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I’m responsible for thousands of thumbnails that have generated 3B+ views.
I’ve also made every mistake in the book.
Do better than me and break these bad thumbnail habits early.
Why Does It Matter?
Two MASSIVE Reasons:
- Thumbnails are the marketing for your videos
- Thumbnails set viewer expectations
Thumbnails as Marketing
Before a view ever occurs, thumbnails are your video’s first impression to the masses. It does not matter if you’ve made the best video on the planet if nobody clicks on it.
Your YouTube success is determined as much by your ability to market your videos as it is by your ability to create them.
Before the click, your thumbnail serves two purposes:
- Stop the scroll
- Earn the click
We’ll cover the “how” further down.
But your thumbnail’s work doesn’t end when someone clicks on your video. It’s just getting started.
Thumbnails as Context
Thumbnails set expectations in a viewer’s mind. Just like Inception, except they’re awake. Eat your heart out, Leo.
But why should you care about expectations? It’s simple: viewer satisfaction.
After the click, each viewer will be judging your content based on the expectations set by the thumbnail. If you over-promise and don’t deliver, you can kiss that viewer goodbye. Audiences are selfish. They will not waste their time on subpar content - nor should they. Time is a non-renewable resource. I’d go as far as to say thumbnails can impact retention as much as the edit. Make sure anyone who clicks on one of your videos doesn’t regret it. Your audience and AVD will thank you.
Thumbnails can impact retention as much as the edit.
Get it? Got it? Good.
What You Need to Know
If you’re ready to have your toes stepped on, let’s dive into the 3 most common thumbnail mistakes I see:
- “Perfect” Design
Let’s get this out of the way: there’s no such thing as perfect design. There’s only effective design.
A thumbnail’s purpose is to grab attention and earn a satisfied click.
You spent 2.7 hours trying to find the perfect font?
Cool. Is your thumbnail concept even interesting?
Obelix Pro can’t fix boring.
Human interest is the first principle at play. Too often, creators are stressed about color theory and balanced framing instead of trying to make a thumbnail that’s genuinely engaging for another human to see.
Does this mean that thumbnails can’t be beautifully designed? Absolutely not! The best thumbnails on the platform marry both aspects together.
Bonus: you’ll learn so much more from posting 20 thumbnails that are 80% “perfect” compared to one thumbnail that’s 99% “perfect”.
Humans can identify images in as little as 13 milliseconds. That’s roughly 30x FASTER than the blink of an eye.
Your thumbnail is competing with thousands of others for viewers’ attention. How can you stand out and get their eyes on your thumbnail?
Don’t require processing power.
If a viewer has to actively use their brain to understand your thumbnail while scrolling, they will leave it in the dust. You have 13ms to get your concept into their minds to make them pause. Keep your thumbnails as easy to understand at-a-glance as possible.
→ Limit points of focus
→ Highlight important features
Points of Focus
This is where the 3-Element Rule kicks in. Limit your thumbnails to only 3 key focal points. You don’t need to have 2 full sentences of context on your thumbnail + a face + arrows + a logo + etc. etc.
Show the most interesting and important value your video has to offer. And be ruthless in your decision-making here. Is your face actually adding any value whatsoever? Unless you have 10M+ subs and/or a personality-based channel, probably not. Use that valuable real estate for something that will actually get a viewer to click.
I see too many thumbnail gurus shouting “USE BRIGHT COLORS” from the rooftops when that really isn’t the best strategy (for most). You certainly don’t want your colors to be dim or washed out, but neither should your thumbnail look like skittles threw up on it.
If everything stands out, nothing stands out.
Use color, arrows, and circles sparingly and only in service of clarity and interest for your audience.
- 3 points of focus (mountain, arrow, house)
- The colors are good, but the main pop is the arrow (for clarity)
- Makes me want to read the title for more info (which brings us to…)
Synergy (or lack thereof)
More than a buzzword on every techbro job description, this is referring to the way thumbnails, titles, and content work together to earn a view.
When designing your thumbnails, keep this user experience in mind:
- Thumbnails stop the scroll and gain initial interest
- Interesting enough that the title is checked for more context
- +1 view added to your video (and solid retention assuming the content matches the promise made with the packaging)
Biggest synergy mistakes I see:
Packaging is too vague
- Audiences need to know what they’re going to spend their time on. I’ve run countless AB tests and found that blurred objects tend to receive lower CTR. (entertainment niche)
Text on the thumbnail is repeated in the title
- Don’t waste valuable real estate in either place! Use the shorter/catchier phrase in your thumbnail and drive your point home in the title.
The thumbnail doesn’t properly show the value listed in the title
- If you’re surviving on a deserted island for 24 hours, maybe don’t go with a happy/smiling face asset. You should look like you’ve been removed from civilization entirely.
Use your titles and thumbnails to create a vortex of human interest that the viewers can’t escape. (and don’t mind being trapped in)
Now let’s get to work! Strategy is only as good as the action it enables.
What You Need to Do
Here is your challenge for this week:
- Create your next thumbnail by following the 3-Element Rule
- Update a previous thumbnail using the info in this post
Don't forget to send me your results!
All the best,