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

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

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:

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

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 Amazon.com.  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:

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

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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Posted in YouTube Marketing
About the Author -
Chris Atkinson joined ReelSEO in 2011. He is a longtime film and television reviewer, and has almost two decades of experience in the theater industry. He also writes on his personal blog - http://nymoviereviews.com. View All Posts By -

What do you think? ▼
  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=122522857854080 Anthony Nitz

    I get the idea of optimizing the thumbnail but you mentioned in the article to "upload" a great thumbnail and I haven't found a way to do that in YouTube making the 3 thumbnails they give a random hit or miss. I would like to know specifically if there's a way to set the Thumbnail in YouTube or how to place a thumbnail strategically in my video so it will be one of the three picked by YouTube. Thanks.

    • Chris Atkinson

      Unfortunately guys, you have to "cheat" if you're not a partner. And I'm sorry I didn't mention that in the article. Apparently, you do in fact have to "shoot" what you want as a thumbnail, then you should follow the advice that's in this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z0X2FyRl-9s&feature=related.

      Basically, you'll have your thumbnail image at the very end of the video, then you play around with it to make it a thumbnail for YouTube.

      That's not a horrible option if you're not a partner, but it does mean you have to sort of figure out what you want your thumbnail to look like before you upload the completed video. I hope that helps, and hopefully YouTube will be less stingy about this in the future.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1273157097 Anthony Nitz

      Chris, Yeah I get that but it seems that the poster is suggesting you basically replace almost 30% of the end of the video just for the sake of getting the thumbnail in. I guess when you're not a partner, you have to weigh your options... 1. No thumbnail or 2. Poor user experience (to have to watch a 30second thumbnail on a 1 minute video.) Of course we could be creative with audio and annotations etc. Here is however an alternative to creating a thumbnail for a playlist without being a partner. I suppose you could just upload one video, create a playlist and then use this technique. http://youtu.be/zTTUt2y42D8

    • Chris Atkinson

      Thanks for the link, Anthony. It looks like there are a ton of people on YouTube with their own specific ways of making (non-partner) custom thumbnails. Unfortunately, none of them are just as easy as "uploading the image."

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=681840342 Sofia Stefou

    I have the same question as Anthony. My most recent client has asked about how change the thumbnails from the standard ones that YouTube provides. Is this even possible?

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=670956418 Ronnie Bincer

      No, not unless you are a Partner - or if you want to try making a video with a VERY LONG still shot at the end of it (poor user experience, longer net video length, etc.)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1593996395 Zane Miller

    I agree with Anthony. I have one partner channel, and I know you can upload your own thumbnail on a partner channel, but not for regular folks.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100361750022323 Video Leads Online

      U are right!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=721235589 Doug Kramer

    As far as I understand, the thumbnail three formula for us regular (aka non-partner) folk is a hit and miss ordeal. I've re-ordered, edited and re-posted the same video 12 times and got the same three thumbnails. So, I tried renaming the video and moving things around. Best I could come up with was that there tends to be a "first, middle, last" sampling. But I would insert a thumbnail slide in those zones and it wouldn't show up so I'd move it 15 seconds forward or back until it did. Now, this doesn't do anything for your content. You can't just drop random slides. The solution? Make EVERY 10 seconds of your video compelling and worthy of a thumbnail until you get the Partner status where you can start choosing your image. Working for me. Have a look. http://www.youtube.com/paintballsnipertv

  • Chris Atkinson

    Unfortunately guys, you have to "cheat" if you're not a partner. And I'm sorry I didn't mention that in the article. Apparently, you do in fact have to "shoot" what you want as a thumbnail, then you should follow the advice that's in this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z0X2FyRl-9s&feature=related.

    Basically, you'll have your thumbnail image at the very end of the video, then you play around with it to make it a thumbnail for YouTube.

    That's not a horrible option if you're not a partner, but it does mean you have to sort of figure out what you want your thumbnail to look like before you upload the completed video. I hope that helps, and hopefully YouTube will be less stingy about this in the future.

  • Julian Martinez

    Not sure I understand this post - as far as I was aware, Youtube does not give most accounts the ability to chose custom thumbnails? Aren't most accounts limited to the three random thumbnails generated automatically by Youtube? I thought only partners could customize them, but maybe this is a new feature.

    • Chris Atkinson

      You're right, Julian, they don't offer non-partners the option to customize...but you can cheat--and I've changed the article to reflect that. It's not as great as being able to just upload an image, but it's still something worth considering.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100361750022323 Video Leads Online

    Some of you know my passion in this area (YouTube Thumbnail Tricks)...
    I am surprised you guys (ReelSEO) are promoting someone's suggestion video on YouTube when it is not 1) accurate & 2) posted by YouTube (but a YouTuber).

    The only thing on it that is true (repeatable) is adding a LONG STILL SHOT at the end of the video uploaded, and using the 3rd TN image as the TN.

    Overall the Playbook is useful to all. Here regarding TN images is only fueling the fire. Everyone knows they want a great engaging TN image. Most can not "upload" it because they are not partners, so what is the point in telling you to make one if the majority can't upload it anyways?

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=670956418 Ronnie Bincer

      Too bad we have to Cheat to accomplish what YouTube says to do for Thumbnails.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100361750022323 Video Leads Online

    FYI, I came very close to figuring this out (many moons ago) but decided the $$ I would have to charge to do it for folks was too much, not enough people would want to pay for it.

    Reference a video I did (disclaimer: I'm not YouTube) many moons ago (2+ years ago) by searching in Google or YouTube for "Video Thumbnail Trick" - look for the one that says "Video Optimization" on a black start studded sky.

    If I knew that there was a true demand for it, and people were willing to pay $150+ per video, then I might start doing it again for folks, but most have told me that is too much $$!

    • Chris Atkinson

      I like that trick, too. It's unfortunate that people even have to do that, but thanks for the tip.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=681840342 Sofia Stefou

    I'll certainly keep this in mind for future video production, but it feels a bit complicated for a just a thumbnail non?

    • Chris Atkinson

      Yeah, it downright sucks. And the Playbook seems to make it sound like anyone can just create a custom thumbnail.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=616585694 Nicholas J Longtin

    Great article. I think these points are all valid and worth considering. I have to admit the YouTube thumbnail seems to have much influence over me when I decide what to click on and view.

    My personal strategy for YouTube thumbnails is to just create videos that are chock-full of striking shots. So far it has worked pretty well. The hardest type of videos to do this for though is the "talking head" type (interview, customer testimonials, etc).

    Take a look at my channel and let me know how you think I'm doing thumbnail wise: http://www.youtube.com/user/arcstonetech.

  • http://www.hosting-4-oscommerce.com/author/dprophit/ Denver Prophit Jr.

    I could be wrong, Chris, but I do not see any embedded attachment for a photoshop template nor do I see dimension specifications. Can you revise your post?

  • http://www.ninjamlm.com/ Tom Connelly

    That's all good, but hey, what if the video is just someone talking and not some mini movie production? Using a default thumbnail might be like a trademark image for their channel or persona rather than having some custom per video thumbnail which is not able to be gotten from the video since it's just a head.