Fifteen years ago, YouTube co-founder Jawed Karim uploaded the platform’s very first video. Ninety million views later on that riveting recap of his trip to the zoo, Karim and the other co-founders of YouTube sold the site to Google for $1.65 billion, helping to make it the second most used search engine on the web. According to their analytics, YouTube says 1 billion hours of content are consumed every single day.

Whatever you’re looking for, whatever you’re interested in, there’s almost certainly a video (or even an entire community of content creators) for that niche. And 1 billion hours of video being watched every day means there can be millions of people on YouTube searching, browsing, and viewing at any point in time.

For content creators, that means the sky really is the limit. Want to earn a place among YouTube’s most prolific (and richest) personalities? You just need to start uploading. Of course, simply recording and uploading isn’t all that goes into creating a successful YouTube channel – you still need people to click on your links if you’re going to make a splash, which means you need to make a solid first impression.

To understand what makes some videos way more clickable than others, we pulled the thumbnails for 740 of the most popular YouTube videos in 2020 and analyzed the view counts, likes and dislikes, and titles and channels of these videos. Read on as we explore what goes into making the perfect YouTube thumbnail.

Breaking Down the Perfect Thumbnail

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and hitting big on YouTube at the right moment with the right content can literally be worth millions of dollars. The most popular and distinguished YouTube accounts have become masters in their fields, and their extreme success is the culmination of producing the right content at the right point in time. But whether you have millions of subscribers or you’re still working on finding the first 50, your thumbnails will say a lot about your video, and ultimately, your brand.

So what goes into the ideal thumbnail? If the examples found among the most popular videos in 2020 are any indication, there’s a certain template you can follow to help maximize your clicks and views.

  • Face time: Seventy-two percent of the most popular videos on YouTube in 2020 featured an image of a human, averaging 921,000 more views than those without a human face.
  • Branding: Videos that included their logo or brand within the thumbnail averaged 1.2 million more views than those that didn’t include them. If you’re trying to build audience familiarity, a logo or brand name can go a long way in establishing credibility and loyalty.
  • Title power: Seventy percent of thumbnails among the most popular videos included a title or explanatory text describing what viewers could expect to see upon clicking.
  • Emotion: Not every video should be an iconic “apology” tour, but content conveying the emotion of sadness had the highest average view count (2.3 million), compared to joy and humor (1.5 million) or anger and fear (818,000).
  • Vibrancy: Eighty-eight percent of thumbnails analyzed from the most popular videos in 2020 were colorful and averaged more views than thumbnails with a more minimalist color scheme.

YouTube Thumbnail Inspiration 

Looking for a dose of thumbnail inspiration? We’ve compiled the most viewed YouTube video thumbnails in 2020 and the most viewed illustrated thumbnails for a quality comparison.

The 740 videos in 2020 deemed most popular by YouTube averaged 1.6 million views per video. Two extremely popular K-Pop (Korean pop music) videos far exceeded the average, with the BLACKPINK video for “How You Like That” garnering 281.3 million views, or 175 times the average. The video from NiziU for “Make You Happy” picked up more than 48 million views. Both thumbnails feature images of the groups, multiple colors, and a thematic backdrop.

Among animated videos, “Peppa Pig’s Perfect Day” nabbed 12 million views (8 times more than the average popular video), and Brawls Stars Animation got nearly as many views for “The Summer of Monsters Update.” Both videos clearly featured their characters and utilized bright colors and bold backgrounds to help the characters pop for users scrolling though content.

Narrowing Down Your Niche 

Creating the perfect thumbnail isn’t about duplicating what you’ve seen other top creators doing; it’s about knowing your unique audience. Different categories of videos revealed that different emotions and design elements can be successful at drawing audiences and accumulating views.

Among videos categorized as News, negative emotions reigned over positive emotions. Video thumbnails predominantly featuring anger, contempt, disgust, or fear had the highest average view count (782,000), compared to videos that showcased more positive emotions.

If you’re making videos focused on Movies or TV, consider driving home the element of surprise. Thumbnails with videos suggesting surprise earned 5.6 million views, on average, compared to thumbnails that conveyed joy or humor (3.3 million views).

Thinking about your dream DIY channel? Videos categorized as Home and Living were most successful when the thumbnail conveyed sadness, averaging 5 million views. There’s nothing inherently sad about renovating your bathroom or minimizing your wardrobe, but DIY fails certainly have the potential to be sad and could lead to higher click rates.

For most categories, including a brand or logo on the thumbnail image increased view count except in the following categories: Gaming, News, and Fashion and Beauty. These unbranded thumbnail images had a slight advantage over branded ones. For gaming videos, unbranded thumbnails had 1.3 million more views, on average, than branded ones.

The Art of Content Creation

Creating quality content on YouTube isn’t just about trying to be the next big influencer or turning uploading videos into a full-time job. As an extension of Google, YouTube is the second largest search engine on the web. If you’re trying to make sure your videos have reach and rank, creating an eye-grabbing thumbnail can help get the clicks you need to build a reputable base of subscribers and repeat viewers.

For live-action videos, featuring a face prominently in the thumbnail averaged more views among YouTube’s most popular videos in 2020 than those without, as did a majority including the title of the video or some other descriptive text over the image. Thumbnails with the highest view counts were also colorful, though the emotion they conveyed might depend on the audience they were trying to reach.

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Methodology and Limitations

We extracted 740 videos from YouTube’s API classified as the “most popular” in July 2020 in order to explore thumbnails of videos as well as various thumbnail design elements. YouTube’s most popular videos are determined by an algorithm that combines different metrics determining overall popularity. After retrieving these URLs, we extracted thumbnails and ran an image-tagging project on Amazon MTurk to decipher whether or not these thumbnails contained the design elements we wanted to explore, ranging from whether or not text or titling was present on our thumbnail images, if they were illustrated or video stills, and if the thumbnail image expressed a particular emotion (e.g., joy, humor, sadness, surprise, anger). By analyzing the average number of views by video, we were able to compare which elements led to higher average view counts.

Fair Use Statement

Want to help your readers create beautiful (and effective) YouTube thumbnails? Share the results of this study for any noncommercial use with a link back to this page in your story as credit to our team of creative analysts.