No matter what changes lie ahead in online marketing and social media, this long-proven truth will always remain: You only have one chance to make a first impression. Dentists know this, psychologists know this, and marketers do too.

We, marketers, know that video is now the dominant conveyor of a brand’s value, story, and call to action. Stats on the value of video are everywhere you look.

Even those of us who refuse to believe the notion that modern humans have an attention span shorter than that of goldfish, understand we have no choice but to think in terms of seconds (five seconds, to be exact) when it comes to hooking our video audience. But before any of the big picture messaging can work any of its big KPI magic, there is the first impression, the tiny picture: Enter the thumbnail.

Thumbnail Gazing

This past week, as I’ve been browsing thumbnail apps and tutorials, and scrolling through dozens of thumbnails on YouTube, the following concept rings clear: No one will get through to —let alone get to— your perfect videos, unless you have strong thumbnails!

Marketing is an art and a science. During a recent discussion at Animatron, we dove into the “science-y” end of our work, applying the Laws of Attraction to video thumbnails. We found that video thumbnails that magnetize their intended audience contain and mix the following 5 elements:

  • Human/mammalian faces/eyes/enticing images
  • Emotive expression or gesture
  • Great color and lighting
  • Recognizable and consistent style
  • Integrated well-placed logo

Thumbnails Illustrated

Let’s discuss the 5 elements of effective thumbnails.

1. Effective thumbnails contain human or mammalian faces and eyes and/or enticing images

Even our dear goldfish, with its 9-seconds’ long attention span, relies on eye contact. Oculesics (the study of eye contact and movement) has been around for decades and eye mapping studies are all the rage now. I’m not suggesting you spend your marketing budget on outfitting starving college student test participants with crazy goggles and wires, we do recommend paying attention to what eye mapping studies show. If eyes are windows to the soul, well…

Video Thumbnails - How to make a pizza


Eye-Tracking Google SERPs - Five Tales of Pizza. Source: moz.com

Takeaway: Your pizza better be hot! Without a friendly Italian grandmother to relay your pizza message and call to action, you’ll need to work doubly hard to take or curate great photographs—and then post the most attractive images possible.

2. Effective thumbnails relay an emotive expression or gesture

This element is clearly linked to human faces, but doesn’t necessarily call for eye contact. Look at Adidas’ Creativity series. What words come to mind, beyond fierce, dedicated, unstoppable, and strong? Capture expressions or gestures like Adidas does in your thumbnails, and you’re gold!

Unleash Your Creativity Adidas

Hint: Prior to any and all content development, list 3-5 key words that define your brand. When it’s time to shoot your video—or find content for your video via powerful video marketing tools such as Animatron’s Wave — coach your actors, or seek actors in Wave’s library, that express your message.

3. Effective thumbnails show attention to color & lighting

Whether you go minimalist or splashy, low-fi or high, color and lighting invite viewers into your world. Martha Stewart’s How-to-Cook series uses natural lighting so that eggs are white and red peppers are red.

How to - Martha Stewart

Takeaway: Even if you aren’t selling hamburgers (or products people put into their mouths), consider how color can invite, encourage, warn, seduce, relax, or repel people.

4. Effective thumbnails display a recognizable consistent style

In its How-to series, Petco uses the same font, color scheme, format, and lack of capitalization—here’s a kitten, a dog, and a snuggly snake. This combination of design elements sets them apart from their competitors, PetSmart.

How to - Petco (cats) How to - Petco (dogs)

Takeaway: You don’t have to be born with great style to learn it. Do some research into the elements of style and then make sure yours gels with your clientele. Be as bold as NASA and create a style guide. Revise the guide as test results and feedback comes in.

5. Effective thumbnails incorporate logos organically

Your company probably spent a lot of time and money on its logo design, but in marketing video thumbnails, if a logo overpowers people, puppies, or how-to action, viewers scroll on. Customers care about what’s behind a logo—literally, in the video they may want to watch, and figuratively, in terms of how a product or service will help them.

Takeaway: Kill two birds—color and logo—with one stone, with this handy Color Emotion Guide. Play around with the location of your logo, making sure text or other content from the social media tool or channel you’re using doesn’t compete with, or block it out.

A Bonus Tip on Thumbnails

Video is teaching us, marketers, that time has never been more of the essence. The thinktankers at Think with Google are asking: “Is it time to start creating ads with the ‘skip’ button in mind?” and studies on optimal video length are everywhere. But, no matter if you are selling toilet paper or surfboards, it’s clear that thumbnails can make or break you.

I’ve given a lot of thought to first impressions, and I’d like to leave you with one final tip on video thumbnails: plan ahead. Many video marketers take a series of still shots before videotaping—rather than filming and then choosing a still from their roll. Sometimes this pre-planning results in a more focused message overall, but again, if your thumbnail doesn’t rock, no one will even get to your message.

Maybe you’re feeling slightly overwhelmed by the importance of the thumbnail. Relax though and remember that bottle of wine you bought based solely on its label.

Go! Go on. Find another fun label, pour yourself a glass of wine, and see what creative insights about first impressions and video thumbnails come your way.