Guide To Awesome YouTube Thumbnails

Good video thumbnails don’t make a bad video good but they are absolutely necessary to help good videos get clicked on.  When a subscriber or youtube browser sees your video the thumbnail and title are your only chance to convince them to watch your video.  Good titles deserve their own attention so I want to first focus on the thumbnail. If don’t have thousands of subscribers you can still get thousands of views if you make the right videos and take care of all the details.

I have less than 4,000 subscribers but my most viewed video is approaching a half a million views! I have 3-4 videos that get a few thousand views every day! If I can repeat that with 10-30 more videos I could be getting as many views as the big guys. These videos also drive new subscribers. I get a few new subscribers each day from these videos.

What makes a good thumbnail?

Thumbnail Do’s

  • The subject(s) fill the frame
  • Show and create strong emotion (shock, curiosity, laughter, pain, anger,fear)
  • Relate directly to the title
  • Only 1 or 2 faces or subjects
  • Slightly saturated and bright
  • Common theme/trademark for video series
  • Wow! or WTF Factor

Fill The Frame

Those thumbnails are usually small and if the faces aren’t cropped type you can’t really see much. For best results, the face is going to fill almost the entire thumbnail even until the top of the head is cut off! You want to see the whites of the eyes and detailed facial expression.

Extreme Emotion

The faces work best if they are expressing shock, fear, anger, laughter. The potential viewer wants to feel those emotions and these facial expressions will tell them, “If you watch this video you are going to experience that emotion.” If you don’t have a face make sure the scene insights emotion. My most viewed video is of me swinging a child by the arm and leg. Combined with the title “Extreme Child Abuse”, the viewer is presented with a shocking scene that may even cause anger. I know, I have several angry commenters on that video.

Relate to Title

You don’t want to confuse the viewer. This is simple if you are uploading your thumbnail. If you take the thumbnail that youtube gives you the chances are it is ambiguous.

Keep it Simple

Again, you have very limited space. The hero or main subject of the video needs to be front and center. If there is an antagonist feature them as well. Limit your text as well. I would say no more than 5 or 6 words.


With your image editing software you can try a few things. Bump up the saturation and brightness. Not too much just a tiny bit. You can also play with replacing the background with a bright contrasting color so your subjects pop out.


Keep it small but if you have a series you can distinguish this video as part of the series with a little logo or text. This helps fans of your series recognize your videos quickly and increase the chances they’ll find them and click on them.

Example Thumbnails

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All these videos have several million views. Many more than the channel subscriber counts.  The thumbnails aren’t the only reason these videos got millions of views, my guess is the content of the video is the main reason but the thumbnails are the grease in the viral machine.

You can work really hard to get your video in front of people but unless your thumbnail is enticing you are going to miss out on tons of potential views.

Does a good thumbnail guarantee views?

Of course not.  It used to.  Or, I should say, not necessarily.  In the good ol’ days of YouTube you could put some cleavage up and you were guaranteed views.  YouTube would suggest videos based on click through rates.  Which is the percentage of people who click on your video when seen in a list of videos.  In early 2012 YouTube made big steps to reduce click bait videos such as “Crazy Snake Attack!” shown above.  If someone clicks on a video and quickly leaves it because the video doesn’t deliver what the thumbnail promises then YouTube will be less likely to suggest that video again.

Don’t Be

  • Vague
  • Confusing
  • Dull
  • Have a lot of text

Bad Examples

Just because I now know what not to do doesn’t mean I always follow my own advice.  Here are a few examples of bad thumbnails.  One thing to think about is that if your thumbnail is going to show or cause extreme emotions then your video needs to deliver those emotions.  It is hard to fake it and you can make viewers mad if you trick them.  I know all about that as well.

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How could I improve the first thumbnails? Maybe show me upside down and up close.  The title should probably be changed as well to something like “Old Man Does Flip”
The second thumbnail? Was the gameplay really fun? Who was playing? Show mine and/or my son’s face expressing joy, laughter, fear, etc.  But be sure it matches what we experienced in the video. Think TobyGames and PewdiePie.
The third thumbnail? I know I’ve had a better thumbnail for this video at some point.  It should have been my cute 2 year old daughter closely cropped.

I have nearly 200 videos and most of them sit there getting almost no views each day. I actually have more like 220 videos but I have unlisted many of my older videos that just don’t show my best. I have tried “putting lipstick on the pig” but it is better to look forward and make better videos and better thumbnails from here out.

Is there an awesome video that you think should be getting more views? Here is what I want you to do. Get in your YouTube analytics and find an older video that is still getting views. Hint: Look at your most viewed video in the past 30 days or even 7 days. If you find an older video in that list that means it has some potential. Use what you’ve learned to improve the thumbnail of that video and wait a few weeks (YouTube takes some time to update it’s database). If more people end up clicking and watching your video then there is a good chance that YouTube will show it as a suggested video even more and you will move up the list in search results! When you start raking in the big bucks don’t forget to send me a cut of your earnings.

To end this post I am going to include a snapshot of the most viewed videos of a few big channels and my own. Maybe it will inspire you how to improve your own thumbnails.


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If you found this post helpful be sure to share it!  Also, let’s talk. Leave a comment.  I am really good about responding.  I might even be able to take a look at one of your videos and suggest a new thumbnail. Also, consider subscribing to this blog and my youtube channel.