Your episode thumbnails are the last thing an audience-member sees before actually clicking to watch your content, so don’t forget about them when releasing your series. Gone are the days where picking your favorite of the three auto-thumbnails on YouTube are enough, especially for narrative content. Below are some tips to make your series stand out, especially now that you can embed your episodes directly on your Stareable page!
1- Photo, posed screenshot, or general screenshot?
No matter what, your thumbnail needs to be high quality. While it’s common to take a screenshot from your episode, motion blur can make it difficult to capture a still frame that both represents the episode and doesn’t include someone’s blurred hand mid-gesticulation. If you have the ability to plan your thumbnails prior to shooting (highly recommended), try these ideas instead:
Have your actors pose at the beginning of a take before getting into the scene. You’ll be able to pull a high-quality screenshot that looks like it’s from the scene itself but you also don’t leave facial expressions and hand movements to chance
Do a photoshoot with the primary character or characters from each episode and design a thumbnail around them as characters rather than around the scene or situation
Take production stills during each scene you want to pull a thumbnail from. This way, you’ll be able to make each one consistent, especially if you’re doing a graphic overlay that requires your photo to be a different dimension than the full thumbnail itself.
2- Faces matter
You’re telling a story, and getting people invested in that story often falls on your characters. Plus, there’s been article after article recommending that a human face in a thumbnail creates an emotional connection for the potential viewer and is far more likely to be clicked. An ultra-wide exterior shot may showcase your breathtaking cinematography, but if your show isn’t a nature documentary, that’s not going to be representative of what people can expect upon watching your show. It also allows viewers to immediately identify with a character, understand the tone of the piece, and maybe even click because they find someone attractive.
3- Brand consistency
Your thumbnails shouldn’t be super busy with text and graphics, but they should be consistent and on-brand with the rest of your marketing materials. If your logo is compact, use it! If you have a strong color and font theme, incorporate them! People should be able to tell that your thumbnails are part of the same project just from glancing at the thumbnails.
Most of all, though, they should all be made using the same template, whatever that is. Are you splitting the frame between text/logo and a photo? Are you covering the lower third of the image with episode information? No matter what your choice is, stick to it. This is another reason why planning your thumbnails prior to shooting is helpful- this way, you know if you need to keep the right side of a frame clear for graphics.
4- Graphic overlays
This is different for everyone, but in general, I recommend the following information be incorporated into your thumbnail template:
Season number (if applicable)
Logo or show name
Episode title (optional)
If you’re planning on releasing supplementary content on your video channel (you should), those thumbnails need to be unique so as not to confuse viewers but still similar in branding. Take the below examples: the image on the right is a regular episode thumbnail from the web series Brains, the image in the middle is a thumbnail from a Brains extended universe project, and the image on the right is a thumbnail from a cast/crew interview for the series. They all incorporate the same font, the logo for the show OR the name of the show, and a semi-opaque image overlay to highlight the text. They’re all very different videos, but they’re clearly for the same project.
5- Tone/ genre
The last thing you need to keep in mind when designing thumbnails for your series is to appropriately portray the tone and genre. You don’t want someone clicking on a bubblegum pink, childlike thumbnail and get a gritty period drama about police brutality. Here are a few great examples from our key art article (a similar but not identical collection of visual marketing advice):
I should be able to tell what the tone of your series is from a single image. Let’s play a game: what do these images say?
- Comedic (from facial expressions, bright colors and the “Sarcastic T-Shirt”)
From The Feels
- Dramatic (facial expressions, more muted colors)
Potential audience members should also be able to tell the genre of your project just from your key art, especially when you’re making a sci-fi or fantasy series. Consider what these examples indicate:
- Action/sci-fi (zombie hands/weapons)
- Comedic (character expressions, two people arguing in background)
- Female-led (woman is clear subject of photo- brightest color costume, centered in frame)
- Ensemble (multiple characters in foreground surrounding lead)
- Contemporary/real-world (wardrobe and lack of monsters or unfamiliar production design)
- Urban (all shots are clearly in a city)
- Dramatic (character expressions, deeper color palette)