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Design files | A look at cinemagraphs

Subtle and scroll-stopping, cinemagraphs are the increasingly popular visual storytelling media.

Subtle and scroll-stopping, cinemagraphs are bringing home impressive cross-channel marketing results. With advanced software making these ‘living photographs’ even more easy to create, major brands across industries are opting in to imaginative branding and adding the form to their creative repertoire.

Cinemagraphs: they’re like GIFs, but classy. More significantly, they dispense with the noise that’s burning out modern user attention circuitry and contributing to consumer exhaustion. Instead, by isolating and animating an element against a still background, cinemagraphs succeed in creating an experience that is meditative and quiet – and pretty damn mesmerising too.

Part video, part image, cinemagraphs are the new visual storytelling medium that hybridises the still and motion world, while keeping the best of both. Pioneered by husband and wife power couple Jamie Beck and Kevin Burg back in 2011, they saw their first wave of popularity among Instagram’s hipsters, to be swept up by the corporate universe soon after. In the years since, they’ve been telling the spellbinding campaign stories of big-player brands, from Coca Cola to Mercedes Benz, Canon to Nestle – with incredible results.

Why cinemagraphs get results

It’s already in the marketer’s bible that visuals are indispensable for boosting engagement. Add an image to your tweet, for instance, and your chance of a retweet jumps 150%. There’s a reason why Zuckerberg is going around saying the network will be posting mainly video by 2020, too. In amid feeds that lunge ever more gauchely at users’ attention, cinemagraphs offer a moment of inspired, focused serenity. Their subtle magic has seen ROI wonders, with click-throughs and conversions making leaps for a diverse cross-section of businesses worldwide.

Take Pepsico’s recent A/B testing for a Facebook ad campaign. Compared to still images, cinemagraphs saw a 75% increase in click-through rates and a whopping 51x more engagement. Kelli McIntosh, Pepsico’s Senior Marketing Manager, described the campaign results as “thumb-stopping”.

Biological theory even comes in to explain why this particular visual medium is giving audiences pause. Apparently (claims Flixel), our years as hunter-gatherers ratcheted up our awareness to small movements within a still landscape. Minute rustlings in the undergrowth could at any moment become a man-eating cave lion; a tiny ripple in the water could mean your head is about to be delivered into a crocodile’s mouth for its late-morning brunch. In cinemagraphs, this same adaptive mechanism is getting activated thousands of years later, ‘hijacked’ to sell fizzy drinks, frozen custard and fashion.

We’re not complaining. Neither are the web’s major publishers, who recognised the edge that this new medium could give vendors early on in the game. This has meant, for instance, that Facebook has bent its rules around cinemagraphs so that they qualify as paid advertising, formatting them as auto-looping videos on the feed. Pinterest, Tumblr, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and email marketing services are also on board, allowing businesses to stand out and get creative with imagination-driven promotion.

What makes a good cinemagraph?

Generally speaking, the quality of your cinemagraph will hinge upon three things. The first is the quality of your base photograph – if the base image isn’t aesthetically pleasing (like you’ve goofed the rule of thirds, or lopped a model’s head out of frame) then you’ve shot yourself in the foot from the get-go.

The second thing to take note of is the logic behind the ‘focus’ on your moving elements. Which part of the image should be animated? Why? What kind of emotions does a stirring leaf evoke, or a whirling fan?

Finally, there is the ingenuity of the overall design concept. This will have come out of the creative team (or perhaps some bright spark of an intern), and will extend to what will be in the frame, the talent and the themes. Essentially, it’s the beating cinemagraph’s heart.

When should they be used?

Naturally, they’ve become the darling of luxury brands, which – like Stuart Weizman – find that little extra élan in a swaying shawl floating on a mysterious digital breeze. On the other hand, cinemagraphs can work well as a basic backdrop to a Keynote and PowerPoint presentations to new clients, or as the background image on your website. Or (taking the lead from the 71st session of the UN General Assembly) you could even give some life to your site’s staff profiles by turning them into a moving portrait series.

A gentler, more tasteful medium than the GIF (which arguably suffers from damaged cred, given how much the net has meme-ified it with, say, Chris Christie and the ‘Deal With It Cat’), the cinemagraph is a winning tool to tell brand stories in a fresh, intriguing way. As with any campaign though: plan ahead, work out a strategy and schedule, and stick to it. Even cinemagraphs don’t look good alone and lonely in the ether.

Here’s three companies that have made these ‘living photographs’ work for them, and what they did right.

Nova Scotiabank’s SCENE debit card

Multinational Canadian bank Nova Scotiabank enlisted the talent of digital artist and influencer Justin Main (@photified) to create a commissioned art series promoting their SCENE debit card. The card accrues points, which card holders can use to watch films, buy food and invest in sports gear – making it a great fit for Main’s 64k+ followers (ie predominantly young, adventurous, culture-craving types). The corporation sponsored Main to travel across the country, where he catalogued his travels in a series of high-detail cinemagraphs featuring the card, which were published on his Instagram account. The campaign also featured a competition, with five winners nabbing 1000 SCENE points.

Why does it work? Cinemagraphs translate the agility of Nova Scotiabank’s banking into super-stylised moving art. Meanwhile, Main lends his massive following and incredible talent to achieve the impossible: make banking cool.

Travel Alberta’s award-winning campaigns

Travel Alberta has become a fan and leader of the art of cinemagraphs for marketing. The Canadian travel company has created two campaigns around the province’s majestic Rocky Mountains experience to date, integrating them into their website and social media channels. The first of these campaigns scooped an OMMA award, and the second showcased daredevil athletes mid-air and in full 360. Phil Klassen, the VP of the company’s Consumer Marketing department, says the form has seen a huge lift across multi-channel engagement.

“Alberta’s Rocky Mountains are undoubtedly one of the most breathtaking places on earth, and we often talk about how time slows down or even pauses when you’re mid-air on skis,” says Klassen. “That’s the moment of thrill that we were really trying to capture.”

Why does it work? Travel Alberta is all about unique visuals (the mountain landscape) through movement (getting customers to visit). In this sense, cinemagraphs dovetail into its mission beautifully.

Microsoft’s Surface products

Targeting both small to medium businesses (SMBs) and consumers, Microsoft ran an 8-day A/B test comparing still image ads to cinemagraphs across three separate social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram and Twitter). Both graphics showed an identical frame: a man poised over a laptop screen – presumably cutting up million-dollar deals in the throbbing heart of an Asian marketplace. By making just a few chinese lanterns sway in the background, and adding a flickering glimmer here and there, the cinemagraph came out on top, with engagement increased by up to 110%, and cost per engagement down 45%.

Why does it work? Tapping away on a laptop is pretty sedentary. Yet it’s where most of our business (and increasingly social) activity takes place. Cinemagraphs convey this paradox, while also enhancing Microsoft’s reputation as a cutting edge, creative tech leader.

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