Understanding the Equation: How to Optimize CTR on YouTube

Making a YouTube thumbnail is like winning a battle.

When people see videos on the YouTube home page, they’re asking themselves why they should watch one video instead of all the others on the page. If that video is yours, and they watch it… congratulations you’ve won the battle.

It’s the same on the search results page, but search is easier to win because it’s a list with fewer options. In both cases, winning the battle means winning the click.

That is the click-through rate. But if you’re reading an article like this, you probably already knew that.

Here’s the thing: the click-through rate is only half of the formula you need to grow on YouTube.

A high click-through rate combined with high average view duration are the two key metrics to winning on YouTube. Winning the click is just the first half of the equation, because average view duration is about getting a viewer to watch as much of the video as humanly possible.

What’s a Good CTR on YouTube?

The majority of all YouTube videos have a click-through rate between 2-10%, so if your CTR is above 5% you’re doing better than most creators. Comparing yourself to this, however, is not the most helpful because it widely varies based on the type of video, niche of your channel, video length, and industry.

CTR actually decreases when videos perform well, so it should not be used as the only metric for performance. When your video is being shown to more people, the click-through rate will decrease. So if your click-through rate is less than 5% but you’re getting views like crazy, that’s completely okay.

If your video is targeting a broad audience with a browse-based strategy, you might end up with a CTR of 8-10% but if your video is targeted at high-intent search terms, 3% CTR is fine because that video is serving a different audience and a different purpose within your content strategy.

It’s tough to compare a video that has 1 million views and a 3% CTR with a video that has 100 views and a 15% CTR. Most people would argue that the former video is performing better overall, but my favorite thing to do on YouTube is make sure my video with 1,000 views is reaching the right group of people and making way more money than the video that has 1 million views and only relies on Adsense for revenue.

Let’s get the basic stuff out of the way first:

Always prioritize the thumbnail and title

How to optimize ctr on youtube with titles and thumbnails

Having a scroll-stopping thumbnail means that your thumbnail should be interesting, attention-grabbing, and awe-striking.

But it also needs to be representative of the video. Having a little clickbait isn’t bad, but don’t overdo it to the point that the thumbnail is no longer true to the video. If people are clicking a certain video, that video also needs to meet, or exceed, expectations of what will be covered in that piece of content.

Average view duration is just one way of measuring how well you’re meeting expectations. Engagement graphs are another good way of measuring this to see where expectations fall short if people get bored of the video.

The thumbnail and title should be a top priority. And not just for YouTube. Even Netflix has to think about this  when it comes to thumbnail strategy.

It’s easy to focus completely on the editing and quality of the video, but the thumbnail is what people will always see first. Just because it can be faster to think up a title and thumbnail doesn’t mean it’s less important than the actual video.

Sure, designing a thumbnail on Canva and typing out a title is much easier than editing a whole freaking video. But people will judge your video by the thumbnail and title before they even watch to see if it’s good. If nobody clicks on your video because the thumbnail and title aren’t appealing, doesn’t it feel like all that energy creating the video was wasted?

Thank god we can change thumbnails and titles after publishing. My first thumbnails ever on YouTube were horrible.

A Thumbnail Needs to win an Argument

  • Does this video look interesting?
  • Should I click this video and watch?
  • Do I keep scrolling?
  • Do I leave the YouTube app and go watch TikTok instead?

These are questions people subconsciously ask as they browse YouTube searching for content. Here are three of the most important guiding principles in designing thumbnails:

1. Sisters, not twins.

Have you heard the saying “eyebrows should be sisters, not twins?” I’ve never had my eyebrows threaded, but it looks painful. A YouTube title and thumbnail should not be identical.

A thumbnail should not say exactly what the title says. Likewise, a title should not be a copy and paste version of all the text in the thumbnail.

They both need to be interesting, but in different ways. It’s kind of a chicken and egg situation. There’s multiple ways to think about this:

The title should first pique interest, and then the thumbnail should show something with a wow-factor that makes someone want to watch what it’s about. OR
The thumbnail first grabs attention and then reading the title explains what the video is about.

This is highly nuanced depending on the video, subject, and the message you want to send.

TL;DR: If you’re going to add text to a thumbnail, make it add interest to the title instead of repeating the same thing.

Now going back to how the click-through rate translates to average view duration. You don’t just want to meet expectations, do you?

I didn’t think so. You want to exceed expectations. Having a reputation of over-delivering on content isn’t a bad idea. It works great for creators and especially entrepreneurs if you’re trying to get sales from YouTube.

2. With thumbnails, sometimes less is more

The visual aesthetic of any thumbnail is very subjective. That’s why I love the fact that any great YouTube content strategy depends on taste. You have artistic freedom with the thumbnail.

Based on the audience you’re trying to reach, you may choose for an intentionally amateur looking thumbnail. Why? Because it’s more relatable than a hyper-produced and corporate-looking thumbnail.

Someone who runs a fashion brand on YouTube versus someone promoting their mortgage business probably have totally different personalities and styles that they want their thumbnails to reflect.

And that’s totally fine.

Should your thumbnails have text?

Text can also be a key component of thumbnails, but remember that text needs to be big to be visible. It also takes away space from images. Use text wisely. Don’t put a whole sentence in your thumbnail. Using 3-5 words max should be good for a thumbnail.

Pro tip: If your thumbnail shows visuals like scenes, cities, objects, or people, make sure they somehow show up in the beginning video. The thumbnail should match the video, and the video should reward the viewer for clicking by showing them exactly what they clicked for. Give the audience a small win by showing a sneak peak at what’s to come in the rest of the video to optimize average view duration.

Whether the thumbnail is a shot of a video, or it’s a photo you got somewhere, show it again towards the beginning of the video.

3. Face or no face in thumbnails?

Here is my take. Depending on the traffic source strategy you’re using, if most viewers aren’t going to know who you are, having your face in your thumbnail won’t add value.

BUT if you add someone else’s face who is relevant to your video (i.e a celebrity, thought-leader in your industry, or someone you mention in your video) this could bring more clicks.

On the other hand, if you expect the majority of views will come from a loyal audience that knows you, then go ahead and add your recognizable face to the thumbnail.

You may want to distinguish your thumbnail strategy when it’s for a top-of-funnel video versus a bottom-of-funnel video.

If it’s a very broad-appealing video that’s intended for a wide audience by reaching new people, then having your face in the thumbnail might not increase the click-through rate. When you make a search-oriented video that is hyper-targeted to specific keywords where the audience might have seen your previous videos, that’s when having your beautiful face on the thumbnail can really work its magic to drive more clicks.

Pro Tip: If you’re using face in a thumbnail, make sure the emotion appropriately matches the mood of the video. You wouldn’t want an excited face on a thumbnail for a video predicting an upcoming recession, right…?

Thumbnail Strategy on a New Level

A well-planned content strategy on YouTube takes into account the different videos your viewers will watch on their journey to becoming part of your audience from complete stranger to loyal fan. First they watch a video that draws them in, then they watch more by recognizing a familiar face, and eventually the relationship deepens and you’ve successfully built your own community.

Just like different types of YouTube videos serve different purposes in the overall YouTube strategy master plan, they are accompanied by a specific approach to the title and thumbnail depending on the type of video.