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11 Easy Ingredients of a Clickbait Thumbnail

Clickbait thumbnail

Don’t judge a book by its cover, the proverb says. Today, when you can get any novel on the palm of your hand in a few clicks, the folk wisdom seems questionable.

With all the competition happening online, you can’t afford to take the wrapping of your content for granted.

Although people prefer videos over any other format, they scroll fast and click picky. And yes, they do judge by the cover.

The way you present your video content to the audience is pivotal if you don’t want to get lost in the crowd. And this is when thumbnails come into play.

In this guide, we’ll nail down the nature of clickbait thumbnails and list all the essential ingredients needed to make them.

What is a thumbnail

Video production is quite a resource-intensive process comprising many steps, from writing a script to adding captions. But once the final cut is ready, there is still one thing to thoroughly work on – a thumbnail. 

Wherever you are going to post your video, at first it is likely to be displayed as a still shot. Thumbnail serves as a liaison between the user and the content inviting the former to click the Play button and watch the whole thing. 

There are two ways how you can have a thumbnail created:

1. Willy-nilly

In this case, you let the platform randomly pick up a frame and auto-generate a thumbnail for your video.

You have to be lucky enough not to get a pic showing a weird impression frozen on your face with the eyes half-closed. Anyways, don’t expect too many people to be impressed by a fuzzy and unrelated image.

2. Conscious

This is when you accurately craft a custom thumbnail for each video considering various nuances and then upload it to the target platform.

Spoiler: this is the option to go for. 

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What makes a thumbnail clickbaity?

DISCLAIMER: Some time ago, the term clickbait thumbnail got a bad rep and was considered as something negative in the online world. 

The reason for that was the unfair competition that caused a flood of cheesy and irrelevant videos hiding under promising thumbnails in pursuit of higher click-through rates. Once clicked on, these videos left the user feeling fooled and disappointed. 


But initially, clickbait thumbnails were not meant to mislead or cheat on the viewer. The purpose of these content pieces is to attract the audience, make it curious and induce clicking. And there is nothing wrong with this intention as long as the content behind the preview is good.

Here are 11 tips and tactics that will help you find the best recipe of frankly efficient clickbait thumbnails that drive not just clicks but genuine engagement.

#1. Produce high-quality content  

The video thumbnail is one of those details where the devil hides. But is it worth spending time on a good-looking wrapping if the content inside does not conform? Well, it might work once but, as said before, won’t bring you long-lasting recognition. People fallen for this trick won’t come back. 

If you want to attract the right audience and make people be willing for more of your video content, make sure to have a solid strategy and a strong dedication to delivering high-quality content. 

12 Simple Tips to Make Your Videos Look More Professional (2018) | Video Marketing How To

Making videos is easy! Follow our Video Marketing How To series to discover tips and tricks on how you can improve your videos

Also, there is another side of the story. If you create great videos and don’t complete them with appealing thumbnails, people might miss out on your valuable content. 

To sum up, the number one tip is to maintain high quality inside and out.

#2. Stay within the context

Same as movies of different genres are promoted by different billboards, the videos you post on your channels also need covers that correspond. Simply put, it would be weird if La La Land had an Insidious-like poster.

Lalaland poster Insidious poster

Consider your thumbnail as a tool to manage viewers’ expectations. Whatever your video is about, the cover should reflect its informational and emotional value.

Consider your thumbnail as a tool to manage viewers’ expectations. Whatever your video is about, the cover should reflect its informational and emotional value.

In a split second, your thumbnail should resonate with the audience and appeal to its interests or pain points. Make it intriguing enough to provoke curiosity but at the same time relevant to the context. 

If you decided to take thumbnails seriously, at the very start create a thumbnail mood board to answer the following questions: 

  • Who are you doing your videos for? 
  • What is your tone of voice? Is it formal, scientific, or easy-going?
  • What feelings do you want your viewer to have while watching?
  • What colors and visual effects can help you evoke those emotions?  
  • How are you different from your competitors? What is your kicker? 

When the conceptual part is all straightened out, it is easier to start creating cover images of the relevant genre and matching vibes.

#3. Use pictures of fine quality 

Though it is the shortest tip on this list, don’t underestimate its importance.

You never get a second chance to make the first impression. The quality of the image is something that testifies to your professionalism and dedication to delivering good content. 

The quality of the image is something that testifies to your professionalism and dedication to delivering good content. 

Make sure to maintain high standards from the very first touchpoint. You won’t regret doing so.

#4. Express emotions

It is not news that giving your content (and business at large) a personal touch is valuable both for the audience and yourself. Showing up in your videos gives people a chance to get to know your real voice and mimics. It creates a sense of presence and makes online communication more genuine.

Emotions are what drives people’s behavior and choices. When we see someone being surprised we get curious, sad eyes evoke empathy and happy faces make us smile, too.

happy face

That’s why an emotionally charged portrait grasps attention to the thumbnail and increases the likelihood of clicking on it.

Emotionally charged portrait grasps attention to the thumbnail and increases the likelihood of clicking on it.

This idea has been proved by a recent experiment by AdEspresso who tested out Facebook video thumbnails and discovered that a real human face shown on the cover worked better CTR-wise. 

Also, not that long ago we talked to the famous YouTubers who run 500k+ channels and asked them what makes their thumbnails clickable. Here are some extracts from what they answered:

  • Create curiosity via emotion on your face, Sean Cannell
  • There should be a human face and eyes on the thumbnails. The face should display or trigger emotions, Shaun McKnight
  • Show your eyes looking at the audience, Devin Weber

Collins Key (together with his 19.6M subscribers) is obviously well versed in producing emotional clickbait thumbnails.

Emotional thumbnails

#5. Be consistent with branded elements

Branding is not just about adding your logo to the corner. It’s about a certain style featuring specific colors, filters, fonts, composition, and other repeatable details that highlight your unicity.

Developing your very own patterns and visual features will help you solve 3 things at one stroke:

  • Good looking front page. If you store your videos on platforms like YouTube or create playlists on the Facebook page, a uniform style of thumbnails will make your hub look neat and professional.  
  • Recognisability in the feed. Your unique design will grab the eyes of those who already know you so they won’t miss out on your new content while scrolling.
  • Prompt thumbnail production. Having a set of pre-defined elements speeds up the creation process as you don’t need to reinvent the vehicle each time. 

Here is an excellent example of a well-thought-out thumbnail style shown by the Video Creators crew. They use the same structure, colors, fonts, and styling to wrap their videos. Looks really good!

Clickbait thumbnail_branding

#6. Choose your words

By now, we’ve talked about graphical components of a clickbait thumbnail, but there is one more important ingredient to add to this mix. I am talking about the text.

Years ago, Twitter taught us to express ourselves in 140 characters, and we’ve managed to master those tight limits. So, consider copywriting for thumbnails to be a level up. 

Years ago, Twitter taught us to express ourselves in 140 characters, and we’ve managed to master those tight limits.

So, consider copywriting for thumbnails to be a level up. 

As you may have guessed, the rule is simple: deliver more meaning in fewer words. There are two reasons why you need to pack your message in 6 words or less.

1. Space

Limited space is the #1 challenge faced when crafting a thumbnail.

You only have a small 6:9 rectangle to place multiple elements, so try not to create a complete visual mess.

Here is quite a vivid example of how the volume of the text negatively affects the look-and-feel of the thumbnail.  

Text-heavy thumbnail

2. Time

People who scroll the feed get a glimpse of a video cover for less than a second. Even for fast readers, it will be challenging to make it to the end of the phrase built up from more than 6 words.

To sum up, don’t overload the image with lots of captions. The more text you put on the thumbnail the more you’ll have to scale down the font size. It will definitely affect the readability.

The good news is that you have an extended texting capacity outside the thumbnail. I mean the video title and description where you can add more text. Make sure that these text blocks are complementing each other, not duplicating.

Make sure that text on the thumbnail, video title and description are complementing each other, not duplicating.

Vanessa Lau, a social media expert, shows a good example of how to make the most out of all three text placements on YouTube

Thumbnail text

#7. Ensure the readability

To highlight your short message and make sure that people can read it, put text lines on some contrasting background.

Here are two video thumbnails that convey a similar message but look very different:

Thumbnail_bad text sample Thumbnail_good text sample

The text on the first image looks messy and it’s hard to read it due to complicated fonts, various text directions, and shadowing. The second picture features a minimalistic and stylish approach towards the use of text and looks much more reader-friendly.

Here are some more tips on how to add text to improve the way your thumbnails perform:

  1. Use bold and simplistic fonts;
  2. Don’t go for too many colors and shapes;
  3. Place your text on some plain and contrasting part of the image;
  4. Don’t play too much with text direction and alignment.

#8. Consider the layout

Different platforms tend to place some of their UI elements on top of the thumbnail covering it partly. Some services kindly allow customizing the appearance of video controls and even let you remove them completely. YouTube and Facebook are not that easy. 

Here are some examples of how YouTube can play a bad joke with a thumbnail:

1. It can put the Play button on one’s forehead when shown on the Google SERP.

YouTube Play button

Tip: Avoid placing any important information in the middle of the thumbnail.

2. On the YouTube search results, all video thumbnails come with a length indicator in the lower-right corner. This black rectangle can overlap a word or a piece of the image, for instance, your logo.

Even though it’s still possible to guess what’s underneath, it doesn’t look accurate.

video length indicator

Tip: Nothing significant should go to the lower-right corner.

3. When embedded in the blog post, video thumbnail is likely to get a bar on the top showing the video title.

YouTube_top bar

Tip: Don’t put texts to the upper one-eighth of the video.

Here is a cheat-sheet for you that indicates all the tricky places that you need to consider if you aim to create a clickbait YouTube thumbnail. Take it and use as a reference to guarantee that nothing important on your thumbnail is lost.

YouTube Thumbnail sample

#9. Optimize for mobile

Statistics say that in 2019, people spend over 5 hours a day glued to their smartphones. Meanwhile, Cisco offers another research saying that 80% of the world’s mobile traffic will be video by 2022.

How do these facts relate to the topic of clickbait video thumbnails? Well, they do directly.

The data evidently show the scale of mobile video consumption and how competitive this area is. Hence, to beat the competition and ensure good performance of your videos, make sure your thumbnail performs well even when scaled down.

Quite small on the desktop view, your video thumbnail will look even smaller on mobile screens. So make sure that:

  • The image is bright and contrasting;
  • The background is clean from all unnecessary elements;
  • The text stays readable.

Anytime you create a thumbnail, zoom it out to ensure that it is still meaningful and looks good.

Thumbnail zoom out

#10. Animate when possible

Have you tried using a GIF picture as a video thumbnail for your email campaigns? If not yet, go for it when creating your next email blast. We bet you’ll be pleased with the results.


Just recently, we’ve run an experiment testing out video thumbnails of various formats to find out which one works better for our marketing emails. The animated video-stylized GIF showed the highest CTR, beating its static alternatives.

Charts: Images or videos in emails

#11. Test, track, optimize 

Like anything else in marketing, video thumbnails should be continuously tested, improved and updated. Even though YouTube does not offer thumbnail split testing natively, there are apps and add-ons available to run the tests. For example, TubeBuddy.

In search of the perfect formula of clickbait thumbnails, you need to constantly study your audience, track relevant metrics and keep an eye on what competitors do.

The bottom line

Being the very first touchpoint between the video and the audience, the thumbnail is a small but essential component that can’t be neglected. It plays a decisive role at the moment when your video has been discovered but not yet opened. 

To create efficient thumbnails keep in mind that none of your content pieces, even the small ones, should exist in isolation from the three pillars your business is based on:

  1. Your goals;
  2. The audience you target;
  3. The ideas you preach.

Video thumbnails include multiple elements where each has its own purpose and meaning.

  • The background image is there to reflect the context; 
  • The headshot serves to convey emotions; 
  • Branded elements show your individuality and make your videos recognizable; 
  • The brief text serves as an eye-catcher teasing the user. 

It’s important that these four parts create visual harmony, do not contradict each other and look good on any screen.

Happy clickbait thumbnail making!


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