How to Create the Perfect Thumbnail Image in a Few Simple Steps

As savvy video marketers know, a video’s content is only one of the keys to its success. The elements surrounding the video—such as metadata, social media, and links—are crucial elements, as is the video thumbnail that shows up in search results or in the “Recommended” listings on YouTube.

ThumbnailVidpow1So how do brands get the best results from their video thumbnails? Jeremy Vest, founder of video marketing consulting firm Vidpow offered tips and tricks in a session at VidCon 2015 called “Increase YouTube Views with Custom Thumbnail Science.”

“Thumbnails are your billboard,” Vest said. “Don’t underestimate the power of your billboard. The number one organic method of discovery is suggested videos on the right-hand side rail on the YouTube page.”

In order to customize your thumbnails, you need to verify your account and make sure it’s in good standing. Then you can go into your channel’s Creator Studio, click on Custom Thumbnail for each video, and go to work. Custom thumbnails need to have a 16×9 resolution, such as 1280 x 720 pixels.

Adjust your image to make sure it pops compared too other thumbnails for recommended videos, Vest said.  He recommends saturating the colors about 20 to 30 percent. “When the thumbnail is displayed at a small size, it looks natural,” he said. “Color is taken out when it’s shrunk.”

Next, slightly over-sharpen the picture. Again, this will look natural when the image is displayed at a small size. You want to make sure that what’s in the picture is easily identifiable. Potential viewers shouldn’t need to guess about what they’re seeing.

As for the image itself, Vest recommended emphasizing the “three Es: eyes, emotion, and excitement.”

“Eyes are the number one way to connect on an emotional level,” Vest said. If you can put a face in your thumbnail, do it. Make sure the eyes are clear and compelling.

Ideally, the face in your thumbnail should be expressive, conveying a clearly identifiable emotion. “There are about 12 to 15 mouth movements—excitement, happiness, fright—that project subconscious reasons to click on something.” Vest showed the example of an anime thumbnail in which the face looked frightened, encouraging users to click to find out why (see image below). That thumbnail resulted in a 1300 percent increase over the thumbnail that YouTube generated automatically, based on A/B multivariant testing conducted by Vidpow.

Other YouTube thumbnail tips from Vest:

  • Don’t use a thumbnail that doesn’t truly represent the video. If you put something in the thumbnail that’s not actually in the video, people will feel tricked and click away.
  • If you’re using text in your thumbnail, keep it to two to four words. Keep the typography simple, and make sure it contrasts against the background.
  • Add a simple graphic element to all of your videos: a splash of color or a border that makes it clear to viewers that your videos are related. “Our brain looks for patterns,” Vest said. “You don’t have to use logos or your brand. It’s about repetition.”

Finally, use YouTube Analytics and A/B testing to track your success. In response to an audience question, Vest recommended TubeBuddy as one video service that currently offers A/B testing, but added that “a lot of services are working on it.”



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  1. thanks for a great overview of my session.

    Posted by jeremy | July 28, 2015, 9:27 am
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