How To Optimize YouTube Thumbnails To Attract Viewers – The YouTube Creator Playbook

How To Optimize YouTube Thumbnails To Attract Viewers – The YouTube Creator Playbook

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Now it’s time to get into the mind of a movie poster designer and create images for your video that are appealing to increase the chances of someone clicking on it.  Usually, you’re going to watch the video and find that compelling image that sums everything up and use that.  This is the section of the Playbook that seems pretty obvious, and you probably wouldn’t be or aren’t surprised that people make mistakes on this all of the time.  They lazily use some default image, or their content doesn’t contain anything that can describe the video in one image.

Luckily, even if you don’t have that one image that sums everything up, there’s Photoshop.  This is another overlooked area where you can get creative, have fun, and ultimately, entice viewers to clock on your video (again, relevant and compelling).

The Playbook’s overview:

Strategy: Create great custom thumbnails for your videos

Why It Works: Thumbnails act as mini-marketing posters for your content and are more important to attracting clicks on your videos

How To Do It: Design and upload custom thumbnails for new videos.  Update archive video thumbnails.

The Thumbnail: The Overlooked Aspect of Marketing Your Video

I’m going to use this excuse to talk about movie poster designer Bill Gold.  Gold designed some of the most iconic one-sheets in the history of film.  And I love this quote from a New York Times article, which is the thesis for entertainment marketing:

“I looked at everything that MGM and Paramount and all the companies did, and I never liked anything that I saw. I always found fault with the fact that they showed three heads of the actors, and that’s about all the concept they would use. And when I started to work, I thought: I don’t want to just do a concept with three heads in it. I want a story.”

This is something even the popular YouTube channels can use, as today even the top-subscribed channels use a “head” theme, and it doesn’t tell you anything.  All you know is that, “This is another video from Ray William Johnson.”  He’s not the only one that does this, but his channel is a clear case in point of thumbnails that don’t tell a story.  Here’s one of Bill Gold’s most famous works:

This poster is beautiful.  It’s dark and foreboding, and it invites people to dare to come watch what it represents.  In fact, the priest here, in silhouette, is the moviegoer.  Do you go beyond that gate, do you dare investigate what that obvious presence upstairs is?  Do you really want to go further?  Let’s be clear, this poster wasn’t largely responsible for making The Exorcist one of the most attended films of all time, since the trailer and being based on a popular book paved the way for the movie’s success.  But this poster certainly helped drum up anticipation for those who maybe didn’t see the trailer, or know the book, and added credence for those who did.

It should be noted here that while the poster itself probably didn’t contribute a lot to the initial success of the film, it certainly helped with future success.  That’s the image on all the later media for the film: when it hit home video, or became, quite apt for this article, an icon you could click in iTunes or  The poster has quite literally become “iconic.”

For movies, the trailer is often the top sales pitch for its success.  In the age of web video, seeing an image that perfectly describes what you are about to see is far more important.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been looking for a certain video and skipped right over the correct one because the one I wanted didn’t have an image that accurately described it.

So find an image in the presentation with action, something in focus, something bright and colorful, with close-ups that are easy to make out when the image is made smaller for the thumbnail size.  We’re going to review the playbook here, and notice how many times it sort of repeats itself, and says a lot of common sense things.  Still, people don’t do this stuff a lot of the time, because it doesn’t seem all that important.

Reviewing the Playbook: Optimize YouTube Thumbnails

Thumbnails, along with your video title, act as mini-marketing posters for your content on YouTube.  You should always create custom poster-frames to be uploaded along with the video title.  There are a few general guidelines to follow, but the right poster-frame depends on what your show is about.

  • Clear, In-Focus
  • Bright, High-Contrast
  • Close-Ups of Faces
  • Visually Compelling Imagery
  • Well-Framed, Good Composition
  • Foreground Stands Out From Background
  • Images That “Compel You To Click”
  • Accurately Represents the Content

Thumbnails are important for search, related video traffic, and channel page optimization.  This visual snapshot of your video is one of the most important optimizations for attracting views on the platform.  Tip: make sure to upload high-resolution thumbnails so your thumbnail appears crisp and clear throughout the site.

Some Examples Of Good Thumbnails, Larger For Your Consideration

Remember thumbnail images aren’t only the small icons that fit on YouTube or Google’s search results.  They are also the images that show up in embedded videos.  I think Freddie Wong does about the best job of making a video compelling and “clickable” from his selected images:

And I have no idea why I clicked on this video at all:

Look, this woman averages thousands into (rarely) the hundreds of thousands of views.  This one hit 11 million.  She should tease nudity in almost every video.

In the end, these two thumbnails combined are no different from this Bill Gold classic:

Now I’m going to take the Playbook to task here a bit because in the “How-To Steps,” YouTube actually tells you to “shoot your videos to make the content translate into a great thumbnail.”  Uh…this is giving too much credence and emphasis on the thumbnail.  Hopefully if you’re in this business, you are shooting compelling content anyway.  Hopefully, scouring your video for one good image is the least of your worries.  Plus, there are so many ways to make a thumbnail compelling with Photoshop and similar programs, that you should definitely not be shooting your video with a thumbnail in mind.  Yes, you should aim to make a good video, but to tailor your production to shoot something that will “be a great thumbnail” is silly unless you are explicitly shooting something for a thumbnail.

The great content should come first, and how you plan to shoot it should be your motivating factor.  Good thumbnails should usually follow, but to actually plan your shoot around how a thumbnail is going to look is counterproductive.

Listen to what Bill Gold says in this video, which is pretty much all you need to know about thumbnails:

Reviewing the Playbook: How-To Steps

Keep Thumbnail Optimization In Mind When Shooting

  • Shoot your videos to make the content translate into a great thumbnail.
  • Proper lighting, framing the shot, and capturing compelling imagery when you shoot will provide you with better material to work with when creating a thumbnail.
  • Consider taking photographs during your shoots to capture images for thumbnails.

Create A Great Thumbnail

  • Using images from the video and supplemental images (where relevant/appropriate) to create a custom thumbnail that shows off the best aspects of the video.
  • Use photo-editing software to resize, modify, or combine images together in the frame.
  • Apply effects such as adjusting the contrast and brightness of the image to make it stand-out and make the colors brighter.
  • Preview your thumbnail design at the actual size it will appear on the site to know if the image will still be eye-catching at smaller scales.

Insight Tracking Tip

Track changes in viewership after you optimize your thumbnails.  Use the Viewership graph and Discovery Information available in Insight to track any increase in viewership coming from search and/or related video where thumbnails are important for attracting clicks.

Thumbnails Are Marketing, An Advertisement For Your Video

Thumbnails are the book jackets, the movie posters, the album covers.  That’s what they are, only in this case, people are getting instant gratification by clicking on them and seeing the content right away.  The methods are the exact same, though.  Those book jackets, et al, are a means to get people to purchase those things.  The “click” is an online viewer’s “purchase” of your video.  How do you get them to click?  With a good title and good imagery.  So don’t skimp out on this easily overlooked asset.

Not A Partner? You Have to Cheat

After this article first published, several replies came in saying, “But Chris…you can’t create your own thumbnail unless you’re a partner, silly goose!” (I’m paraphrasing). And therein lies the faults of the YouTube Creator Playbook at times, because they sometimes neglect to mention that “some animals are more equal than others.” So now, for all you “regular” or “common” folk that aren’t YouTube partners, you probably should follow these simple steps for creating a “custom” thumbnail that will give you the picture you’d like to use without sacrificing the content. Here goes…

First, figure out what you would like your thumbnail to be. Then follow this tutorial from YouTube:

This unfortunately makes more work for you, but it’s a simple thing to follow and allows you to “customize” your thumbnail, even though it’s not really as simple as that. One day, we might live in a world where YouTube will trust a non-partner to upload their own stuff. Considering how many misleading titles and thumbnails there are on the site, it’s amazing they’re so controlling about it. But whatever. Beat the system with that trick for now.


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