Video Thumbnails
July 24, 2014
By craig bass • Creative Director

We all know better than to judge a book by it’s cover, but we all do it anyhow. It's not surprising with hundreds of cable channels, millions of books, and billions of websites—not to mention everything else there is in the world!—we have so many things to choose from that we have to make some choices quickly. Sometimes, that means making choices based on the first impression of a cover.

Your video's “cover” is called a thumbnail: a still image that shows up in search results and on a video's page before the video plays. The thumbnail, plus a title and short description, are the tools you've got to entice viewers to actually watch your video. It's also an aspect of the video publishing process that many people completely overlook.

Perhaps you are posting a video promoting a charity event for which some custom artwork has been produced. Why not use that as a thumbnail?  It's something a little different, it has visual flair, and it's entirely relevant to the video. The important thing is to balance creativity with clarity, and give potential viewers a "cover" that they can't help but click on.

Looking at the screen shot below you can see a few thumbnail examples from a Google Search for “marketing 101.” The first thumbnail breaks almost all the rules of a good thumbnail. (See below for a list of rules) While the second thumbnail is much more in compliance with the rules. 


Thumbnail Rules: What makes a good thumbnail?

       •    The image should be in focus.

Make sure you thumbnail looks professional. An out of focus thumbnail suggests to prospective viewers that the video is also out of focus.

       •    It should be well-composed, with the subject clearly visible.

Web surfer's viewing choice is just as much about the thumbnail as it is the video title.

•   Make sure the image is representative of the video.

A scantily clad pop singer as your thumbnail might attract click-throughs, but if your video content revolves around how to sell mortgages, those viewers won't be interested in what you have to say. The video comments and ratings will be abysmal, you'll likely offend some of your actual customers, and the video may well violate your video host's terms of use and get taken down.

    •    Be creative!

YouTube's Creator Playbook acknowledges that "the right thumbnail depends on what the video is about," but it recommends close-ups of faces or other visually compelling images.  Product shots or action shots are also good candidates for a thumbnail.

While a thumbnail should be relevant to your video, it does not necessarily have to be a frame from the video. Many video hosting services, including YouTube and Vimeo, allow you to upload a customized image file as your thumbnail.

Motion Source often takes advantage of this option when posting videos. We create thumbnails that are simultaneously more enticing than any single frame, and more informative. In a product video, for instance, we might create an image in Photoshop that includes both the product and the video's spokesperson. The combination ties together two of the video's major elements and provides a much fuller visual description than any single frame would permit.

Here is the evolution process of creating a good thumbnail.




This video thumbnail shows a basic depiction of what the video style will consist of: a talking head on a white back drop from “Motion Source Video Production.”



This video thumbnail option goes one step further. Viewers now know that the content has something related to the product shown; in this case a water pump from Koshin America. 


Finally, this thumbnail gives us the best opportunity to attract qualified viewers. Prospective viewers know the video style (talking head), who the message is coming from (Motion Source), know the topic (water pumps), and know what the specific content is (water pump maintenance). 


Remember the thumbnail for your video is like the sign hanging outside your business or the movie poster for your masterpiece. It should be professional, eye catching, and informative. Your video content might be great but if no one clicks to view it, you’re not getting the best bang for your buck.