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Think like a thumbnail

by Deacon Webster, CCO Walrus

Advertisers can learn a lot from the lowly thumbnail image. Small but mighty, thumbnails rule consumption and they’re everywhere. Whether we’re on Netflix, YouTube, Spotify, or in a local bookstore, our environments are throwing thousands of these little billboards in our direction in hopes of piquing our interest enough to warrant a deeper look. All day, every day thumbnails are busy tipping the scales in the favor of those who are smart enough to take them seriously.

Mr. Beast, YouTube’s most followed streamer with 172 million followers cites thumbnail improvement as one of his keys to growth. He arrived at his formula after years of trial and error and now employs a thumbnail team of six that have helped shape his look and feel based on their learnings which include upping the production value and making the image more conceptual. They test over 20 thumbnails per video and they make them prior to even shooting the video.

Netflix also understands the power of a good thumbnail and serves alternative versions of program art of the same show to different viewers in hopes of attracting the widest possible audience.

Not everyone has figured it out. If you look at a category like books (because what is a book cover if not a big thumbnail) you find that there is an institutional need to blend in. Instead of vying for attention book covers seem to strive for genre compliance. Biographies look like biographies, cookbooks look like cookbooks, and summer fiction looks like summer fiction. It’s impossible to judge these books by their covers.

Which brings us to advertising. As we have said, if an ad doesn’t hold attention for at least 2.5 seconds, the message will have no impact. It’s completely forgotten. The first frame of a video ad is essentially the thumbnail. It needs to pop, it needs to be visually iconic, and it immediately needs to pull you in. We need to give that frame the attention that Mr. Beast gives his thumbnails. It should go without saying that our thumbnails deserve this level of scrutiny. There are wider applications for this thinking.

Nils Leonard from Uncommon, talks about the importance of iconography across their campaigns. They look for a visual shorthand for the idea that’s easily cut, pasted, and shared. Often when we do experiential stunts we’ll make an announcement in the newspaper. We do this not because we think that our audience still reads the physical paper, but because we want the media to have something to share. It’s important to have some sort of graphic element that can be easily photographed and dropped into a story or an Instagram post. A thumbnail, if you will.

Above – CNBC story about the Steak for Stock exchange at Smith & Wollensky. Image taken from our newspaper announcement.

As attention continues to be in shorter supply, we’d all do well to think about our campaigns with a thumbnail creator’s mindset. What’s the thing that’s going to stand out and grab someone? What is the icon for this idea? What is the easy simplified graphic thing that anyone can easily share? It’s not enough to have a great idea anymore, if you want people to engage with it, you need an amazing tiny rectangle.

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Think like a thumbnail
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