Last year, his parents demanded an app with good morning GIFs customised for them — where they can relate to the cultural context of the images. The 24-year-old son obliged. He created two apps — Funny GIFs for WhatsApp & Facebook and All Wishes GIF 2018. In 12 months, both have more than 1,00,000 downloads on the Play Store.
GIF or Graphics Interchange Format, an animated 2-3 second video clip sans audio, has been around for decades. It was first created in 1987 by a team of developers at Ohio-based software company CompuServe, led by scientist Steve Wilhite. Born before the internet, faded due to patent wars and royalty rows, GIFs were revived with the rise of listicles (think Buzzfeed) and social news commentary platforms like Reddit around 2010. Soon enough, social media pros started using GIFs to express their thoughts and emotions, almost turning the format into a language.
According to Syed Hasan, founder of digital agency A&B Advertising, Indians have always loved GIFs. Its usage shot up towards the end of 2016, he says, when cheap handsets and cheaper data plans became accessible to a majority. Even a basic search for GIF on Google Trends for India shows an interest score of 28 in the first week of November 2016 going up to 58 towards the last week of December ’16. By the end of December ’17, this score had gone up to 100, signifying peak popularity.
Last week, the term GIF was at a popularity level of 77 on Google Trends in India. GIFs are also now one of the four sub-categories in the search bar for anyone browsing Google Images on a smartphone. Meanwhile new- a ge brands like Netflix prefer using contextual GIFs over boilerplate responses while communicating with users on social media.
Over the last five years, every leading social media platform has introduced GIF search as an in-built feature to enhance user experience.
Instagram launched GIFs for its messaging service two months ago. “On every other platform, GIFs aid in communication. On Reddit, they are conversation starters,” says Hasan. “A common thread starter on Reddit would be a recent comment (Donald) Trump made on an issue. Earlier it would be in the form of a text. Now it’s a GIF. So, people know not only what he said, but how he said it, too.”
In March this year, Google acquired a prominent GIF company called Tenor that has almost as many users as Twitter at this point. Anyone who uses a Gboard (Google’s keyboard) on their Android phones, is likely to use Tenor’s GIFs in their conversations. A Google spokesperson told ET Magazine that Tenor has seen a five-fold growth in GIF consumption from India over the last year and a half.
Mumbai-based creative consultant Payal Khandelwal browses the internet for the right GIF to share in a chat instead of speaking her mind through other forms of communication like images, videos, or texts. Her penchant for GIFs has caught on in her circle and others have started communicating in GIFs as well.
In the GIF-crazy community, people feel that a sad panda hiding its face says “Sorry” better than words and emojis combined. A cat filing its nails looking completely disenchanted is a popular GIF that implies that you are waiting for someone to respond, or simply waiting. Pop culture GIFs are a rage. Some users particularly enjoy sharing GIFs of Mona Lisa rolling her eyes, winking, or sticking her tongue out. It’s the same in Adwani’s family group, except the GIFs are based on Indian themes. Mona Lisa is replaced by Hanuman tearing his chest to show that Lord Ram and Sita reside in his heart. It’s a favourite GIF for those wanting to show respect to elders in the group. A picture speaks a thousand words. A GIF speaks several thousands, notes Adwani.
GIFs communicate thoughts and emotions in a fun manner, but they are also serious business. New York-based Giphy claims users are watching a cumulative 4 million hours of GIFs through its platform every day, and it plans to monetise these numbers. One of the most obvious monetisation strategies is to get brands to sponsor GIFs. A brand can use GIFs for several purposes. A sneak peek into a new product launch, a quick how-to preview, or circulating clips from famous or most recent campaigns to create brand recall and retention are all strategies brands are experimenting with.
And unlike ads that are considered intrusive, people love GIFs. “GIFs provide four times the engagement level of a usual display banner,” says Sharadh Manian, GM at digital agency SVG Media.
Tenor is already signing deals with brands such as Nestle, KFC and Nissan by offering them placement for branded-content GIFs. How does this placement work? The back-end team at each of these GIF-making companies attaches several relevant keywords to every GIF, including the sponsored ones. When the user searches for, say, “hungry”, GIFs from brands such as KFC or Nestle pop up among other suggestions.
According to a Bloomberg Businessweek report, clients are paying Tenor anywhere between $100,000 and $500,000 for placement of sponsored GIFs in their engine.
Seeing the success of global players toying with the format, several GIF companies have come up in India over the last two years. Most of them, however, are currently focusing on user growth rather than revenue. Take Gifskey, for instance. A year-old startup led by Manan Maheshwari, Mahesh Gogineni and Varun MS, Gifskey is a platform that curates user-generated and proprietary GIFs across eight major Indic languages and supplies those to partners, including keyboard companies, content and news aggregators, dating apps, et al. In one year, it has seen GIF consumption grow from 1 million impressions a month to 120 million, the company claims.
Xploree, a Hyderabad-based keyboard company, is one of Gifskey’s partners, and another important player in India’s emerging GIF universe. The company sources some of its GIFs from Gifskey’s library, in addition to partnering with the likes of Giphy for generic GIFs, to offer a wide variety to its 6.5 million monthly active keyboard users. In the last six months, the company has seen a 50% monthon-month growth in consumption of GIFs through its keyboards. Its CEO Nutan Chokkareddy is actively engaging with brands to monetise these numbers. “A lot of movie producers and even banking companies are keen to work with us,” he says.
Gurgaon-based Ankit Prasad and Mohd Wassem’s virtual keyboard company Bobble has managed some success in monetising GIFs. Bobble keyboards come embedded with Bobble’s signature GIFs, memes, emojis and stickers, and have 5 million monthly active users at present. Its GIF shares through the keyboard have gone up by 160% since last year, cofounder Prasad tells us. “We charge Rs 8-12 per share for sponsored GIFs. Past deals include films like Padmaavat and Padman, and brands like Reebok and Tata Ace,” he adds.
Third-party keyboards such as Xploree and Bobble are downloaded by users or come pre-installed on devices through partnerships with handset makers running Android. Xploree has such deals with companies like Karbonn Mobile, Intex Mobile and Huawei, while Bobble has partnered with Gionee and Lava, and a few others. The terms of such partnerships vary. “Some partners pay for licensing our software, others prefer a revenue share. Some handset makers also pay per impressions,” says Xploree’s Chokkareddy.
Tenor, too, has had a few partnerships with entertainment companies and studios in India, says David McIntosh, head of the GIF sharing platform at Google. “We recently worked with Viacom18 on their films Baazaar and Andhadhun and with partners like Dice Media and SNG Comedy. Tenor is now exploring ways to incorporate more coverage of regional content and Indic languages so as to capture all the richness and diversity of India’s popular culture,” he adds.
This need for hyperlocal GIFs puts the likes of Gifskey and Bobble at an advantage over global players like Tenor and Giphy. If a user from a tier-2 town in Tamil Nadu wants to show he is angry on chat, he is going to look for a Rajinikanth GIF and not a Johnny Depp one, says Gifskey’s Maheshwari.
“Most Indians are likely to use a Shashi Tharoor GIF to pull a grammar Nazi’s leg in a chat group than pick a nerdy character’s GIF from a Western drama to make their point,” adds SVG’s Manian.
In mature markets such as Japan and China, he says, GIFs form 30-40% of content exchanged through messaging platforms such as Line and WeChat. “In China, for instance, GIFs are all about getting popular icons to enact user’s personal emotions. The biggest trend there is to use North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s GIFs to add humour to any conversation,” he says.
Manian has had some success in convincing brands of the benefits of GIFs. “Brands in the alco-bev category that depend on surrogate advertising are more willing to try sponsored GIFs. But their campaigns are cyclical and, therefore, they roll out a GIF once in a while. Brands in the sports and fitness category show intent to try GIFs every quarter.” Adwani feels the craze for GIFs has come down now, with WhatsApp and others pushing stickers in the market. Sandeep Tandon, former founder of FreeCharge and an investor in Gifskey, disagrees.
“Stickers are static and can’t match the beauty of GIFs when it comes to communicating,” he says, adding that he hasn’t seen a slowdown in numbers despite the sticker launch by WhatsApp. He reckons Adwani may be losing out because most other GIF-makers are tying up with keyboard companies to expand reach. When Tandon met Gifskey founders, it wasn’t because he was looking for a GIFs company, he says. “But I was convinced there’s something to be done in this space. We are betting on a human trend here. You don’t know where it’ll go. But in our business,” he says, “you figure it out as you move forward.”