Custom Thumbnails: A Hack for YouTube Shorts

No custom thumbnail? No problem. YouTube Shorts don't display them anyway, so here's what you should focus on instead.

By now, you may have noticed that YouTube Shorts don’t support custom thumbnails. Yet. Instead, YouTube chooses a random frame from your video, and that becomes the image preview for your Short. There's no way to change that so unfortunately, you're at the mercy of YouTube's selection process for now.

Of course, with regular videos, you can easily create and upload a custom thumbnail which will add more value to your content. An image with a simple but attractive design is more likely to attract viewers than a grainy, unpolished one.

Because YouTube Shorts doesn't support custom thumbnails as of time of writing, some creators may be wondering how to best optimize a short video. It’s a tough question to answer, but we gave a few suggestions in our recent tutorial, “How to Make a YouTube Short: Custom Thumbnails" below:

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, so the best approach is a hybrid one. You’ll have to multitask to some degree, and that means optimizing your YouTube Short for different viewing scenarios.

YouTube Shorts Can Be Watched as Regular Videos Too. And Those Need Thumbnails.

Viewers on YouTube have a few different places to watch a YouTube Short. Right now, the most common is the Stories and Short Videos shelf. This featured display area lets viewers cycle through videos of 60 seconds or less in a TikTok-style fashion. When a video is randomly featured there, you can expect it to get hundreds or even thousands of views.

But that’s not the only way to view a Short. They can also be watched as a regular video, which means people viewed the content outside of the Shorts shelf.

You'll know when this has happened because the video's analytics will show the following traffic sources, in addition to 'YouTube Shorts'.

  • Channel pages
  • Browse features
  • Direct or unknown
  • Notifications
  • External
  • Suggested videos
  • YouTube search
  • Other YouTube features
  • Playlists
  • Playlist pages

If you ever see viewing percentages from the traffic sources above, your Short has reached the 'regular' side of YouTube. And as we mentioned before, regular videos can display custom thumbnails.

To understand how important these thumbnails are, take a look at "How to Make a Map in Minecraft 1.16.3", a popular Short from Dan, our gaming expert.

He optimized the video for two viewing experiences by creating this thumbnail, which only shows up when the Short isn’t watched on a display shelf:

“How to Make a Map in Minecraft 1.16.3” has already generated nearly a million views, most of which came from users watching it as a YouTube Short (around 80%). Viewers watching it as a regular video accounted for less than 150,000 views.

Even still, that’s a big number. Imagine hundreds of thousands of viewers deciding whether to watch a YouTube Short, and the deciding factor is whether they see a nice, custom thumbnail or a random freeze-frame. It’s possible that without a custom thumbnail, non-shelf viewers wouldn’t have watched “How to Make a Map in Minecraft 1.16.3” so enthusiastically.

Of course, you may decide your Shorts don’t need to be optimized for two viewing experiences. But at least now, you know your options.

The Best Way to Get More Views on YouTube Shorts

Okay, so far we know custom thumbnails don’t appear on content viewed as a YouTube Short. But let’s say, for example, you want to increase your views while being featured on the Shorts display shelf. What should you do?

  1. First, focus on a video’s title. That's the only thing you can control, especially when a viewer is swiping at warp speed through random videos on the shelf. Make your title concise, irresistible, and less than 40 characters.
  2. Think less about search engine optimization and create emotional triggers. Your video should be short, snappy, and have a ‘light bulb’ moment that entertains or enlightens viewers. It’s all about in-the-moment shock value because no one is ‘searching’ for YouTube Shorts.

YouTube Shorts are not YouTube videos, which means you have to prioritize certain aspects of the content in different ways. For a regular YouTube video, a great thumbnail should be at the top of your list. For YouTube Shorts, the title and entertainment value are more important than creating thumbnails for non-shelf viewers.

No matter what you decide, finding a sustainable balance is key.