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​People love GIFs — but turning GIFs into ad dollars is taking some time

About 15 months ago, Tenor was trying to get its GIF search engine onto as many phones as possible. So it did the logical thing — it partnered with businesses that were already on a lot of phones.

The startup, which offers a universal GIF keyboard that you can download to your phone, also signed deals with Messenger, iMessage and Kik to put its technology inside their messaging apps so users could easily search through Tenor’s library of GIFs (which are short looping video clips), and send them off to friends inside of private conversations.

The deals appear to have worked: Tenor, which rebranded in October from Riffsy, says people are using its GIF search engine 200 million times per day, up from 50 million daily searches 15 months ago. It has 200 million monthly active users, a number that has also quadrupled in the same amount of time.

As people are sending more and more messages, they’re sending more and more GIFs.

But despite user growth, Tenor is still dealing with the same question Recode was asking 15 months ago: Are GIFs a real business?

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Tenor CEO David McIntosh remains adamant that they are, though his company still isn’t making any revenue despite all the messaging deals. As of October, Giphy, a competitor recently valued at $600 million, wasn’t bringing in any revenue, either.

McIntosh’s plan to change that sounds simple: He sees Tenor as a Google-like search engine, but for emotions. People search for GIFs based on how they’re feeling, he explained, which means Tenor knows when users are sad or happy or scared or laughing out loud.

He hopes to turn those search queries into a business, similar to how Google shows ads based on search keywords.

“[We want to] give brands this emotional dimension of targeting,” McIntosh explained. “How do you reach people at a particularly emotional state? When they’re feeling something, or when they’re hungry?”

McIntosh thinks this approach can work, given the previous unpaid campaigns that brands have already run on Tenor. McIntosh says that Tenor worked with Warner Bros. to show “Lego Batman” GIFs leading up the movie’s premier earlier this month, driving 70 million GIF views as part of the campaign. A similar deal with DreamWorks around “Kung Fu Panda” drove 200 million views, he claims.

But turning those views into dollars may still be a ways off. McIntosh says that Tenor has just 22 employees, and needs to build out a sales organization. It also needs to create interest in what McIntosh believes is a new kind of targeting.

“The challenge is that this is a brand-new format that has to be invented,” he said. “There’s no ad inventory today around marketers that want to purchase against emotion, and have assets that they want to buy against.”

McIntosh isn’t the only one who thinks GIFs can become a viable business — investors do, too. Tenor has raised more than $13 million from venture capital investors; Giphy, its competitor, has raised nearly $150 million and is valued at $600 million, according to the Wall Street Journal.

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