The thumbnail is the first thing a potential viewer sees when deciding whether or not to watch your video. And first impressions matter when it comes to earning views and watch time. Here’s how to ensure your YouTube thumbnails are as effective as possible.
What’s the big deal?
Before we get into how to design a good YouTube thumbnail, let’s talk about why the thumbnail matters so much in the first place. It all comes down to click-through rate, or CTR. Every time your video appears in YouTube’s recommendations or search results, it’s counted as an impression. The CTR compares the number of people who click on your video to the number of overall impressions.
If a video has a lot of impressions but not many clicks, that’s a signal to the YouTube algorithm that not many people are interested in that video. This can greatly diminish the video’s reach.
Things to know about making a YouTube thumbnail
The look of your thumbnail will depend on your channel’s style and audience. However, there are a few universal design rules to keep in mind.
First, YouTube thumbnails should have a resolution of 1,280 by 720 pixels. That will give your image the familiar 16:9 aspect ratio. Thumbnails can be uploaded in standard image formats like JPG, GIF and PNG. No matter the format, files must be under two megabytes in size. All thumbnails must also follow YouTube’s Community Guidelines, so no nudity, violence, hate speech, etc.
Finally, be sure to keep your mobile viewers in mind as you design your YouTube thumbnail. Consider using larger images and text that will show up more clearly on smaller screens.
With the basics out of the way, let’s take a closer look at the individual design elements.
A bright, clean color palette will help draw the viewer’s eye, but be careful not to overwhelm the senses with too many different colors. Choose colors that complement the subject matter of the video and your channel’s overall aesthetic. A consistent color palette will help returning viewers recognize your videos at a glance.
While color helps grab the eye and set the tone for the video, the thumbnail image gives YouTube viewers their first hint as to what the video is about. Because creators need to communicate an entire concept in a single image, they collage together elements from multiple sources. At the same time, the image needs to be clear and legible, even when very small. That’s why you often see single elements — often faces — cut out and isolated against a single-color backdrop.
Speaking of faces, including a face in your thumbnail — especially one with an exaggerated expression — is a common strategy for driving up views. In fact, Best SEO Companies looked at the most popular videos in 2020 and found that 72 percent of their sample group featured a human face in the thumbnail. These videos averaged nearly one million more views than videos that did not include a face in the thumbnail.
However, this doesn’t mean you are required to include a face in your thumbnail — go with what makes sense for your channel’s overall aesthetic. And if you don’t want to include your own face, consider including the face of an actor or character instead. Just make sure they’re relevant to the subject of the video.
Graphic elements include all the attention-grabbing extras that add context to the thumbnail. Checkmarks, arrows and fireball overlays can provide powerful non-verbal cues for your audience, but it’s important not to overuse them. Too many arrows and emojis will make your thumbnail cluttered and hard to read.
While the video title is often optimized to push the video to the top of YouTube’s search results, the thumbnail text is all about attracting clicks. That means you can have a bit more fun with it. Often, the text will simply give viewers a shortened version of the video title, but it’s not the only option.
Clever thumbnail text can create a curiosity gap that prompts viewers to read a title they may have otherwise skipped. For instance, a recent video from National Park Diaries shows an image of a canyon with “How??” written above it in large text. This creates a small mystery that viewers can solve by reading the video title — “How Did the Bryce Canyon Hoodoos Form?” — and then watching the actual video.
There is one other option when choosing text for your thumbnail: none at all. Consider whether your image speaks well enough on its own before adding this final element.
Where can you make thumbnails?
There are several free and paid tools that you can use to create custom thumbnails. Adobe Photoshop is one popular option, especially if you already use Adobe Creative Cloud for other aspects of production. Adobe also offers a free YouTube thumbnail designer through Adobe Express. Canva and Fotor also provide free design tools and templates for YouTube thumbnails and more.
How do you know your thumbnails are working?
We’ve gone over the general rules for designing effective YouTube thumbnails, but how do you figure out what works best for your specific channel and audience? That’s where A/B testing and click-through rates come in.
A/B testing, also known as split testing, compares the performance of two different designs or strategies. In this case, you can use A/B testing to figure out which thumbnail design brings in the most clicks.
To make things easier, tools like TubeBuddy and others automate the testing process. For instance, you can set up TubeBuddy to swap between two thumbnails every 24 hours for a specified number of days. At the end, you’ll see which thumbnail attracted more viewers. However, you can also execute an A/B test manually with a little time and patience.
First, decide on a testing interval — at least a week, but the longer, the better. Choose one thumbnail to use for the first interval. At the end, note the video’s CTR, found in YouTube’s Analytics dashboard. Then, swap in the new thumbnail. At the end of the second testing interval, simply compare the CTRs to determine which thumbnail was more effective at attracting viewers.
It’s best to have a plan when conducting any A/B test. Changing only one element at a time can help you hone in on what’s actually driving clicks. Also, keep in mind that tastes change, so it’s a good idea to revisit your thumbnail strategy periodically.
A good thumbnail will convey not only the topic but also the tone of your video. It’s a major factor in determining whether or not your video gets the clicks it needs to find an audience. Use this advice to design an effective thumbnail that helps your next video attract the viewership it deserves.
Image courtesy: MrBeast, Beast Philanthropy, CoryxKenshin, Bailey Sarian, Tucker Budzyn, Ludwig, Markiplier, Mark Rober, PewDiePie, mrnigelng, SmallAnt, QTCinderella, Nick DiGiovanni, SSSniperWolf, Kyle Exum, Elise Ecklund and SomecallmeJohnny