“A picture is worth a thousand words” goes the popular saying.
Which is useful because you don’t get anywhere near a thousand words to try and convince someone to watch your YouTube video.
That being said the YouTube Creator Playbook only dedicates a few column inches on the subject of thumbnails and so I’m going to expand on their advice and give a few extra tips that I use to make sure that my videos get watched.
The expanded guide to YouTube thumbnails
Firstly, as they aren’t included in the Playbook, here are the YouTube thumbnail size and specification details as taken from the YouTube Help Centre:-
- Have a resolution of 1280×720 (with a minimum width of 640 pixels).
- Be uploaded in image formats such as .JPG, .GIF, .BMP, or .PNG.
- Remain under the 2 MB limit.
- Try to use a 16:9 aspect ratio as it’s the most used in YouTube players and previews.
Here are the General Guidelines, as set out in the Playbook. I have expanded on each one to help you put these into action and achieve a better click through rate.
1. Always upload custom thumbnails with the video file
I’ve moved this to the top of the list as I think it’s most obvious.
A custom image is almost always going to be a better choice than the auto-generated options that YouTube provide, not only because of image quality but also because of the importance of the next point…
2. Design thumbnails that reinforce your videos’ titles – make sure that together they tell a cohesive story
When a YouTube thumbnail accurately portrays what’s being said in the title, they work together to create a more inviting offer for those people that would be interested in what you have to offer and weed out the people who aren’t.
But I want as many views as possible on my videos
Not short, incomplete views that hurt your audience retention rate.
Low viewer retention rates hurt not only the likelihood of your video being surfaced by the algorithm but also the other videos in your channel. A strong combination of Title and Thumbnail will allow you to have an optimized start to your video which will help improve retention stats.
3. When shooting a video, take extra shots that will make great YouTube thumbnails
YouTube does not know the Hook of your video, so there’s very little chance that it will give you an auto-generated option that will represent it well.
A well-timed screen grab can be extremely effective but will rarely have the impact of a specially shot image (or well Photoshopped collage).
4. Make sure the thumbnail is not overly sexually provocative
This will depend on your definition of “overly” but Sex does sell.
Sex gets clicked.
You should be fine with some provocation as long as there are no nipples on show.
That’s absolutely not a reason to include some cleavage in your thumbnail if your video is about remote control cars, but if you’ve got it, flaunt it.
There’s a reason those fail compilations have millions of views.
Here are the Visual Guidelines, as set out in the playbook:
1. Clear, in-focus, hi-resolution (640px x 360px min., 16:9 aspect ratio)
These will be seen on screens of varying sizes and a high-resolution image will mean they retain quality across all of them.
A 16:9 ratio is a must as any black bars look untidy and unprofessional.
2a. Bright, high-contrast
2b. Foreground stands out from background
Both of these will mean a sharper image, which can be seen at smaller sizes and will catch the eye of viewers on very cluttered search pages.
3. Looks great at both small and large sizes
This is extremely important.
It’s all well and good if your thumbnail looks like a Van Gogh on a giant screen but how many people will actually see it that way? More and more views now come from mobile and tablet and so your images need to be just as effective on a much smaller scale.
Make sure you zoom out of your image to check this before you upload.
It is for this reason that I always advise against using text in a thumbnail unless absolutely necessary. Videos are rarely seen without their title right next to them and it’s a waste of space to replicate your title on the thumbnail.
This is especially detrimental when that thumbnail is seen on mobile.
4. Close-ups of faces
This tip has always confused me and I’m not sure that I necessarily agree.
It may be relevant for Vlog style content that is personality lead (and in general less visually appealing) but for the vast majority of video I think it would be better to include images more connected to the subject matter.
5. Visually compelling imagery
This would go towards reinforcing my previous point and choosing the right image is key.
Go for something action based or something out of the ordinary if possible. Something that will differentiate you from the competition.
6. Well-framed, good composition
A well composed image is not only more likely to catch the eye, it also gives a clue to the quality of the video.
If it’s clear you’ve put more time and effort into producing your image than the competition, it’s likely you’ve done the same for your video.
7. Accurately represents the content
All roads lead back here.
At the risk of repeating myself, having views for a bolstered view count will not help you in the long term. Audience retention and watch time is the Holy Grail of a YouTube channel and enticing people in with false advertising is a way to lose subscribers, not gain them.
Make it sensationalist, make it sexy, make it stand out, but make sure you can deliver on it.
Important to remember too that YouTube don’t take kindly to misleading thumbnails and it remains one of the few reasons that someone can flag your channel to YouTube.
Apart from the above points from the Playbook I think there?s a few fundamentals that have been overlooked and you need to integrate them into your processes.
Three Bonus Tips for better YouTube thumbnails
Like all of your branding on YouTube, keeping a consistent style across your thumbnails will help with recognition and association. This recognition factor can be invaluable in setting your videos apart in search results and suggested videos.
Some people like to put their channel logo into thumbnails, but I think it?s overkill and can make a thumbnail a bit too busy, especially on mobile.
If you do want to brand your thumbnails don’t do it at the expense of other elements.
There’s plenty of opportunity to do this in other parts of your video/channel too. If you’re consistent enough, that visual style becomes part of the brand.
2. Make it EYE CATCHING
Duh! Obviously Tom.
Yes, I know it is but there are ways to catch the eye on busy search pages that are definitely under used.
In the main, your video will be displayed against a white background, so use borders and white space to create a pattern interrupt and make sure that the eye is drawn to your videos.
Here’s a stunning example of that:
There’s very little space to convey scheduling on the channel page nowadays. However, letting your subscribers know what they can expect, when it’s coming and the differences in your types of video are still very important.
If your channel does have multiple strands then a great tip is to use colour as a differentiator between the different types of video.
Yet again you’re letting the viewer know exactly what they’re getting before they click and anything that works towards this goal is good.
Here’s an excellent example from the Global Cycling network
Check out their channel page to see it in full effect.
It’s easy to talk about optimized YouTube thumbnails, but the physical production of them takes time, effort and some degree of skill.
If you have the time and ability I’d suggest doing this yourself as you’ll be in full control of the output.
I personally keep mine simple and clean and using Photopshop can just about cobble together something useable. If you don’t have the funds to use a programme like Photoshop though you can find free alternatives such as GIMP.
When working with other people’s content I’ve used professional picture editors and the difference in quality from what I can produce is staggering. If you do have the money, the extra investment in professional help could make a huge difference.
If budgets are tight consider a skills swap or barter with a designer, or if you’re lucky you could try and find a reliable designer on Fiverr where I’ve had some success in the past.
This may feel like a big effort for what is seemingly a small part of the YouTube process but the impact it can have can be gobsmacking. I’ve seen the difference a thumbnail can make.
Go back and review old thumbnails with a critical eye.
Do they live up to the new standards that you’ve set for yourself?
If not go back and re-do them and make sure you track the results in your analytics.