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How to create YouTube Thumbnails that increase your video CTR

By July 1, 2018June 17th, 2022No Comments

Your YouTube Thumbnail image is your video’s first impression. Make it count. Your thumbnails and titles work in unison to attract the viewer’s gaze, pick their interest, and create anticipation for your video’s content. If they are not appealing and don’t stand out, the viewer will simply scroll past your video.

Today we’ll discuss how to customize your YouTube thumbnail so that it will stand out from the rest. In a separate post I’ve already covered best practices for your YouTube title.

YouTube’s Default Thumbnails

Once your video upload is complete, YouTube presents you with three thumbnail choices. These are random screenshots taken from your video and you have no control over them.

Auto generated youtube thumbnails

If you like any of these and you feel no need to customize them. Select one, save it, and move on with your day.

However, sometimes automatically generated thumbnails can backfire. Look at the image below, for example, which could have become one of the automated thumbnail suggestions for this YouTube video about Zero Waste (at about 1m 30s into the video). Not a great start for this video, is it? Next, we’ll discuss how to switch it out for a more customized, high-quality thumbnail.


Designing Custom YouTube Thumbnails

Customized YouTube thumbnails are giving you maximum control so you can actively influence your click-through-rates. Before we cover the creative aspect of customization, I’d like to drop a few lines on the technical prerequisites.

Technical Specifics of Custom YouTube Thumbnails

Since November 2009, YouTube has supported High Definition (HD) mode for all videos depending on the resolution of the original source. A big step forward, also for your thumbnails.

To ensure that your YouTube thumbnails look their best on any device, try creating them with a resolution of 1280 x 720 pixel (with a minimum width of 640 pixels), which equals a 16:9 aspect ratio. Acceptable formats are .JPG, .GIF, .BMP, or .PNG.

At a glance

  • 1280 x 720 px
  • minimum width: 640 px
  • aspect ratio 16:9
  • .JPG, .GIF, .BMP, or .PNG
  • keep under 2 MB

Creating Quality YouTube Thumbnails

If you’d like to give custom thumbnails a try, the rest of this article will provide you with some guidance, though there are no limits to your creativity. Enjoy!

  • Reflect on your thumbnail before you start shooting your video. This will allow you plan out in great detail what image, design, and feel you are going for more and direct your video creation.
  • Use an image that supports your videos’ content and matches its title.
  • Thumbnails need to display well on small and large sizes. Test them out to ensure that the text is legible and the graphics crisp.
  • Aim for a high contrast between your thumbnail’s main focus and the image’s background.
  • Don’t use over- or underexposed images. Hue, vibrance, and saturation are important in striking the right tone.
  • When viewers click into your video and stay to watch through, this lets YouTube know that the viewer is enjoying your content. However, if your thumbnails and titles don’t deliver on their promise of what’s in the video, viewers tend to leave almost immediately, which can limit your discoverability on YouTube. The longer you can keep people watching on YouTube because of your content, the more your content may get surfaced.
  • Apply the “rule of thirds” when cropping your images to create a dynamic, balanced feel. For images that feature text, this point is specifically important.

Focus points

  • See if your thumbnail would stand out among other thumbnails.
  • Avoid misleading, clickbaity, or sensational thumbnails. YouTube’s algorithm picks up when viewers abandon your video shortly after arriving. This send a strong signal that your video thumbnail and/or title were tricking viewers into clicking. YouTube will then limit exposure to your video(s) as a result. If you’re interested to see viewer behaviour in action, you can do so in the audience retention report. What you’re looking for is a rather flat slope. A sudden drop at the beginning of the video indicates that there was a mismatch between the expectations you set with your thumbnail and video title and the video content you delivered.
  • Play within YouTube’s Community Guidelines, to avoid having your video flagged or removed.
    Chose graphics that appeal to a broad audience. YouTube may disable your thumbnails from showing for certain search results if deemed inappropriate for viewers. In case you’re wondering: YouTube determine this based on audience retention, dislikes, and viewer feedback.
  • For the first video in a playlist, create a thumbnail that can accommodate the playlist overlay.

Playlist overlay

Featuring a person in your YouTube thumbnail

  • During the video shoot, you can take still photographs to recreate the look and feel of your video.
    When taking close-up photographs of people for your thumbnail, ensure that they make eye contact with the viewer.
  • Feature a person in your thumbnail when possible, because people are naturally drawn to faces.

Thumbnail creativity

    • If you were not able to take pictures during the shoot, you can capture a screenshot of your video in your video editing software or on your computer during playback (Windows: Windows key + Print Screen || Mac: Command + Shift + 4). You can then edit this screenshot to your desire in the design software of your choice. For recommendations, see the Tools section below.
    • Consider adding some text. Many viewers actually look at a video’s thumbnail before they read the video title.

Uploading Custom YouTube Thumbnails

Please note that in order to upload custom thumbnails, you must have a verified account.

Add a video thumbnail (desktop)

  1. In YouTube, head to Creator Studio.
  2. Then navigate to Video Manager.
  3. Upload your video.
  4. Under the “Video thumbnails” section you will see an option to choose a Custom thumbnail, once the video upload is completed.

Changing your video thumbnail (desktop)

  1. In YouTube, head to Creator Studio.
  2. Navigate to Video Manager.
  3. Next to the video you would like to change the thumbnail for, click Edit.
  4. Under the “Video thumbnails” section you will see an option to choose a Custom thumbnail.
  5. Upload your custom thumbnail.
  6. Click Save changes.

Add custom thumbnail (mobile app)

  1. Open your YouTube Studio app.
  2. Tap Videos.
  3. Select the video you would to edit the thumbnail for.
  4. Tap the pencil icon.
  5. Tap Edit thumbnail.
  6. Tap Custom thumbnail and upload the image of your choice.
  7. Confirm your thumbnail selection.
  8. Tap Select.
  9. Tap Save.

YouTube Thumbnail Experiment

You may have heard about YouTube’s auto-generated thumbnail experiment that just rolled out, upsetting hundreds of its creators and may be wondering if this will impact you as well. The short answer is: It may. Let me fill you in.

At the end of June 2018, YouTube announced that it is currently testing out a feature that aims at helping creators generate high quality thumbnail images – automatically. The problem is that YouTube didn’t get consent from its creators become part of this experiment and started switching out customized thumbnail images of millions of videos with auto-generated thumbnails that its AI created. This is impacting watch time and ultimately the revenue of YouTube creators. Not so cool.

How many videos are affected?

According to YouTube, this experiment impacts 0.3% of its viewers. This may sound like a small number but with 1.5 billion monthly users, a total of over 4.5 million users are currently affected.

What triggered this experiment?

According to Google’s YouTube’s product forum, this experiment was inspired by a large number of requests demanding better quality auto-generated thumbnails. Over the next few weeks, a selected group of viewers will see the auto-generated thumbnail for all videos, across all channels, instead of the custom thumbnail. Unable to influence what that auto-generated thumbnail will be, YouTube creators are at the mercy for YouTube’s AI.

How to Download YouTube Thumbnails

Sometimes it can be helpful to check your thumbnail images in different resolutions, after you’ve uploaded your video. This can be to double-check what your thumbnails looks like across various screen sizes or to download another creator’s attractive thumbnail for later inspiration. Whatever your reason may be, let’s see how you can easily accomplish this mission (without reverting to screenshots). – default size: 120×90 – MQ size: 320×180 – HQ size: 480×360 – SD size: 640×480 – Maximum Resolution size: 1280×720

Here’s another fun fact: Each YouTube video includes 4 thumbnail images by default.

The first one (ending in 0.jpg) is the full size image that is the actual thumbnail representing the video. The remaining three images are auto-generated thumbnail images that the video creator could select. size: 480×260 size: 120×90 size: 120×90 size: 120×90

If this is too cumbersome for you, here’s a great tool with the funny name BoingBoing that can help with this.

YouTube Thumbnails – Tools

Snappa: YouTube thumbnail design tool

FotoJet: YouTube thumbnail design tool

BoingBoing: Download a video’s thumbnail images.

YouTube Screen Shot: Taking screenshots from a YouTube video.

Download my YouTube Thumbnail Photoshop Template.

The template also includes focus guides (see below for an explanation of focus guides) as well as a gray playlist overlay, to test out how your thumbnails display as the first video of a playlist. Enjoy.