One of the things that separates us from the rest of the monkeys posting videos online is our opposable thumbnails—wait, that’s not right. I mean, our outstanding thumbnails. Whether you’re posting in a video hub, on your landing page, in YouTube, or any other location, your video’s thumbnail is the book jacket, the album cover, the movie poster. It’s what will make people watch your video. Or not.

You might have the best content in the world but if you have a thumbnail that was automatically chosen by YouTube or if you just picked a random shot of a hand using a mouse, no one’s going to watch it, your page views are going to drop, and you’re going to fall in website search results. So if you think the best way to make a thumbnail look good is to put some shiny red nailpolish on it, you reeeally need to keep reading.

The Basics

Click-worthyVideo viewers are inundated with plenty of choice (or distraction, whichever you want to call it). So here are a few techniques to make your video thumbnail look like the tastiest piece of cheese to a viewer’s mouse.

1. Declutter. 

Thumbnail busyness definitely doesn’t equal business! The image you use needs to be simple, clear, and easy to see and understand. Try using only one or two faces or subjects. If you’re going to add text to your thumbnail, keep it to only a few words so it’s easy to read and attracts the eye.

Focus2. Keep focused.

Robin Thicke and Pharrell’s music video may have been a hit last summer, but “blurred lines” would make a pretty terrible thumbnail. Use high-quality equipment and techniques to bring your thumbnail shot in focus. Make sure the image is in high resolution so that wherever the video is posted or embedded, the thumbnail will be clear regardless of if its size is scaled down or up. You also want to make sure viewers can discern what your image is, so get close up on the subject. Zoom in on someone’s face so you can see facial expressions, or the fine details of the product that’s featured in your video.

3. Use high resolution.

Maybe your posting your video on just YouTube, or maybe you’re using a video hub, posting it on social media, a landing page or website. The thumbnail on these different sites may be small or a bit larger, so you need to make sure you’re using a high resolution image. That way, regardless of if it’s scaled up or down, your thumbnail will still look great.

4. Manage color, text, and brightness.

A dark image is hard to see, and even if someone could make it out, it’s unlikely to catch their eye. Use bright colors (and contrasting colors) to make your thumbnail really pop. Even if your video isn’t shot with bright backgrounds or subjects, you can change the background color of the thumbnail itself using image editing tools. And, as mentioned earlier, feel free to use text. Not everyone checks out the title of your video; their eye is first caught by the image. Often the title of a video can be truncated, so consider placing a couple well-chosen words to immediately let your audience know they want to click and watch.

5. Get animated.

Why use just a flat image can you can get fancy with movement? An animated GIF is a great, eye-catching way to dress up your video, and even show a hint of the action that your video offers. You can do this if you’re using a video marketing platform like Vidyard.

The Sell

So now you know the basics of how to make your video thumbnail look pretty good. But how do you take it from pretty good to wow? Technical, focused, colorful shots are one thing. But your video tells a story, and so must your thumbnail. The story is what engages people, makes them want to watch, and makes them want to buy. So keep in mind these final five tips:

6. Make the subject…the subject.

Your video is ABOUT something, so your thumbnail should depict it. Use a close-up of the character, or a shot of the product. Don’t use random images that YouTube generates for you or that play a background role in your video.

Emotion7. Let emotions shine through.

Ever noticed that when someone cries in a movie, your brow starts furrowing and your eyes water a little bit? Displayed emotions make the viewer feel something, too. That’s why video is the most emotive medium. No matter if we’re talking about happiness, fear, anger, a million other feelings, emotions are too powerful not to use them to your benefit. People will want to learn what the story is, and what has caused such a powerful emotion.

8. Consider branding your thumbnail.

Similar to how YouTube branding is displayed on all the videos posted on that site, you can do the same with your own videos. Add an icon or image that makes it clear that the video belongs to your organization to help build trust with your viewers. If your videos are excellent, people may click on any other videos that have your branding on them simply because you’ve already proved yourself useful, thought-provoking, or enjoyable. This is also a useful, quick, and easy identifier when you want to make clear that a number of videos are all part of a series, like Jamie Oliver’s Food Tube videos,for example.
Thumbnail Branding

9. Make sure the image and title relate.

If someone glances at your thumbnail, optimally, you’d want them to have an idea of what your video is about. So if you’re posting a video on how to plant pumpkin seeds, don’t choose a thumbnail of you sitting by the fire, even if that is how your video starts (if it is, you should probably consider a stronger, more relevant opening).

10. Click-bait is really click-off-bait.

It’s one thing to use an unrelated thumbnail because you didn’t know better. It’s another to do it on purpose because you think it’ll mean more clicks and views on your page. That’s called click-bait (aka lying!). Basically, that means posting a thumbnail of cleavage, for example, to make people click on your video about ant farms. This manoeuvre will work against you because the audience will feel fooled and angry and will be less likely to watch any more of your videos. As well, on sites like YouTube, if someone clicks on a video and leaves quickly, this tracked time on screen will bump you lower in search results. 

Now you know what to consider when choosing (or altering) a thumbnail. If you make one but you still aren’t sure if it’s the best option you could use, try making a few. if you have a video marketing platform like Vidyard, you can A/B test the images against each other to see which one gets the best response.

I hope I (thumb)nailed home the importance of choosing an appropriate video thumbnail. It isn’t just a picture, it’s a significant driver in getting viewers to your content (and, if that content is good, turning those viewers into customers).

Emily Ross