Use GIFs or emojis, not both

GIFs and emojis improve message engagement (e.g. more attention, less unsubscriptions) and outcome (e.g. time spent in app). Don’t use both at once or the effect backfires.

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📝 Intro

Should you use GIFs or emojis in your communications with customers?

We’ve looked before at research that tells us that emojis are an effective way to boost your social media posts.

But what about emails, in-app messages, SMSs, or other digital messages? And do GIFs also work as a way to boost your message?

We now have a scientific answer.

This study is based on a randomized field study with 10,701 users of a mobile app and several lab experiments, including one using eye-tracking.

P.S.: As always, remember that scientific evidence comes with clear limitations. If not, it’s probably not real evidence.

So always check out the limitations section before applying these recommendations.


Previous insight: How to respond to complaints on social media (All insights here)

Use GIFs or emojis in your messages, but not both

Impacted metrics: Engagement | Customer spending
Channels: Email | Social media | Ads | Marketing communications
For: Mostly B2C
Research date: June 2021

📈 Recommendation

Enrich your digital communications (e.g. email, in-app messages) with either GIFs or a moderate number of emojis.

Your message will be better received (e.g. reduce unsubscriptions) and be more effective (e.g. increase in-app time and spending).

Don’t use both GIFs and emojis in the same message or too many emojis at once. The effect will backfire.

🎓 Effects

  • Digital messages (e.g. emails, SMSs) work better when they contain either GIFs or a moderate number of emojis.

  • This has positive effects on message engagement (e.g. reduce email unsubscription rates) and indirect behavior (e.g. in-app spending after reading the message).

  • GIFs enrich messages more than emojis, although both are effective.

  • If a message contains too many visual elements at once, such as both emojis and GIFs at the same time or too many emojis, the effect reverses and it can be worse than not having any visual elements at all.

  • In one experiment of the study, when 10,701 users of a mobile gaming app received an email asking them to update to the latest version:

    • Email unsubscription rates were lower when emails contained either a GIF or emojis, but higher if they had both. Email clickthrough rates did not change

    • A GIF in the email increased time spent in-app (by 19.7%). Adding emojis to the GIF or using only emojis didn’t increase it significantly

  • Another experiment, using eye-tracking, confirmed that people spent more attention on emails when they had either a GIF or a moderate number of emojis, but not both.


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🧠 Why it works

  • When text is accompanied by visual representations it makes it easier and more engaging for us to understand it.

  • But GIFs and emojis work differently and are processed by different parts of our brain:

    • GIFs are usually separate from the main text and enrich the message and attract our attention through their movement

    • Emojis enrich the message because they help explain the concepts of the text. However, because they are usually spread out through text, too many of them can quickly become too much information for us to process

  • Because text, GIFs, and emojis are all processed differently by our brains, when we see three of them together we quickly get overwhelmed and perceive the message as too cluttered.

✋ Limitations

  • The research focused on testing emails. While other messages (e.g. SMS, website chatbots) were not directly studied, the effects should hold for them too. You can try to apply this to websites and online articles as well, but this is a riskier generalization.

  • The study measured the effect of content in the body of opened messages, not content that is previewed before opening (e.g. subject lines, mobile push notifications).

  • It’s unclear what the exact number of GIFs or emojis in a message should be to maximize their effect before they become overwhelming, and how this changes based on the length of a message (e.g. a long newsletter).

  • We don’t know from this study what is the optimal length, color, or design of GIFs to use (e.g. flashy and attention grabbing or mild and slow).

🏢 Companies using this

  • Use of emojis and GIFs in email and other digital messages is now common in B2C and increasingly so in B2B.

  • For example, the American Marketing Association uses emojis and NordVPN uses GIFs, while Google tends to use neither.

  • Several email newsletters (e.g. Stacked Marketer, Ariyh 🎓) use emojis and - less often - GIFs. Some use both on occasion (e.g. AngelList, The Hustle)

⚡ Steps to implement

  • Think of GIFs or emojis that are a good fit to accompany and reinforce your message.

  • If you have the option of including a good GIF, lean towards that option and don’t include emojis in the same message.

  • If you can’t find a GIF that fits, use a few emojis to emphasize key parts of your message and aid the reader.

  • Stay on brand. For example, you can still use GIFs even if your tone of voice is not playful since it’s the visual element and movement that improves the message rather than the playfulness of the content.


🔍 Study type

Field experiment (with users of an undisclosed mobile gaming app) and lab and online experiments. France

📖 Research

Bashirzadeh, Y., Mai, R., & Faure, C. (June 2021). How rich is too rich? Visual design elements in digital marketing communications. International Journal of Research in Marketing.

[Link to paper]

🏫 Affiliations

Rennes School of Business and Grenoble Ecole de Management. France

Remember: Because of the groundbreaking nature of this paper, it could be disproven in the future (although this is rare). It also may not be generalizable to your situation. If it’s a risky change, always test it on a small scale before rolling it out widely.


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