YouTube Video Thumbnails: The Modern Display Windows

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YouTube Thumbnails: Today’s Shop Display Windows

In 18th-century London, department store owners discovered that they could attract more foot traffic into their stores with elaborate display windows. While the typical store was maybe a sign and a door, fancier store window displays gave those walking down the street a preview of the wonderful products that the store contained.

With more traffic shifting from brick-and-mortar shops to online stores, video thumbnails have become the shop display windows of today. A video thumbnail is a single frame you see when you scroll through search results on YouTube or Google.

Many people’s first encounters with a brand may be through a video thumbnail. So, what can we learn from the store display windows of yesterday in order to make appealing YouTube video thumbnails today?

Video Thumbnails Need a Human Element

If you recall seeing shop display windows, very rarely will there just be products stacked up facing the street. Old fashioned shop windows would frequently show people interacting with their products. Even walking through shopping centers and malls today, you’ll see mannequins adorned with the store’s fashions or using the products. In days past, some luxury department stores even use to employ real people for certain window displays. All of this was playing on our need for a human element in the buying process.

In order to increase the likelihood of your video being clicked, it’s best to prominently display a face in the video thumbnail. We enjoy connecting with people rather than inanimate objects. Another reason why this helps is that it gives the intention that we will be guided through the video’s content by a person rather than just viewing a lifeless slideshow. We would all rather watch a TED Talk on a given subject than simply view a PowerPoint presentation on the same material. We’re naturally drawn to other faces — especially eyes. Remember to incorporate such into your video thumbnails.

YouTube Thumbnail Colors Need To Stand Out

At the height of the age of the department store, many stores began popping up in areas where they knew their target demographic would be looking for their products. As shopping districts emerge, display windows showcasing similar products started to butt up against one another. The result would be a variety of store display windows all competing for the attention of those walking or driving past.

In order to stand out from the rest, one popular technique was to decorate the displays with colors that would make them stand out from the street. These eye-catching colors would cause people to look twice and be drawn to their display. This same tactic can be utilized for YouTube video thumbnails.

Over 300 hours of video content is uploaded to YouTube every minute. Attempting to catch the eye of those skimming the search results can be tricky.

One technique you can use is using colors that differ from those used in YouTube’s own branding. As of the writing of this piece, YouTube’s main brand colors are black, white, and red — the three colors that make up their logo. Use colors such as orange, blue, yellow, purple, and pink to help your video thumbnail stand out to searchers. By choosing these eye-catching colors for the background or graphics of your video thumbnail, your video will stand out from the other videos and YouTube's branding.

Use Text Wisely in Thumbnails

In addition to fanciful displays, signs with wording were used in store display windows to inform window shoppers about specials and offers available inside. This wording had to be bold enough to be readable from the street, but tactful enough to not detract from the display window scene.

This wording also had to give as much information in the fewest characters possible. Window shoppers were interested in experiences, not lengthy reading. The wording along with the display would work in tandem to convey awaited the onlooker inside. A very similar wording style can be applied to your YouTube video thumbnails.

Even though the title of your video states what your video is about in an appealing way, including text within your YouTube video thumbnail is extremely helpful as well. Even if it’s just fractions of a second, including the title or other relevant text in your thumbnail decreases the time it takes for your target audience to decide whether or not they would like to see your video.

These fractions of a second may be the difference between selecting your video and selecting another video. Even though it is a good idea to include text, being wise about how you use the text is important.

  • Don’t use too much text. You don’t have a lot of room to display text in your thumbnail, so keep the included text short and to the point. 
  • Don’t use more than 30-40 characters.
  • Make sure it is legible at any size. In addition to this thumbnail being used in video search results on computer screens, it will also need to be visible on internet-connected TVs as well as mobile devices. The text should be readable from across a living room or on a small mobile device screen.
  • Choosing a text color that stands out from the background or using content blocks can help words stand out more.  

Keep Video Thumbnails Relevant

In developing thumbnails to attract attention to your videos, you may feel tempted to make a video thumbnail that is so sensational that people won’t be able to help but click on your video. If you start feeling this way, you may need to pump the brakes and ask yourself the following question: does this thumbnail accurately represent your video in an honest, relevant way?

If you feel at all like you’re tricking your target audience into clicking your video based on the thumbnail, you’re probably guilty of something called “clickbait.” Clickbait is promotional content, usually in the form of video thumbnails or titles, that misleads the audience into clicking.

While it seems easy enough to clickbait people into watching your video, they probably won’t want to after they realized they’ve fallen for a bait-and-switch maneuver. Clickbait makes for a disappointing user experience that may hurt your audience’s trust in your brand going forward. Avoid clickbait by keeping the text and imagery of your YouTube thumbnail relevant to the nature of your video.

In Conclusion

In this piece, we looked at how the wisdom that made store window displays successful to craft our YouTube video thumbnails.

  • Include people. Including a face, especially eyes, in your thumbnail can draw attention to your video.
  • Make it stand out with color. Select colors for the background of your thumbnail that will make it stand out from other videos in the search results and even YouTube itself.
  • Use text wisely. Using bold text to make your point can help people decide whether or not to click on your video, however, it should be kept to no longer than 30-40 characters.
  • Avoid clickbait. Keep the imagery of your thumbnails relevant to the video it is representing lest you betray your audience.

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