What’s in a thumbnail?
A lot actually.
A thumbnail is a bit like a movie poster for your video; the very first impression a potential viewer will get of your content. If your video was a meal, then your thumbnail is the inviting smell coming from the kitchen. You could be cooking the tastiest dish in the world, but if it smells like a rusty shower drain no one is going to be interested (unless they’re a total weirdo or something.) You only have a split second to catch the attention of a potential viewer, so step up your thumbnail drain! Erm… game. Here’s 4 best practices when making a YouTube thumbnail.
1. Know Your Audience and Appeal to Their Interests
Consider the desired audience for your content before making a thumbnail. Keeping a thumbnail relevant and interesting to who you think would be watching it (working in conjunction with a strong title which I’ll talk about in a later post) is probably the most prudent way to drive traffic to your content. The intended audience for your Minecraft video is probably not 30-40 years old moms, so try to stylize your thumbnail to appeal to a younger demographic. When first starting out, you’ll really have to use your experience and personal discretion when considering what appeals to whom. You don’t have to be designing blind for long though – YouTube provides pretty in-depth analytics. Over time, certain patterns will emerge concerning exactly who clicks on what and what imagery is most compelling to them. However for early videos on your channel, common sense works just fine.
Well lit, makeup tastefully applied, images that supplement the theme and title of the video; this is a good thumbnail.
Poor lighting, unclear intention, obscured face; this is bad thumbnail.
2. Make Your Thumbnail Clear and Design with the Smallest Size in Mind.
Make your thumbnail image clear, attention-grabbing and relevant. You only have a split-second to capture your audiences’ attention. If they look at your thumbnail and can’t make out what’s going on, they’ll move on. Including text on your thumbnail is also a great idea but be sure to make it legible, large and sharply contrasting to your image. See how that bold, contrasting font caught your attention? Magical isn’t it? Also keep in mind that users view YouTube on all kinds of platforms; from big screen TVs to their smart watch (which is apparently a thing now.) You’re going to want to design your thumbnail so that it can be clearly understood on the smallest screen possible. Work from the bottom up – if it works small, it will work large.
Minecraft, got it. Aura made it, got it. Probably going to fight an evil looking spider, got it. 82nd in a series, got it. Very clear and transparent in intention; Good thumbnail.
Fuzzy, low res image of someone playing Minecraft. They look like they’re maybe building something? No idea. Bad Thumbnail.
3. Invest Time In Learning Thumbnail Composition.
I made this in 15 seconds in Paint. Would you watch this video? Would ANYONE watch this video? I wouldn’t watch that video and it’s me in the thumbnail. Be sure to invest a little time in learning basic Photoshop to have the skills to create a nice-looking, compelling image. All the planning and design in the world won’t matter if you don’t know how to execute. If you’re on a budget you could even use GIMP for photo editing. It’s a free (and surprisingly competent) alternative to Photoshop. Make a few fake thumbnails for fake videos as practice before you upload anything. Try showing them to friends or co-workers and ask if they would click on it (like I just did with this section! Look at all these things I’m teaching you.)
Contrasting font, clear branding and intention, symbolism representing hunting; good thumbnail.
Uh… a smudge on beige wallpaper? What am I looking at? Is this about hunting? Bad thumbnail.
4. Never Intentionally Mislead.
Misleading users gets you views. No, I’m serious. People will click your videos if you put unrelated sexual/violent imagery in your thumbnail or if you have a clickbaity title (I’M LEAVING YOUTUBE FOREVER BECAUSE…)
But users will hate you for it.
If you end up in the medical part of YouTube, you’ll see videos that employ this technique. I’d rather not link to them in this article, but they’re easy enough to spot. They get MILLIONS of views and about 90% thumbs down. Don’t be those guys. Keep your thumbnail interesting, but give the user a realistic expectation of what they’re going to see when they click your video. Giving a user an expectation and then letting them down is a good way to make sure they won’t come back for more of your content. For instance, if I’m making a romantic comedy film starring Hugh Grant, I’m not going to release a poster featuring Hugh punching a hole through a mean-looking terrorist’s face. People would see it and be very angry and disappointed… and not just for the normal reason of it’s a movie featuring Hugh Grant.
People judge. That’s the reality of YouTube. Your restaurant is only as good as the amount of people you can get through the door, so be sure to invest some time and effort into make a nice sign… or smell. Whatever analogy I’m on now. That being said – don’t lose sleep over putting together a thumbnail. Having a killer thumbnail is only 1/10ths as important as having killer content. But at least invest a little time in a thumbnail. It’s worth it.