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Grabbing Views With Thumbnails: The Overlooked Key to Engagement

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In a content landscape where algorithms mediate what content users see, if your videos don’t earn early engagementthey will quickly get lost in the noise. To stand out in searches, recommendations, and newsfeeds, powerful first impressions are paramount. One commonly overlooked element for creating more engaging online videos is the humble, ubiquitous thumbnail.

Vevo, YouTube’s leading music video channel, offers an illustrative case study. After switching out a music video’s thumbnail from a dark, blurry image to a light image of the video’s two stars, Vevo recorded a 4,000% growth in views on the video within two weeks.Netflix also understands the power of thumbnails, famously carrying out rigorous A/B tests to constantly improve engagement.

The takeaway: optimizing your video thumbnails is one of the highest-impact quick fixes you can make to improve your video performance. The following best practices will help you get started on the right track to attracting eyeballs.

Clarity. Online video is particularly popular on mobile, with 63% of all online videos viewed on mobile devices. Thumbnails, which are small to begin with, become downright tiny on a smartphone screen. When designing thumbnails, test for legibility and clarity at all sizes. Amplify image contrast, sharpness, and brightness a bit higher than usual. The same goes for the size of text and other graphic elements. What might seem excessive at full size will ensure your thumbnail looks great, even when scaled down substantially.

Color.Bright, saturated, solid colors stand out more than subtle shades and make the most of your limited pixel real estate. Vibrant colors grab attention at an instinctual level and will ensure your video stands out amidst numerous options. The “Trending” section of YouTube provides a clear illustration of the importance of colorful thumbnails in video success.

Character. People are wired to recognize and respond to faces, especially faces displaying clear emotions. Take Vevo’s recent thumbnail change: It’s no coincidence that the most impactful change was the additional emphasis placed on the main characters’ faces. Close-up shots featuring characters making exaggerated faces are a sure attention-grabber. Highlighting exaggerated faces might seem silly and kitsch, but there is little denying this tactic works. And when you’re trying to get noticed and tell a story in a split-second, you have to take advantage of every tool at your disposal. 

Context.In addition to the visuals within the thumbnail itself, it is also important to consider how they interplay with the video title and description. Simply repeating the same text or concepts in the thumbnail as in the title is a missed opportunity to incorporate additional meaning. Imagery can be used to either reinforce the promise of the title, subvert expectations, or heighten anticipation. For example, sports broadcasters see the highest engagement on videos whose titles promise to show a goal or score, but whose thumbnail previews only reveal the moments leading up to the drama.

Consistency. Giving all your thumbnails a consistent visual element or style will help them stand out, especially when they appear in multiples on search results or recommended lists. When branding your videos, think beyond the logo. Logo overlays can work, but are best complemented by consistent color, typography, photography, and graphics. This technique can even work for differentiating distinct series on the same branded channels. For example, Buzzfeed adapted its own unique style to thumbnails for its popular mini-series, Worth It. The resulting thumbnails are instantly recognizable as belonging to both Buzzfeed and Worth It.

Experimentation.Reverse-engineering what works for others is a start, but the only way to truly know what works for you is to run your own tests. Vevo’s thumbnail success story resulted from deliberate experimentation. Unlike Netflix, which controls its platform and is therefore able to carry out intricate, scientific A/B tests, Vevo is limited by YouTube’s platform. While there are paid third-party services enabling limited A/B thumbnail testing, Vevo’s story demonstrates that you can perform adequate tests on an ad-hoc basis. So, whether you are posting videos to a platform with testing limitations or to your own proprietary system, there is no excuse not to run basic tests at the very least. Validate your assumptions and then refine each subsequent implementation. And when it comes to deciding which metrics to follow, don’t just keep track of clicks. Track engagement, watch time, and demographics, as well. Getting strangers to your content to click is one thing, but turning them into fans is the ultimate goal. This is the rubric against which all of your video efforts should be judged, and optimizing your thumbnails is an ideal place to start.

[Editor's Note: This is a contributed article from Minute. Streaming Media accepts vendor bylines based solely on their value to our readers.]

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