Your video's thumbnail matters“Never judge a book by its cover” might be sound advice, but it’s seldom headed in today’s click-bait world where viewers decide, in a matter of seconds, whether your video content marketing deserves attention.

The play button might be the most powerful call-to-action (CTA) on the web, but your video’s thumbnail image plays a huge part when it comes to attracting the clicks your video deserves. If it’s not visually appealing, you don’t get a chance to impress your audience.

Content marketers must have an eye for visual design and today we’ll explore how to create and select the best video thumbnail images.

But first…

What should a great video thumbnail do?

It could be tempting to upload your video to YouTube and go along with whatever thumbnail is automatically selected, but you can’t afford to squander this important real estate.

The image is your video’s cover–its first impression–and it should accomplish the following things:

  • Hint at the premise of the content
  • Compel viewers to click to discover more
  • It can feature your branding
  • The play button should be prominent
  • It can indicate the length of the video, and
  • It should look awesome on any device screen size

Best practices and examples from the pros

While Buzzfeed gets a lot of content marketing flack for their often sensationalist headlines, media companies are so popular precisely because they’ve perfected the video thumbnail image and know how to drive clicks with curiosity.

Here’s a few things these media companies or successful YouTube channels do with their video thumbnails that you can incorporate into your own!

Use your thumbnail as your video’s movie poster

Video comedy website Funny or Die created a spoof of Mary Poppins looking for wage equality. Not only are they on the money with their current events spoof, but their video thumbnail features everything a good one should.

It acts as a mini movie poster featuring the A-list celebrity, the Funny or Die logo (in Disney typeface no less), the title and premise of the video in huge letters, the name of the actress in multiple spots, and it’s a close up of Kristen Bell as the main character. The blue background makes the images pop and the lettering is super clear. This is a clickable thumbnail if I’ve ever seen one, and if you’ve made a killer video for your brand, you should consider going the extra mile to create a custom thumbnail image to act as its movie poster.

Funny or Die get it right

Use a closeup of the subject

On a very human level, we’re psychologically drawn to look at other human faces. We look at faces to gather real information daily, so it’s no wonder why we like seeing them in videos.

That said, take advantage of this psychological draw by featuring big, close-up faces in your video’s thumbnail image. Check out how they’ve done this with the Buzzfeed video below. It’s also worth noting that the split screen used in this particular example happens to be a big trend. If you’re making a versus-mode type video, develop a video thumbnail in this style using the split screen close up technique.

We respond to faces

Include the title or select keywords

Use keywords wisely

We already know Jimmy Fallon is a content marketing idol, and it’s in part because he knows the value of a great image to catch your attention. For the Hashtags segment, look at how he uses the bottom of the video to showcase select keywords. If you notice the video is about awkward breakups, you’ll want to watch it versus if you had to guess as to the content.

Consider how you can incorporate topic-based keywords in your video’s thumbnail image either in the title or the way Jimmy’s team does along the bottom of the player. He’s also showcased the logo for The Tonight Show in the bottom left and you can do the very same for your brand.

Use highly expressive faces and hint at controversy

Beyond close-ups, use highly expressive faces in your video thumbnails. Decide what emotion your video is trying to evoke (e.g. in the example below it looks to be suspicion), and then use a face in your image that exaggerates this emotion. The image serves as a great primer for your audience and it’ll draw them in as emotion is a huge factor in impulse decisions (like whether or not you’ll click). If you can hint that the content of the video is shocking or will change the viewer’s current perspective in some drastic way, this is a bonus.

Expressive faces work especially well

Use an action shot and make us ask “Woah what’s happening there?!”

What's going on here?Thumbnails should peak our curiosity, so consider how you’ll tell a visual story with yours. In the image to the right, we can’t help but wonder, even without the supporting text, what’s going on with these two people. What’s on that iPhone? Our curiosity fuels Buzzfeed! You’ll notice they’ve also used a small timestamp in the right corner to let you know how much time you’ll invest in watching this sketch. It’s a good practice for your videos too.

Remember lighting matters!

One of the top mistakes I see all of the time has to do with the amount of light in the frame that stands in as the thumbnail image. I don’t want to call out any one company in particular, but try a squint test. Go to your video resource page on your site, or your YouTube channel, and squint. Can you immediately tell what the images are? Do video titles stand out? Does your logo stand out? Do faces stand out?

OR do the images look kinda like dark, shadowy blobs of unidentified items?

When creating custom thumbnail images for your video, turn up the brightness, increase the contrast and ensure something stands out as a focal point. These are surefire ways to catch visual attention quickly and work much better than shadowy blurs.

Take still photos during your film shoot

One of the best ways to ensure you have a great image for your thumbnail is not to leave it up to chance. During your film shoot, whether it’s a thought leadership interview or a customer testimonial, remember to capture some purposeful still images that can be used as your thumbnail. You’re looking for images that work with text over them (or to the side of them), images that are framed up nicely, or even portrait-style shots where you can add some blur to the background so your subject stands out.

We took it a step further with our Point of View video with Trish Bertuzzi below, incorporating a few stills to create an animated GIF.

If you don’t take purposeful stills at a shoot, you could have a great customer testimonial, but your thumbnail image will feature your customer mid-sentence, looking like a weirdo. Hardly flattering even if the content is–so be prepared!

A/B split-test to select the perfect image

It’s one thing to go with your gut, but it’s another entirely to actually test and discover which thumbnail image your audience is actually attracted to. Sometimes the results can be surprising.

With a video marketing platform, you can upload your video, select which thumbnail images you’d like to test, and then receive statistically significant data for which performs better with your audience:

When you split-test a thumbnail image, you may have a hunch about what will perform better, but might be surprised by the results. Ultimately it’s up to you what image you use, but it never hurts to test and work from data to fuel your best marketing possible.

Save yourself some time

If you’ve got a video series, consider making a thumbnail image template that can simply be updated with each release of your episodic content. Here you can see that Jamie Oliver’s “Food Tube” uses the same format for every episode. This not only makes your branding consistent, but you’ll notice most of his thumbnails feature most of the best practices we’ve discussed here (Big faces, text, hint at the subject, etc.), but these images also look awesome no matter if you see them on a desktop screen or on mobile. They’re optimized to look great at any size!

Jamie Oliver's Food Tube Channel gets splashscreen images right

Overall, your video’s thumbnail image is the preview. If it’s not visually interesting or doesn’t draw someone in initially, it’s not going to get the clicks you deserve. Try the tips above based on what the pros are doing and let us know how it goes!

Jennifer Pepper