What are video thumbnails? How to make a thumbnail image

Young woman editing a thumbnail video in a laptop

If nobody judged a book by its cover all we’d have is paperbacks made of recycled egg cartons. But we all do. And likewise, plenty of people will judge your content by its video cover image. That’s why it’s so important for any video editor or content creator to pick the best possible video thumbnail. This still image serves as a clickable preview of what viewers will get when they press play. It’s literally your video’s first impression, and you won’t get a chance to make a second one.

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What is a thumbnail?

Thumbnails are small images that act as a preview for a picture or video. These tiny preview images are roughly the size of a thumbnail, which is how they got their name.

For content creators and video editors, thumbnails provide an opportunity not just to give your viewers a preview of what’s to come, but also to draw them to click on your video in the first place. Thumbnail images are how YouTube, Vimeo, and other platforms show users what’s in the video so they can discern whether that particular video is what they’re looking for.

What makes a good thumbnail?

Think of a thumbnail image as an invitation to view your video. It gives a potential viewer a reason to watch what you’ve created — but their importance goes further than that. A good video thumbnail will:

  • Stand out. Thumbnails are often just one image in a sea of other thumbnails. A well-done thumbnail will be eye-catching enough to make people stop scrolling and watch your content.
  • Provide context. A thumbnail gives viewers an understanding of the video’s content and how that content will be delivered.
  • Encourage sharing. The best thumbnails are appealing enough not only to get one viewer to click, but also to make that viewer share the video with their own social media networks.
  • Retain viewers. If viewers got what they expected from your first thumbnail, they’re more likely to trust your other thumbnails and stay engaged with your channel or website overall.
  • Create brand awareness. It can help viewers identify your content by using cohesive brand elements like colors, fonts, and icons.

Why are thumbnails important?

Thumbnails are more than just tiny pictures — they can have a huge impact on a video’s popularity. Video platforms like YouTube can put your content in front of viewers in a few places. YouTube thumbnails appear on:

  • Search pages. Youtube video thumbnails are shown in the results when someone searches terms in the site’s search bar.
  • Recommendation column. These videos are listed on the right-hand side of a YouTube video, or any other “recommended viewing” function on a similar platform.
  • The main page. Each YouTube user has a unique homepage when they log into the platform, which features a collection of content algorithmically customized to their tastes.

Your video’s placement within these different spaces is driven by how users interact with your content. Thumbnails are part of that equation: high-quality thumbnails should entice users to click on a video, watch it in full, continue watching more content on your channel, and, hopefully, subscribe so they get more content from you. All of these will boost a video’s positioning in the above locations. YouTube tracks and notes all of this and may consequently recommend your content in more places.

Just like websites and blog posts, video content can also rank on search engines like Google. Good thumbnails will draw clicks and prolonged views, meaning Google’s own algorithm will rank them closer to the coveted first page of search results. It all starts with that little thumbnail!

6 tips to consider when creating a video thumbnail

There are a number of best practices to consider when creating a good video thumbnail.

1. Make it personal

Top-performing thumbnails, and consequently, top-performing videos, have a personal touch. Don’t just slap a screengrab of your video’s opening scene; get creative by adding graphics or a picture of your face (maybe with an attention-grabbing facial expression to hint at the tone of the video). Try to connect with your viewers to draw them in.

2. Add some text

Because YouTube titles can get cut off in search results pages after 60 characters, thumbnails provide extra space to show your viewers what they’re going to get. Using text is an effective way to communicate a video’s details and context, and even expand on it, while also adding a personal touch.  Keep in mind, though, that any text you overlay on the thumbnail should still be simple, catchy, and easy to read.

3. Use a high-quality image

The image on your thumbnail should be clear, vivid, and high resolution. A low-quality thumbnail indicates a low-quality video, so stay away from blurry, pixelated artwork. A small image can still be high quality.

4. Make it the right size

Specifications for thumbnails will vary based on where you’re publishing the video. Ideal aspect ratios, resolutions, and formats for common platforms are:

  • YouTube videos: Aspect ratio of 16:9; resolution of 1280 x 720 pixels; JPG, GIF, BMP, or PNG.
  • Facebook videos: Aspect ratio of 16:9 or 1:1; resolution of 1280 x 720, 720 x 720, or 720 x 1280 pixels; JPG or PNG.
  • Instagram videos: Aspect ratio of 1:1, 9:16, or 16:9; resolution of 1280 x 720, 720 x 720, or 720 x 1280 pixels; JPG or PNG.

5. Add a watermark

A logo or watermark is a great way to differentiate and make your thumbnail personal and easily identifiable. A watermark on your video thumbnail allows a viewer to quickly ascertain that a video is from a brand or channel they trust and to identify more of your content. Even without a logo, consistent style with cohesive colors and fonts are powerful branding tools themselves.

6. Include your face

Thumbnails featuring a human face can build an emotional connection between viewers and the prospective content. A study led by researchers at Caltech backs this up: It found that the human brain responds faster to faces than to any other object. We are naturally attracted to faces, and we will be naturally attracted to thumbnails that feature them.

How to add a thumbnail to your video using Descript

After you create a video in Descript, it’s easy to add and adjust your custom video thumbnail.

  • First, publish your video to the web by going to the upper right corner and clicking Share, then Export, then Page. If you’re not ready to make it public, just choose Unlisted under Page Access. Then hit Publish, copy the published URL that starts with share.descript.com, and visit that URL on the web.
  • Once you’re in your video on the web, click the right arrow on the right sidebar to show publish settings. At the bottom, you’ll see a preview of your current thumbnail — usually just a still from your video. Below that, you can select from the following:
  • Upload image: This function is for creating a custom thumbnail. This allows you to upload your own graphic as a thumbnail. You can customize your thumbnail using a variety of image-editing tools, like Canva or Photoshop. If you’re using a screen grab from your video, it’s important to optimize the image for use as a thumbnail, which may mean adjusting the image’s brightness, color intensity, and/or contrast.
  • Current frame: This allows you to navigate to a timestamp in the video and set a screengrab of that moment as your thumbnail.
  • Remove custom thumbnails: This allows you to remove the current custom thumbnail.

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