Ever wondered why some online videos get thousands of views, while others get only a handful? Yes, engaging, relevant content is a big factor—but so is marketing and promotion. In the crowded arena of online video, you have to fight for attention: a key weapon in your arsenal is the video thumbnail image.
A video thumbnail functions like a movie poster or book cover. Its purpose is to draw people in. A well-designed, visually appealing thumbnail image hints at what the video is about and entices viewers to click on the play button to find out more. It's important because you have just a few seconds to grab someone’s attention before they're distracted by some other bright shiny object online.
Here are five tips for creating an eye catching thumbnail image that will get your video noticed and persuade viewers to click through to watch:
1. Use Close-ups
Close-up shots of objects or people are more powerful than wide shots, and that’s especially true when it comes to video thumbnail images. Thumbnails are small—when viewed on a smartphone, they’re the size of a postage stamp. If you use a wide shot of a scene, viewers will have trouble making out the details and will be more likely to skip over your video. Instead, fill the frame with a close up shot to engage the viewer, like this sample template from Canva:
2. Choose Bright Colours
Retailers use neon signs to grab a shopper’s attention because they’re bright and flashy. You can do the same with your thumbnail image by choosing a brightly coloured background or image, like this Canva template:
If you’re using a photograph or screen capture, bump up the saturation levels a bit or add a subtle filter to make your image pop. Another technique is to choose complementary colours. According to colour theory, these colours are located opposite one another on the colour wheel (for example, red and green).
When placed side by side, complementary colours jump out because they make each other appear more intense and brighter. The result can be jarring though, so use this technique sparingly.
3. Show Faces
As humans, we’re psychologically drawn to look at other human faces. We see ourselves mirrored in them, and take social cues from their expressions. When a thumbnail includes a face making direct eye contact, viewers feel connected and are more likely to be drawn in.
Another tip is to use highly expressive faces that exaggerate emotion or hint at controversy, like the faces used in this Canva template:
We’re intrigued by strong emotion—how else can you explain the popularity of those trash-TV talk shows like The Jerry Springer Show? A close up image of someone reacting with surprise or anger will make viewers want to watch to find out what’s going on. Don’t be deceiving, though: if your thumbnail doesn’t relate to the video or is too over the top, you’ll lose the viewer’s trust and they won’t be back. There’s enough click-bait out there as it is, don’t contribute to the problem.
4. Include Text
A picture alone isn’t always enough to convey what your video is about. Adding a few words of text to the image can help add context. The key is to hint at the content of your video and compel viewers to click to find out more. There isn’t much space to work with on a thumbnail, so don’t try to cram too much in. Use just a few words, and a sans-serif font like Futura that’s easy to read. Keep the lettering large and clear so it can be seen on any device. These thumbnail images from Fail Army are a perfect example:
5. Use an Action Shot
If you have compelling action in your video, use a screen capture of a crucial moment in that action in the thumbnail. The implied motion will rouse curiosity and encourage viewers to click to watch what happens. The Slo Mo Guys are masters at this:
Now that you know what a good video thumbnail should include, let’s look at how to create one. If you’re not a Photoshop wizard (and I’m definitely not), I highly recommend using Canva. It’s a free online tool (with paid premium options) that can help you create beautiful designs quickly and easily. All you have to do is create an account and you’re ready to get started.
For my demonstration, I’m going to use this screen capture from a video I did for a client about a specialized water bottle for styling curly hair:
I’ve chosen this image because it’s a good example of our best practices for video thumbnails: it contains bright colours, a face making direct eye contact, and implied action. I just want to add some text to the left hand side to add context and make it a bit more compelling. Watch now as I walk you through how easy it is to use Canva to make a video thumbnail image:
There are many templates, photos, and fonts to choose from. Now that you’ve learned the basic elements of a good video thumbnail image, it’s time to experiment and have fun!