The Perfect Thumbnail Is Key to YouTube Success, Study Finds

It may sound like a given, but there’s a lot more to success on YouTube than just uploading a video. With a billion hours of content streamed every single day, YouTube is probably the most popular content site in the world, and it’s also become a lucrative business for countless content creators across the globe.

What really matters in getting your video out there is optimization and visibility. Easier said than done, you might think – and you’d be right. Tagging is important, of course, and there are always best practices to follow in terms of growing your audience and becoming a full-time YouTuber. But there’s a very simple truth behind the notion of optimization that can go a very long way if you take it seriously: A great thumbnail is absolutely crucial to the success of a video.

Thumbnails don’t just show up in a search next to the video title. They’re an extension of the brand you’re building and the aesthetic you create as a YouTube content creator. Best SEO Companies analyzed some of the most popular videos on YouTube to determine what about their thumbnails contributed to the massive success the videos achieved on the platform.

What’s in an Image?

In Best SEO Companies’ analysis, they took a look at some of the most viewed videos on YouTube currently and found some similarities between them within their categories. The company sourced YouTube API data in July to conduct the study and analyze the most popular content on the site.

On average, thumbnails that feature stills from the video or images get 1.7 million views, compared to thumbnails with animation, which average 1.4 million views. Seventy-two percent of the most popular thumbnails include a face and get 921,000 more views, on average, than thumbnails without faces.

Among the most popular videos, 70% feature thumbnails with titles or explanatory text.

Let’s get into some specific videos and how they compare to one another in terms of the thumbnails that accompany them.

Overall, the most viewed videos when the study was conducted were music videos from two K-pop groups – Blackpink and NiziU, respectively. Blackpink’s video for “How You Like That” garnered 281.3 million views, which is 175 times that of the average popular video. NiziU’s “Make You Happy” amassed 48 million views.

Both videos had similarities in terms of thumbnails, featuring images of the groups along with thematic backgrounds and multiple colors. Notably, the study also examined popular animated videos and found that the most popular among them – “Peppa Pig’s Perfect Day” and Brawl Stars Animation’s “The Summer of Monsters Update” – both included bold and prominent backgrounds with bright, vibrant colors. The characters were also heavily featured.

The similarities between these thumbnails suggest the aspects viewers are attracted to seem to primarily be prominently featured characters or people, colorful and/or bold backgrounds, and a variety of colors, as opposed to a more simplistic or toned-down color scheme.

The Importance of Niche

One thing that seems to be essential when creating a thumbnail for your YouTube video is identifying its niche and the trends among thumbnails for the more popular videos within that niche. Though there seems to be an overall thread between the most popular videos on YouTube in terms of what makes their thumbnails stand out, what’s ultimately going to matter most is whether your video stands out next to others that are thematically or categorically similar.

Are you a news-oriented YouTuber? According to Best SEO Companies’ analysis, news videos populate 17% of the highest-performing content on YouTube and average about 559,000 views apiece. Something the most successful videos in this niche have in common is the emotion conveyed through their thumbnail. Quite surprisingly, what seems to work the most in terms of attracting viewers is negative emotion.

Videos that showed negative emotion, such as anger, disgust, or fear, averaged 782,000 views – much higher than thumbnails portraying positive emotions.

For those creators doing videos that relate to movies or television, thumbnails that conveyed surprise performed particularly well, garnering 5.6 million views, on average. Showing happiness or joy in a thumbnail didn’t translate quite as well in terms of views, with those videos averaging 3.3 million views. Still a lot of views, but not quite as successful as ones portraying surprise.

DIY is another extremely popular category on YouTube, especially recipe videos. What’s the best emotion to convey in your thumbnail if you’re baking dessert, doing a craft, or cooking a homemade meal? As it turns out, sadness is the way to go. Home and living videos, which average 927,000 views and make up 14% of the most popular videos on YouTube, get 5 million views, on average, if the emotion conveyed in the thumbnail is sadness.

Go With a Logo

Should you include a logo in your video? According to the analysis, it really depends on the type of content you’re creating and the specific audience you’re targeting. The study showed, for most categories, branding your thumbnails increases view count. There are some categories, though, where this wasn’t the case: news, gaming, beauty, and fashion.

In the majority of the aforementioned categories, the advantage logo-free thumbnails have over videos with logos is pretty minimal. With gaming videos, however, unbranded thumbnails received 1.3 million more views, on average, than branded ones. Take note, gaming YouTubers.

Success Takes Work

Best SEO Companies’ study clearly shows that to be a successful YouTuber, it takes a lot more than just a good video. There’s a methodology and even a kind of a science to making sure your videos rank and reach the widest possible audience. After all, YouTube is a search engine in itself (the second-largest on the web, since it’s an extension of Google).

Optimization and visibility matter just as much with YouTube content as with other types of content like blogs or articles, and that seems to really come into focus with the thumbnail. Creating an eye-catching thumbnail that’s in step with the competition can put your video on the right playing field to become a viral and monetary success.

Nearly 9 in 10 thumbnails from popular YouTube videos are colorful and garnered more attention than thumbnails with a more minimalist color scheme.
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