customers have a higher propensity to use email software or devices that don't allow GIF display. Your email marketing efforts may be undermined or even cause confusion if recipients can't view the GIFs you've included.

GIFs in emails: when not to use them

To add insult to injury, elderly clients may have trouble downloading large emails including GIFs since they’re probably not using the most high-speed internet connection. This could make reading your email marketing communications a frustrating or unpleasant experience for your target audience. Also, it's possible that elderly consumers are less versed with GIFs and how to watch them. If people don't know how to engage with the GIFs in your email marketing campaigns, they may find them incomprehensible or dismiss the message altogether, leading your company to look unprofessional for sending out email marketing campaigns that include GIFs. Although not all of your older consumers will fit into these categories, you should think about them if you want to include GIFs in your email marketing campaigns to this demographic. In general, when writing email marketing communications for an older audience, it's best to go with a more classic, uncomplicated design.

7. When your audience is not fluent in the language of the email

If your email recipients include persons who are not fluent in the language you are writing in, it is also recommended to avoid utilizing GIFs in that email. Avoid using GIFs in emails if the recipients are not competent in the language you are writing in. Using GIFs that are not understood by the audience, for example, using a GIF with a lot of text or cultural references which could be confusing for the recipient. If you’ve watched Netflix’s TV series Emily in Paris, you probably understand what I mean. Remember poor Emily being completely thrown off when she saw that nobody was in the office before 10am, or when she told customers of Gabriel’s restaurant there were no mushrooms on the menu when in fact there were champignon mushrooms? Exactly! It’s pretty easy to get confused, don’t get yourself in a pickle all on your own!

8. When the email is meant to convey a sense of professionalism or authority

You should always leep in mind that the use of GIFs in email marketing can significantly alter the reception of your message. They can be a good way to get people's attention, but they can also make you look irresponsible. When not deployed thoughtfully, GIFs can be written off as meaningless and inconsequential despite their common association with fun and excitement. Using a GIF may not be the ideal option when trying to get across a serious message.

For instance, we're living through a moment in history when many of the largest technology firms in the world are laying off thousands of workers. Websites like Facebook and Amazon are included. Can you picture your boss sending you an email with a GIF to announce the layoffs? Such a move would be entirely out of place and would cast a negative light on the message's intended level of professionalism. The recipients might get confused or suspicious if you used a GIF in such a case, which would reduce the effectiveness of your message. 

When using GIFs in your email marketing campaigns, it's always best to keep your target demographic and the overall tone in mind. While they can be effective in grabbing people's attention, it's important to use them wisely so that they complement the message rather than detract from it.

9. When the recipients of the email have all recently gone through a traumatic experience

GIFs in emails: when not to use them

To prevent offending recipients, it's best to refrain from using any GIFs that could be interpreted as insulting or inappropriate when sending an email to a group of people who have endured a traumatizing event. For instance, it's best to refrain from using GIFs after a natural disaster that could be taken the wrong way and be perceived as callous. Instead, you should adopt a tone that is acceptable for a professional setting and reflective of the gravity of the circumstance. Avoid using GIFs that could be viewed as insensitive or trivializing after a major shooting or terrorist attack. Instead, make sure your tone is suitable and professional in light of the situation's importance. As a general rule, it's best to refrain from utilizing GIFs after the death of a public figure so as not to be disrespectful or come across as insensitive. Instead, you should adopt a tone that is acceptable for a professional setting and reflective of the gravity of the circumstance. What comes to mind is if you’re an organization or non profit that’s raising funds for a natural disaster or breaking news. GIFs wouldn’t be the right medium in these cases. 

10. When the GIF is distracting to the overall purpose and tone

If a GIF in your email marketing campaign is going to be too distracting, you shouldn't use it. Distracting GIFs might detract from the message or offer that the sender of an email marketing campaign is trying to get through to the recipient. Not only that, but if this email is part of a series, all of the emails in the series should share the same layout and tone. Email productivity could be negatively impacted if an animated GIF were used in a single message. In conclusion, GIFs must be used systematically and purposefully in email marketing. Be sure the GIFs fit the email's tone and purpose, and don't detract from the core message or call to action. Avoid using a GIF in an email if it doesn't improve the message in some way.

Wrapping up

GIFs are a terrific way to spice up your email marketing campaigns with some visual appeal, but as with every marketing strategy, you should use them if the context is right. Keep in mind that GIFs can significantly increase the size of your messages and that not all email programs enable seeing them. Think about who you're writing to and what you're trying to say before deciding that a GIF is the way to go. Additionally, check sure your GIFs are being used appropriately and in accordance with any applicable laws or guidelines.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why would you not use a GIF?

There are a number of reasons why you shouldn't use a GIF. That includes if the GIF file is too large, if it takes away from the main message and CTA of the email, if it's inappropriate or the email includes sensitive or confidential information.

Is GIF marketing a good strategy for any industry?

GIFs are great for grabbing attention but they do not work for every industry. For example, in the healthcare and financial industries they should not be used as we are dealing with sensitive and confidential information, including medical and financial records.