6 Killer Tips to Make Your Custom Thumbnails Pop

By Tubular Guest Contributor · October 14, 2015

A great custom thumbnail can make all the difference when it comes to a viewer clicking through to your video, or deciding to watch another. The thumbnail is often the first introduction to your content, but so many creators fail to take full advantage of this optimization feature.

YouTube itself has been hard at work on behalf of creators, and just announced a new thumbnail algorithm which should soon help you to pick out the best image to choose from. Based on deep neural network technology, the new model can compare the quality of each frame of a video, and select which still images best represents the footage. This is a fantastic development but nothing quite beats a custom thumbnail image that ties back in with your channel message and brand. Let’s take a look at how the most successful video creators follow best practice when it comes to producing these vital images.

Custom Thumbnails: Best Practices from the Pros

Apart from making content that viewers and fans want to watch, video creators should follow some guiding principles when it comes to making great thumbnails, such as:

  • Conveying the subject of the video content
  • Compelling the viewer to click-through to the video
  • Differentiating their brand
  • Making sure they are optimized for any device

#1 Custom Thumbnail Tip: Make the Best Use of Color

The brighter the colors, the more chance the thumbnail will stand out from the rest of the competition, but don’t go too overboard as it will make the thumbnail look gaudy and cheap. Rather than offending the eyes, do just enough to differentiate your video from others. Don’t settle for the default colors in your image. Pop the file into your favorite graphics editor and turn up the saturation just enough to make the colors stand out vs. other thumbnails. Just play with the colors filters a bit, as even small changes to the hue/saturation can draw eyes directly to your thumbnail instead of everyone else. Consider applying a subtle filter to your thumbnails. Even something as simple as sharpening the edges can have a subliminal effect on your thumbnail.

YouTube channel My Cupcake Addiction really makes the best use of color to make its videos stand out against really stiff competition. Don’t they make you want to click right through on these images to see the videos behind them?

custom thumbnails youtube

#2 Connect with the Viewer: Include an Image of  Face

Ensure that your thumbnail has a human face whenever possible, and if you can use a close-up shot, even better. This will help the image stand out, whatever device it is being viewed on. e on any device, no matter the size. If eyes are the window to the soul, including emotive eyes can lead viewers into the heart and soul of your video. The added emotion will pique the curiosity of viewers and make them want to see what caused the emotion in the video.

Buzzfeed Video is the master of this – just take a look at its video archive page on YouTube, it’s a sea of faces:

buzzfeed video custom thumbnails

#3 Go For the Action Shot!

If your video content lends itself to it, use an action shot as the thumbnail. The added sense of motion will encourage viewers to clink on your video to see what’s going on. The more action you can pack into a single thumbnail, the better. It will speak volumes to the viewer. The Slow Mo Guys are well-known for their crazy experiments, and along with very precise titles, they almost always include the main action shot from their video on their thumbnails. Especially if it involves an explosion or a big ball of fire.

slow mo guys custom thumbnails

#4 Include Text to Give Context

good mythical mornings custom thumbnailIf you plan to insert words into your thumbnail, take a look at channels like Rhett and Link’s Good Mythical Morning, who will often overlay some narrative when it’s not immediately obvious what the content is all about.

Including the title or a few key words can help draw in viewers as well. Just be careful to not overshadow the content with your text and yet keep it large enough to read on any device.

#5 Create Custom Branding for Your Thumbnails

lowes custom thumbnailsGiving your custom thumbnails some consistency is an excellent way to build awareness for your content, especially if you are in a very competitive vertical like DIY.

Lowes are a good example of a brand using a thumbnail feature – in this case its signature blue – to differentiate itself from the crowd. Although there is definitely more it could be doing, the chain has started to use a the blue as a background, or as text color and its working well.

Lowes could optimize even further by using different types of branding depending on the content they are publishing. If you have different types of content, use a different color to help viewers know exactly what they are getting into. Techsmith did this with its custom thumbnails to help guide the viewer around its YouTube channel, grouping different themes around different products or tutorials.

#6 Test! Test! Test!

One last tip is to A/B test those thumbnails. YouTube still doesn’t have a native feature (yet), so you’ll need to rely on tools like TubeBuddy. A well-planned A/B testing strategy can improve the performance of your channel almost immediately, so don’t overlook this valuable strategy. Also, don’t be afraid to replace a thumbnail if you feel it isn’t working for you.

It used to be that misleading thumbnails could build you an audience on YouTube. It doesn’t work nearly the same as it did years ago. Savvy viewers are painfully away of the tactic and misleading thumbnails could even drive viewers away. Be honest with the content behind the thumbnail and make sure it matches to keep your audience engaged. Now that the site is much more focused on watch time than on simply driving clicks and views, you have to make sure that whatever is on your thumbnail, engaging content lives behind it.  If you can nail down the main premise behind each of these tips, you’ll create a thumbnail that not only tells a story, but gets viewers to click on it to see more.

Be ahead of the curve in
the age of video.