If a One Direction picture is worth a thousand words, a three-second looped animated GIF of the pop band is probably worth millions of fan shares.
On Jan. 7, One Direction released the video for "Kiss You," the third single from the British boy band's second album, Take Me Home. In slightly more than 24 hours, the act racked up 10.4 million Vevo views, nearly breaking the site's record for a single day. And GIF files -- short animated clips -- are a big part of how the group did it.
The "Kiss You" video skips narrative for visuals, placing the members in a variety of fun scenes with short cuts in between -- a mix of visual elements perfect for the creation of animated GIFs. Sure enough, within an hour of the single's release, One Direction's Tumblr page began reblogging GIFs made from fan-ripped footage of the video. These GIFs -- created using simple, Web-based tools -- in turn have received anywhere from 25,000 to close to 40,000 notes or repostings -- significantly higher than the average 2,000-6,000 for static posts. The social-media tsunami that drove two One Direction albums to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in 2012 was once again at work.
The animated GIF, a once antiquated relic of the early web, has been given new life with the advent of blogging platforms and mobile capturing and editing devices which are now in the hands of everyday consumers.
With this simple, loop-based medium’s ability to convey reactions and emotions, the animated GIF has been wholeheartedly adopted as a method of online exchange among fans, and the music industry has taken notice. One Direction, Big Boi, Britney Spears, Snoop Dogg, and Justin Bieber are just a few of the hundreds of artists who promote fan-made GIFs on their websites and through social media. Festivals like FYF Fest use GIFs rather than images to promote work, and major media brands like MTV and VH1 have recognized and utilized GIFs in order to their web reach.
Increasing fan engagement on platforms like Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter through repostings and comments is an important metric for digital marketers, even though debate still rages on whether it sells more albums or concert tickets.
“GIFs are the native language of Tumblr,” Tom Fishman, Social Media Director at MTV told Billboard. “It’s important to consider where GIFs fit in the spectrum of the visual language of the web. With tweets and texts on one end, then rich media with photo and video on the other, GIFs fit in this really neat space where they’re richer than text but much easier to engage with and potentially share than longer form videos. So, what you have here is a really unique form of social currency. It’s a way to express an idea very richly.”
"By encouraging fans to reblog their favorite content, artists are joining the conversation with their fans in a direct and more engaging manner," says Nate Auerbach,Tumblr's music evangelist, which recently upped its content with the launch of a music discovery service (Billboard, March 2).
Animated gifs are used on Tumblr in a variety of ways. They can tell a joke by looping a particularly awkward moment in a video that a viewer might have completely missed the first time they watched it . Sometimes titles or words are added . Gifs are most often used as a reaction - one might type “shrug” to describe a reaction to something online, but replying with a gif of a celebrity or popular musician performing the gesture  it conveys the message with style while also making a personal statement. It says something about one's interests and tastes by replying with a gif of Miley Cyrus  vs. Kanye West, and the choice of which celebrity one uses to represent themselves can act as a form of cultural plumage.
Music marketers who spoke with Billboard say that one disadvantage of GIFs is that their user interaction is difficult to measure: They don't have cookies, clicks or video views.
But one major-label senior digital marketer says the opportunity is very real for the music business. "GIFs have exploded, especially with fans under 25," the marketer says. "They're fun, and this is about fan engagement. While it may be difficult to draw a direct line to the return on investment, this is about the sizzle rather than the steak."
“Many artists view the animated GIF as a way to expand on their creative works,” says Auerbach. MS MR  used cinemagraphs of their EP art to promote their release, which they ran exclusively through a widget on their Tumblr. Twin Shadow  ran a GIF a day for several days leading up to the release of his music video for "Five Seconds." Big Boi  made the artwork from his recent album come alive through several  different  animated  gifs  and used it to promote the liner notes, something barely anyone gets to read anymore in this digital age.
UK artist and designer INSA  introduced a digital animated look to his street art that he calls GIF-ITI  to celebrate the debut of Thom Yorke's No. 2 Billboard 200 charting album "AMOK."
"With email, Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr feeds, we've become a scrolling generation, and GIFs deliver the most bang for the buck: a visual, verbal message in a fraction of a second," says Schumacher Management talent manager Ricky Rollins (Darren Criss).
For Viacom subsidiaries like MTV and VH1, GIFs have begun to inform what they put on the air. "You'll see character ID promos for our shows now that are actually just GIFs," VH1 social media director Sam Hofstetter says. The GIFs that the channels use on-air are usually those they've created themselves to avoid legal issues.
Artists themselves have embraced gifs through a variety of tools readily available to them. Smartphone apps like Socialcam, Vine and Cinemagram brings what years ago would have been professional level video editing software to the smartphones in their pockets.
Perfecting a single and constructing an album take a lot of time, but these short video capturing apps are giving artists a way to engage fans in a casual, informal manner on the go. Justin Bieber might show off his new iPhone  while lazing around backstage, or Meek Mill will share a clip of him goofing around with friends  at his house. The propensity to share these intimate moments, which have occurred in the lives of artists and musicians throughout history but previously never saw the light of day, is accelerated due to the convenience afforded to musicians and celebrities by these applications.
Perfecting a single and constructing an album take time, but with these video-capturing apps artists can engage fans in a casual, informal manner while on the go.