Sisters not Twins: The YouTube Thumbnail Strategy

Creating a YouTube Thumbnail strategy

A good YouTube thumbnail should win an argument. A battle, even.

Good thumbnails tell a micro story of what the video is about in a way that convinces somebody to watch.

But the kind of thumbnail used to tell the story depends on the strategy behind the video and the person meant to watch it.

Not every video on your YouTube channel should follow the same thumbnail pattern because your videos should target different viewers with different context.

But if you do a few Google searches, you’ll find that articles talking about growth on YouTube preach consistency. All the social media gurus talk about it. A consistent brand, consistent upload schedule, and consistent content.

They also say consistent thumbnails but the same approach for thumbnails won’t be effective.

The issue is that not every YouTube video follows the same rules, and neither should the thumbnail. The thumbnail depends on how the video is being used to nurture your audience or expand it.

Using the same thumbnail concept for two YouTube videos serving very different purposes doesn’t make sense.

Let’s break this down.

Should thumbnails have your face in them?

It depends on the video. Thumbnail strategy is a strategy for a reason. Including your face in the thumbnail can lead to better performance when you’re targeting an audience that has seen your content before.

But when you’re trying to cover a broader video topic, it won’t serve a benefit because you aren’t the main focus of the video; the information is. This happens often when you are targeting a new audience that hasn’t seen you before.

Who are you trying to reach?

Before deciding whether a face makes sense in the thumbnail, you want to consider 2 things:

  1. Who you’re targeting: returning viewers or new ones?
  2. What’s the video about?

Let’s talk about #1 first.

You need to ask yourself where this video fits within your overall strategy and which type of traffic source you are targeting. The traffic source = the audience

The traffic source = the audience

Is this an informative search-based video? Or is this a more sensational, viral video aimed at browse features?

Is the main purpose of the video to inform and educate viewers? Or entertain them with something interesting or funny?

The main question: Is it realistic to expect a portion of viewers will know who you are by your face?

Most of the time, the answer is no.

If you’re a new channel with no content, or if you’re targeting a broad topic that viewers in the thousands or more could be interested in, they won’t know your face. Unless you’re 1. a celebrity or 2. an industry expert, the population of YouTube won’t know you.

BUT, if you’re targeting a hyper-specific search term and you have a library of videos that revolve around that topic and add to it, you’ll be targeting a smaller pool of potential viewers who likely have seen one or more of your videos.

In specific situations, your face could be an asset in the thumbnail.

What are the benefits of having Your face in YouTube thumbnails?

  • Returning viewers will easily recognize new videos of yours from your face
  • Having a face makes videos feel more personal and can lead to higher click-through rates
  • A face can add more emotion to a video where the title cannot
  • People might click more if they find you attractive
Build your brand

What are the arguments against having your face in YouTube thumbnails?

  • It ties the channel to you and makes it hard to scale as a brand beyond yourself
  • Faces distract from text and images in the thumbnail that might be more important
  • People might not click if they don’t like your face!

Use faces, but not your own

This shouldn’t be on every video you post, but if you make a video that is tied to current events, news, or your industry, you can include a well-known person’s face basically as a form of newsjacking to rely on someone else’s credibility.

Traffic Source content strategy

Thumbnail and Title Design:

The thumbnail and title should be like sisters, not twins. The goal is to have them complement each other and draw attention to the video. Not say the same thing.

What do you want people to focus on? You? The background? The text? An action taking place? A transformation like a before / after?

Let’s go back to question #2 to determine who you’re trying to reach: What’s the video about?

Clickbait is fine to an extent, but make sure the video matches the expectation you set in the thumbnail, otherwise people will be upset. And they’ll let you know. In the comments. Trust me.

Plus, if someone clicks your video and then leaves 3 seconds in, your retention rate is doomed.

Thumbnail adds to the video title

You shouldn’t be able to guess the title by seeing the thumbnail. They should both send different messages and make the viewer ask a different question when clicking on the video.

Rather than relay the same information, the title and thumbnail should build off each other.

Your thumbnail and title should both be relevant to the video but draw attention in different ways. Your thumbnail is more visual, so show something attention grabbing. Your title is text-based, so ask a question or make a bold statement that deserves a click.

Sisters not Twins: Consistent… But not too consistent

Being consistent is great for branding, but too much consistency is just as bad as not enough.

Evolution of Your YouTube Thumbnails over Time

You can change the thumbnail infinite times once the video has been published. And you should change the thumbnail every once in a while to make the most of your content.

Trends change, styles change, and information on the topic changes. But so does your brand. 

If you’re starting your YouTube channel from scratch, just trying to get started as a beginner, you won’t reap the benefits of a recognizable brand and face of the channel.

But as your channel grows, so does your reputation, audience, and recognition factor. You should change your thumbnails to get you closer to where you want your channel to end up.

If your goal is to be a domain expert in your niche, the ultimate goal is to have every video recognizable as your own since you’re the expert in that field. So over time, change your thumbnails to mimic the channel you’re trying to become.

Thumbnail A-B

Not to mention, split-testing with a tool like Tubebuddy can be a shortcut to growth by figuring out which thumbnails increase CTR and viewer retention.

Your thumbnails should evolve as your channel does, along with your content creation and editing skills.