What Are Video Thumbnails and Why Do They Matter?

Learn why your video thumbnail can be the difference between enticing viewers and driving them away.

video thumbnails hero

You may have heard the phrase, “you never get a second chance to make a first impression. A video thumbnail is your viewer’s first impression of your video.

A great video thumbnail can mean the difference between thousands of views and just a few.

But how do you know what makes a good thumbnail and how do you create one?

We’ll show you.

Here’s what you’ll learn:

Learn How to Create Video Thumbnails to Drive Views

The right video thumbnail can mean the difference between a viewer watching your video or moving on. Learn how you can create video thumbnails that entice viewers and keep them coming back!

Read the Guide

What are video thumbnails?

A video thumbnail is a still image that acts as the preview image for your video. It’s kind of like a book cover. And, like a book cover, it should entice a potential viewer to want to see more.

The term “thumbnail” originated with still images. A thumbnail was a smaller version of a full digital image that could easily be viewed while browsing a number of images.

A MacOS window showing thumbnail previews of various images files.

Even your computer’s operating system uses thumbnails. In the example above, you can see that, when viewing this folder of images, the computer presents a smaller representation of the actual file.

And, while a video thumbnail isn’t simply a smaller version of the actual video, like its still-image ancestor, it should provide a viewer with an idea of what they will see when they choose to watch.

You’ve probably heard that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but if that were true, book publishers wouldn’t go to so much trouble and expense to make book covers look so exciting.

And the same is true of your video thumbnail.

Why are video thumbnails important?

A great custom video thumbnail can make all the difference when it comes to a viewer clicking through to your video.

It’s a super-easy way to give your video a professional look.

If you’ve spent any time on YouTube, you’ve likely seen dozens if not hundreds of cool thumbnails. Exciting graphics, people smiling or just looking cool and inviting.

A good thumbnail makes you want to watch the video.

And, conversely, you’ve probably seen a ton of other videos that seem to have given no thought to it at all. It’s probably just some random still image from the video.

There’s a reason for that.

By default, if you don’t choose and upload a thumbnail for your video, YouTube (and other video hosts) will pick one for you from various still shots from your video. And, I’m here to tell you it’s almost certainly going to be unflattering.

If you have a person speaking in your video, it’s almost a given that the default thumbnail will include a weird or awkward facial expression.

The YouTube default thumbnail selector. There are three images available to choose and all show an awkward facial expression.

In the example above, I uploaded a video of me recorded from my webcam. All three of the default thumbnail options show me with a weird facial expression. Plus, there’s nothing that identifies what the video is about or why anyone would want to watch it.

It’s not enticing and it’s not a professional look. And if you can’t be bothered to look like you care about how your video looks, why should I bother to watch it?

You can choose a different thumbnail from the options YouTube presents to you, but using a custom thumbnail is so much better.

Essential elements of a thumbnail

If a thumbnail is your audience’s first impression of your content, you want to make it a good one. 

A custom thumbnail gives you an opportunity to really sell yourself and your video. Give your audience a reason to watch your video — especially if your video is just one of many on the same subject.

A good thumbnail

As such, your thumbnail should always:

  • Clearly convey your video’s subject.
  • When possible, show the face of the person speaking in a fun and inviting way.
  • Include your brand.
  • Be optimized for any device.
Thumbnail for the video "How to Make a YouTube Video."

In the example above, you can clearly see these elements.

  • The video’s title is large and easy to read.
  • The video’s speaker (our own Andy Owen) uses a humorous pose to convey an emotion.
  • The TechSmith logo is visible.
  • We let you know that there’s a free template available to help.

That’s a ton of information conveyed by a single image. And, it helps anyone looking at it decide if that video is right for them.

Also, check out How TechSmith Optimizes YouTube Custom Thumbnails for Viewers.

Four ways to make your thumbnail stand out

A quick search on YouTube for just about any subject will turn up hundreds if not thousands of videos. And, a good number of them will have custom video thumbnails.

So how do you make yours stand out from the crowd?

I did a random search on YouTube for “How to make a video” and these were the first few results. You can learn a lot just from these alone!

Five examples of video thumbnails. Each is unique, but all have several common features, including flattering images of the person or people speaking, the video's title, and pleasing design.

1. Use color

Color can make all the difference. Even thumbnails with a black or grey background can benefit from a pop of color. all of the examples above use color to draw your eye.

2. Use closeups of faces

Every one of these shows someone’s face. Even the one that uses a cartoon person clearly shows the face. And, all of the faces are clearly conveying emotion. You don’t want your subject’s face to look bland or emotionless.

3. Use bold, clear text

You want your anyone seeing your video thumbnail to instantly know what it’s about. Don’t make them hunt for the title.

4. Be consistent

This is especially true if you’re trying grow a channel. Use consistent colors or themes in thumbnails so that fans will always know which ones are yours, no matter how many other videos show up in the search results.

Once you’ve gained credibility as a creator, people will want to come back to get more of your content. Make it easy for them!

Get started creating your own custom video thumbnails

Now that you’re acquainted with thumbnails and some best practices for video thumbnails, it’s time to start making thumbnails that give a great first impression.

Try experimenting with different styles and colors to find what fits with you and your audience.

Learn How to Create Video Thumbnails to Drive Views

The right video thumbnail can mean the difference between a viewer watching your video or moving on. Learn how you can create video thumbnails that entice viewers and keep them coming back!

Read the Guide

Note: This post was originally published in 2017 and has been updated with new information.

What is a video thumbnail?

A video thumbnail is a still image that acts as the preview image for your video.

Why are video thumbnails important?

A great custom video thumbnail can make all the difference when it comes to a viewer clicking through to your video. A good thumbnail makes you want to watch the video. A bad thumbnail or no thumbnail does not make a good impression.

How do I create a custom video thumbnail?

Check out this great tutorial on how to make a custom thumbnail: https://www.techsmith.com/blog/youtube-thumbnail-sizes

Ryan Knott

TechSmith Marketing Content Specialist. Geek. Science Enthusiast. Retired roller derby coach. On a mission to pet all the dogs. He/him. A few things about me ... 1. Mildly obsessed with the movie Alien, 2. Two pibbles: Biggie and Reo, 3. Friend of ducks everywhere.

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