Countdown Timer GIF Best Practices

Countdown Timer GIF Best Practices
05 June, 2024 • ... • 22546 views
Eugene Vasilev
by Eugene Vasilev

Countdown GIF timers are an extra tool up a marketer’s sleeve to trigger a sense of urgency, a precious thing in email marketing.

You’ll learn which types of emails use countdown timers, how you can create yours and, most importantly, how to add it to an email. Now, let me guide you through it all in 3, 2, 1…

What are countdown GIFs?

A countdown GIF is a picture with an animated timer that clocks time until some event: the start of sales, the end of sales, a reserved abandoned cart, a limited offer, an early sign-up for a webinar, and so on. This is what a typical countdown email looks like:

Email from Casper with a simple countdown timer on top, indicating the deadline for a 15% discount offer
Source: Really Good Emails

Timers exist either in a GIF format or an HTML script and can be anywhere in email templates. They can have lots of customization options and be placed either above the main image or inside it. 

Why use a GIF countdown timer in email marketing

Most of the time, a countdown timer GIF is used to tell your clients that something won’t last forever and they’d better hurry up. These include event notifications, offer deadlines, and so on. However, there’s one more reason to occasionally use timers — to introduce the element of surprise. Let’s explore!

Create urgency

Timers as marketing tools are supposed to speed your clients up towards a certain action. As they see seconds tick away, clients should feel more inclined to do what you want them to. After all, when something is scarce or limited that alerts people — the good old fear of missing out. 

Fear of missing out, in its turn, is a quite old and common marketing tactic with proven efficiency. For example, one study from 2021 shows that people remember FOMO-based Facebook Ads a lot better compared to those without FOMO content. Another study conducted on Egyptian Millennials showed that FOMO may increase conformity consumption, which means buying to be like others. Finally, there’s a study related to influencer marketing that confirms the role of FOMO in creating the buying intention.

Notify or remind about something

If you use a countdown GIF timer in an email that teases early access to a product or an event, this may be viewed as a sign of care about your clients. You can even push it further and add a calendar reminder button, like Litmus did.

A holiday presents sweepstakes email from Litmus with a countdown timer and a calendar reminder button
Source: Litmus

And if you’re using countdown timers in sales emails, they may also help people make decisions about when to start shopping. For example, if you notify them about your Black Friday offers a day or two before the sales season starts, your customers will have enough time to evaluate your offer and decide if that’s what they need. And, if they like it, they’re more likely to buy from you and not another shop selling similar stuff.

Increase your sales

We have already discussed some studies related to FOMO in marketing. Countdown timers induce FOMO, so, they must be as effective as any other FOMO-based content in ads and promotion, right? Not really. There’s not much research on how countdown timers perform, and the data is a bit inconclusive. 

For example, an old case study of The Diamond Store Black Friday emails showed that a countdown timer GIF in a promotional email can yield a 400% increase in conversions. A study by EmailSoldiers, however, didn’t find a significant difference between emails with and without a countdown timer. This brings us to a simple conclusion: take nothing for granted in email marketing, try things on your audience to see how they respond. 

And, if you want to learn more about the actual patterns behind email clicks, check out our definitive guide on the click-through rate

Surprise your clients

There are dozens of articles on countdown timers in email marketing blogs and other sources, so you may assume the trick is quite popular, even overused maybe? Also, Apple Mail Privacy Protection updates put limits not just on open rate tracking but also on dynamic content. This means that for some Apple users who enabled MPP, countdown timers in emails may end up being non-functional. So, should you use them in emails and do they still carry an element of surprise? 

Long story short, yes. If you introduce your subscribers to countdown timers sparingly, you won’t fail to surprise them. Just don’t put them in every sales campaign of yours and maybe experiment with design. For example, why not make a vertical timer?

Email from Armra that features a countdown timer with all the elements placed vertically not horizontally
Source: Email Love

What to keep in mind when using countdown timers

Since you deal with an animated image you must be sure you know how to use it so it works correctly (more on this later). You should only add a countdown GIF when you mean it. Urgency is a big hook in email marketing but it can’t be the only strategy: not every product is “limited” and not every event “will end soon”.

If you mean a deadline and are sure your clients will respond to it — great. To check how emails with countdown timers perform, testing is essential: do A/B tests to know for sure.

Examples of using countdown timers

There are many email types where countdown timers come in handy. Long story short, they can be useful in campaigns where you need to speed up your customers’ decision-making. Let’s take a look at some of the most prominent use cases.

Voucher redemption

Discount codes tend to have expiration dates — use the code a second past it and you won’t save the money. To prompt subscribers to use their discount codes before it’s too late, marketers can use countdown timer GIFs.  

Wait, actually, we did it once! When we ran a campaign for the oldest and most loyal subscribers of FWD: by Selzy newsletter, we sent an extra “Last chance” email — and yep, it had a countdown timer.

FWD: by Selzy last chance email that prompts unregistered subscribers to sign up at Selzy and get the first month of the Standard tariff for cheaper, and the countdown timer creates a sense of urgency

Abandoned shopping carts

Placing a deadline is common in abandoned cart emails and you can go the extra mile and highlight it. Notice that a CTA button is placed right under the timer — a straightforward way to influence a potential customer. 

Abandoned cart email from Forever21 that features a countdown timer prompting customers to finish the order before all the items disappear from the cart
Source: Moosend

VIP or early access

Notify your clients about a VIP or early access and offer a reward for joining. It’s not only about urgency but also care or even a form of secrecy — you offer your clients something that won’t be for everyone.

Email from MAC that notifies subscribers about the start of a loyalty program and uses a countdown timer to indicate the start date and time
Source: Moosend

Price changes

Tell your customers that prices change soon. You may get more sales, they may be happy with a reduced price and a great service — top content.

An email by Frank+Oak with a countdown timer indicating the deadline for the price change
Source: Pinterest

Sale ends soon

A deadline is a proven way to get people into action. Why not use it? Make the most of a sales period by showing your customers a deadline on an animated GIF. That’s why using a countdown timer GIF is a common trope in “Last chance” emails like this one from WiX.

Email from WiX offering 50% off premium plans for a limited time, the countdown timer indicates how much time is left
Source: Milled

Special events

A clock ticking down can be an interesting solution for special events like Black Friday or Cyber Monday when email marketing is all about maximizing the potential of sales. In such campaigns, a timer is often used to demonstrate: hey, customer, it’s your last chance to shop with a discount. 

But it’s not always the case. Here’s a curious example of a special event email with a countdown timer. Here, Market House, a meat delivery service, prompts customers to order now so they have something to grill on Memorial Day. No special offers — in this case, it’s just customer care.

Email from Market House with a countdown timer and a tagline “Last chance to order in time for Memorial Day”
Source: Milled

Webinar or live stream reminder

Countdown reminders look natural when you advertise an upcoming webinar or live stream. Sending a reminder with a countdown timer GIF is not just customer care — you’ll also get more visitors since you’re prompting customers to sign up with a bit of urgency.

An email from Segment prompting subscribers to get the webinar tickets with a countdown timer GIF
Source: Really Good Emails

Limited edition or product release

Advertise a last-chance product or a limited edition with a timer. Feel free to combine it with fun content as in the example below.

An email from BarkBox offering a subscription to get even more dog toys and treats, it features a countdown timer to indicate a deadline for the offer
Source: Email Love

Contest

Launch an email contest with prizes. A timer may be a retention tool as it notifies people that they’re still in the game.

An email from Suiteness notifying subscribers of a contest with a countdown timer indicating a deadline
Source: Really Good Emails

GIF vs HTML clocks

There are two ways you can insert a timer into an email: a GIF or an HTML script. One big difference between the two tools is how they count time. In addition, HTML may be a bit of a challenge to use in comparison to GIFs. 

An HTML script shows only real time. Say, you set a timer at 01:00:00 and place it into an email. If you re-open it in five minutes, it will display 00:55:00. An HTML script is programmed to a certain end date and it won’t stop until it reaches it. 

A GIF will always restart. It’ll always display 01:00:00 every time you re-open an email or update the page. 

This, however, doesn’t mean GIFs are useless tools in email marketing. Given that an average inbox is flooded by many emails, it’s fair to assume customers only open an email once so the countdown will only be seen once. 

GIFs are also slightly simpler to use and, in general, more people are familiar with GIFs than scripts. Our recommendation is unless you’re sure you know what you’re doing, HTML may not be worth all the fuss.

How to create a countdown GIF

There are three options: choose a countdown timer from the internet, create one on a specialized website, or customize one in an ESP.

Find a countdown timer on the internet

This is most likely the easiest path. The internet is full of animated pictures and you can choose timers that suit you from popular services like Pinterest or Tenor. You can access the result from a Google page with pictures and choose one of many available designs.

A screencast of a person googling countdown timer GIFs for emails and finding a lot of those on Google Images

Online services help users design their countdown timers. There’s not much difference between them as the principle is similar: pick a template, choose background and digit colors, set the event time. Once done, save the result as a GIF. 

A screencast of creating and customizing a countdown timer GIF for email on Mara

Some of those services include extra features and tools like embedding a link into a timer but the option may be paid. Here’s a brief overview of the services.

Pricing Best thing about it Worst thing about it
Mara Free for regular use, from $39/month for extra features Ease of use Few customization options
Countingdownto Free for regular use, $28/ a month, or a one-time payment of $195 for extra features You can test how a timer displays in your email The “‘powered by countingdownto”’ caption
Motion Mail A limited free plan or $10$/ a month for the cheapest plan You can track how many people viewed a timer Nothing
Nifty $20/ a month (billed annually) Almost unlimited customization Expensive if you don’t plan to use it often

Customize a timer in an ESP

Some ESPs allow you to create countdown timers right in the email builder. Unlike external services, it’s pretty convenient because you can do all the email building and customization in one tab.  Keep reading to see how you can do it with the Selzy email builder. First, go to the Elements tab in the builder and find Countdown.

Selzy Elements menu in the builder with the Countdown element highlighted

Then, drag and drop the Countdown element to your email template. Here’s what it will look like:

Selzy email builder countdown timer drag and drop demonstration

Then, click the timer to see the editing menu at the right half of your screen.

Selzy builder with the Countdown timer settings menu on the right part of the screen highlighted

Then, it’s time to edit the timer! Here’s what you can edit in the Selzy builder:

  • End time and timezone
  • Font, font size, and color — you can set those up separately for numbers and written time units
  • Language of the time units
  • Size in pixels 
Selzy builder screenshot of the countdown timer GIF settings menu that includes end time, time zone, font sizes and colors, language, size, and more

You can also add a clickable link to the countdown timer GIF. To do this, scroll down the settings menu to see the Chain icon. Click on it to reveal the text field and enter the link. Quick warning: don’t paste the link with UTM tags — you’ll be able to assign all the tags automatically to each and every email link at the next stage of preparing the campaign.

Selzy email builder screenshot, Countdown settings menu, the link button has an arrow pointing at it, the text field for the link is highlighted in green

Once you’re happy with the settings, click the Save button — it’s in the top-right corner of the screen.

A screenshot of Selzy's email builder with an email with the countdown timer GIF added

Now you have a countdown timer as part of your email. 

How to add a countdown GIF to an email

If you created the countdown timer in your ESP, at this point you don’t have to do anything else besides sending the campaign, so you can skip this part of the article. But if you plan to use a countdown GIF you made or downloaded somewhere else, follow this tutorial.

Since GIF is an image format, you have to insert animated pictures into the image field of your ESP. Let’s break down how it works in the Selzy builder. Start by going to the Elements menu and choosing the Image element.

Selzy email builder screenshot with the Elements menu and the Image button highlighted in green

Once you drag and drop the element, hover over the placeholder image, and click the two arrows in the middle of the small menu. Here it is!

Selzy email builder screenshot with an email where the Image element is inserted and the menu for editing the element is highlighted in green

Once you click it, you’ll have a pop-up window that will allow you to upload your own image. As you can see, the GIF format is supported. 

Selzy email builder screenshot with the Image Center pop-up and the Upload option: supported image formats include PNG, JPG, WEBP, SVG, and GIF

Then, upload the countdown timer GIF — here’s what it will look like in the email: 

A screenshot of an email built in the Selzy email builder with a third-party countdown timer GIF inserted

You can also go a harder path and add a countdown timer with an HTML code. When creating it with online services like Mara or Countingdownto you can either save the result as a GIF or HTML code.

Screenshot of Countdownto which shows where to look for HTML code to paste the timer into your email, the text field with HTML is highlighted in green and signed as “Copy HTML here”

The Selzy builder doesn’t have a separate element in the Content menu for embedding raw HTML in the email. However, you can switch to Code mode by clicking a button at the left part of the screen. Here’s what it will look like:

Selzy email builder screenshot demonstrating Code mode, the left part of the screen is what the email looks like, the right part of the screen is HTML code. The button enabling Code mode is highlighted and signed “Switch to Code mode here”

Here, you can choose the part of the email where you want to put your countdown timer GIF, and paste the code — and you’re good to go! And, if you need some editing, you can do it both in the no-code builder and in the code mode, isn’t that cool?

How to add a countdown timer inside a picture

Looking at the examples of emails with countdown timers, you could notice that most of them have a timer embedded into a picture. How did they do it? Let’s take this example from Ray-Ban’s Black Friday campaign, try to break it down, and recreate.

A Ray-Ban email with a banner image of glasses that has a countdown timer in the middle

Let’s talk about some analogies. First I want you to think of a hamburger. Yes, that’s right, a hamburger. I’ve drawn an ugly one so that you bear with me and don’t feel the urge to order food. Here it is: 

A schematic illustration of a hamburger

A hamburger can be broken down into ingredients: the buns and a beef patty. Likewise, a picture from an email can be broken down into several pieces. Let’s split the Ray-Ban one into the upper bun and the lower bun with a patty.

The same Ray-Ban email with the top hamburger bun above the glasses on the banner image, and the bottom bun and patty at the bottom of the image

Suppose I now want a cheeseburger. I take a slice of cheese and place it on the patty. Here’s what I’m gonna eat now:

A schematic illustration of a cheeseburger

So, here’s how it should change our “email meal”: the cheese (a countdown timer in our case) becomes a new part of the picture burger and it must always be placed on the patty (the rest of the picture).

The Ray-Ban email with the buns and patty in the same places as previously, and cheese being alongside the countdown timer

Equipped with the “cheeseburger principle”, you now know what to do — connect three layers (the top of the picture, the countdown timer, and the rest of the picture) in an email builder in your ESP. 

First, you need to slice your image into several parts. You can use any image editing software — here’s an example of what it can look like in Figma. I pasted the image three times and used the Crop option.

Figma screenshot of the email sliced in three parts, all of the parts are separate images now

Then, let’s go and assemble our cheeseburger in the Selzy builder. Here’s what we’ll need to do:

  • Create our own email template from scratch and add three empty blocks to it
  • Add images to the top and the bottom blocks
  • Add the countdown timer to the block in the middle

Begin by clicking Start from scratch to get a blank canvas to work with.

Selzy email builder templates screenshot, the button Start from scratch is highlighted

Then, go to the Blocks menu, choose Empty, and add three empty one-column blocks.

Selzy email builder screenshot with the Empty blocks menu displayed, the text and arrows show that we need to insert three empty one-column blocks.

Your email template will look like this: 

Selzy email builder screenshot, the email template has three empty one-column blocks

Once you have three empty blocks, go to Elements, choose Image, and add images to the first and the third blocks. 

Selzy email builder screenshot, Elements menu, the Image button is highlighted

You’ll end up with a blank template looking like this:

A blank template in Selzy email builder, it has three blocks, the top and the bottom blocks have Image elements, the middle one is empty

Then, upload the images and end up with an email that looks like this: 

Selzy email builder screenshot, the template has three blocks, the top and the bottom blocks have images uploaded, the middle block is empty

To give it a more seamless look, you need to remove the padding in these two blocks. To do this, click on the block to reveal the settings menu, and set the Padding numbers to 0. 

Selzy email builder screenshot, Block settings menu, the Padding settings are highlighted and signed as “Set all these to 0”

Then, you need to adjust the size of each image so they occupy the entire block. To do this, simply drag the image by the lower right corner.

A screencast of Selzy email builder showing dragging the image so it fills the entire block.

Now, let’s take a look at our “cheese” block where the countdown timer will be placed. For a seamless look, we need to change this block’s background color. You can do it in the same part of the block settings menu where you set up the background image. To achieve a seamless look, you can use the eyedropper tool to pick the exact light gray color from the images above and below.

Selzy email builder screenshot, Block settings menu, the Background settings highlighted in green

Once you adjust the background color, add the countdown timer element following the instructions above — and you’re good to go!

I also changed the background of the entire email template to the light gray color used in the picture — that way, all the blocks will blend together seamlessly. To change the background color, click on any part of the screen around the email template to reveal the Group settings menu. Then, edit the Background color.

Selzy email builder screenshot, Group settings menu, the Background settings are highlighted in green

Although it’s a great way to add a countdown timer GIF to the email, you shouldn’t make image-only emails. Spammers use this trick a lot, so if you send a campaign like this, you’ll end up in spam. However, you can use it as a small design element in the email that actually has text and clickable buttons.

Conclusion

  • Countdown timers trigger urgency. If you want to put a greater emphasis on a limited offer in your email marketing campaigns, you can add a timer to your email.
  • Don’t put countdown timers into every email. Not every offer or event is limited. Your clients will soon get used to it if they see the same content all the time.
  • If unsure, use GIFs over HTML. If you’re not yet skilled in HTML, you can customize a GIF on an external website and add it to your email campaign as an image.
  • Add countdown timers right from an ESP. This may be even faster than adding a GIF as you have all the tools you need in one tab.
  • Place timers inside a picture with a “cheeseburger principle”. If you want a timer inside a picture and not above, imagine a hamburger. To make it a cheeseburger, you need to add cheese between the upper bun and a patty with the other bun. Accordingly, cut your picture in a photo editor and, when putting it all together in an ESP, place the countdown timer layer where it belongs — between the two parts of the image. 

This article was originally published in December 2021 and was updated in May 2024 to make it more relevant and comprehensive.

05 June, 2024
Article by
Eugene Vasilev
Content writer on all things email marketing at Selzy. Writing, editing and illustrating over the last 5 or so years. I create simple texts with examples to inform or entertain readers. In love with the semicolon. Boring language merchant. Egg came first. My favorite bands will never come to my city. Let's play beach volleyball.
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