Carla Marshall has 10+ years of experience in video marketing, social media management, content marketing, DRM, and SEO. She was previously Editor in Chief at ReelSEO.com, and as a journalist and video marketer, she's covered news stories, creator journeys, and digital-first publishing initiatives across all the major online video platforms. She is YouTube Certified and a judge for the Shorty Awards, as well as the UK, US, Canadian, Global, and EU Search Awards.
Why YouTube Custom Thumbnails Should NEVER Be an Afterthought: 5 Expert Tips
In the latest in our series around YouTube custom thumbnails and best practices, we spoke to one of the very best thumbnail artists in the business, Vy Qwaint. Vy, along with her partner Chad Wild Clay are the creators behind the wildly popular YouTube Hacker series. Creating stand-out custom thumbnails for their content is an integral part of the process, and Vy gave us a sneak peek into what works across their YouTube channels.
Over the past few years, Vy and her team have been testing and refining the type of thumbnails that drive viewers to click through to watch. It’s a strategy that’s worked to generate a combined 14M subscribers and 2.5B views across the five YouTube channels Vy manages. She gives us some exclusive insights into the use of color, graphics and text to create the perfect image.
#1Use Color to Make Custom Thumbnails Pop
Take a look at any of Vy and Chad’s YouTube channels and the first thing that hits you about the custom thumbnails is the extraordinary use of color. As experts in the game this is absolutely intentional.
Vy explains that the content they create appeals to a younger demographic who respond really well to bright and vibrant colors. In order to maximise the appeal of the thumbnails, Vy and her team play with, enhance, and even radically change the colors on the image until the get the results they know will work.
Using just Photoshop, colors are saturated, backgrounds are blurred to make the foreground objects stand out, and drop shadows and outer glows are used to further make those objects or text pop. Vy will also separate out the background and foreground on different layers for added image clarity and depth. To break this process down further, let’s take a look at the thumbnail Vy and her team created for ‘I Was Defeated by Project Zorgo Hacker’
You can see the image-editing expertise fully in action on this thumbnail. Vy has used a fairly blurred 2 color background on one layer, with herself and the hacker on another layer. The two figures have been outlined using the outer glow tool so they stand out, drawing the viewer's attention to Vy’s bright jacket and the white mask of the hacker.
The jacket is actually blue denim but Vy changes the color for every thumbnail she wears it for based on the other colors she's using. The team mix and match complementary colors based on the background and the objects in the thumbnail, and Vy will often change the color of the jacket so it’s the opposite to what anyone else in the thumbnail is wearing. So while it looks like Vy owns 30 denim jackets of the same design, it’s actually just the one clothing item that’s been manipulated to bring out the very best in the custom thumbnail.
Vy and the team also use colors to create a sense of consistency across their thumbnails with splashes of the same color popping up across different images. This creates a motif that runs through their thumbnails and reinforces the branding and familiarity of the channels.
#2 Keep Text on Custom Thumbnails to an Absolute Minimum
Another thing you’ll notice from the thumbnails created across Vy’s, Chad’s and the Project Hacker YouTube channels is that text is kept to an absolute minimum, or not used at all.
Obviously this creates extra pressure on the designer who has to get the focus of the content over without spelling it out for the viewer. Vy and her team are world-class experts at this and know exactly when to use text only when necessary. When they do, it’s big and bright and it counts.
Vy confirms that a lot of rookie mistakes she sees with custom thumbnails on YouTube is trying to cram in as much text as possible. Unfortunately, it becomes almost impossible to read when you shrink the thumbnail down. When the graphic becomes too busy the viewer is going to have a hard time understanding what your video is about and they may not even click through to find out.
Vy’s team have solid rules for text use: use three words or less for any thumbnail, keep that text precise, and only ever use if it makes the story complete. Also, think about the colors you use for the text to make it stand out. And don’t repeat the title in the thumbnail - ever!
#3 Use Emotion to Draw the Viewer In
Another vital component of the successful custom thumbnails that Vy and her team create is the use of emotion to draw viewers in. If just one person is in the thumbnail, they will use the face that shows the stronger emotion, and if there are two or more people, each will have a slightly different emotion to foster attention. This is incredibly important for capturing the eyeballs of the younger audiences scrolling through the YouTube feed on their mobile devices.
Another very effective way of conveying a strong emotion in a person is to actually show the whites of their eyes. Vy spends a lot of time on faces and knows how to make the most out of them. In the thumbnail for ‘CWC vs Hacker in Real Life Ninja Battle’ Vy accentuated Chad’s green iris and the whites of his eyes with Photoshop’s Saturation tool to make them really come alive. This really helps when it comes to the human connection.
But Vy goes even further to create a sense of emotion with viewers. Not only does she want to attract viewers with facial expressions, but also with a sense of action and purpose from the people featured in the image. As this is rarely achieved from someone just standing still, she makes sure that Chad, herself, or the Hacker are in some kind of motion - like running or fighting back. The aim is to create a need for the audience to find out what happens next.
#4 Don’t Make the Custom Thumbnail an Afterthought
The art of the thumbnail is something Vy’s team considers before shooting even begins. The topic of the video, and the story around it is a critical starting point for the graphic. The base image isn’t taken from a screenshot, it’s shot separately and taken from one of many images created during the photoshoot.
Vy will take multiple shots from multiple angles so she has a wide range of creative assets to work from. Thumbnails are never an afterthought for the team, and are as important as creating the main video content.
#5 Keep on Testing Thumbnails - and Replace if You Need To
Vy will monitor click through rate very closely after uploading a video, and is quick to respond if she feels a thumbnail it isn’t working as well as she expects. She tracks the click through rates of all of their custom thumbnails in a spreadsheet and analyses the data for performance insights. But as an expert, she’ll use her experience and instinct to change up a thumbnail within the first 48 hours if the video isn’t getting the views - even before she can confirm the CTR. Talking of click through rates, Vy aims for a figure around 15%.
Huge thanks to Vy for letting vidIQ in on her insights and process around creating the best custom thumbnails on YouTube. As you can see, creators who are pulling in millions of views never leave their thumbnail to chance. And you shouldn't either. For a recap of this expert's guide to creating stunning YouTube custom thumbnails, check out our video below:
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