YouTube Viewers EXPOSED!

October 12, 2007

Recently, there’s been a lot of talk about “thumbnail cheaters” on YouTube. Each video’s default thumbnail is chosen based on its center most frame. Thumbnail Cheating is the practice of inserting a provocative image at that halfway point of your video. This image could be a half-naked attractive female, an image depicting a violent act about to happen (such as someone standing in front of a moving bus) or any other prepared image inserted only to attract views.

This practice violates YouTube’s Community Guidelines, which state, “Don’t try to cheat the system. No gamed thumbnails, spamming tags, or creating dummy accounts…”

Some users attempt to get around violating the Guidelines by mentioning the particular celebrity being shown for the thumbnail at that point in the video. Probably the most popular example of this is utilized almost daily by YouTube Partner, sxephil.

As part-experiment, part-joke, I decided to mention sxephil and his gamed thumbnails in one of my recent videos, while utilizing his trick and one of his recent provocative images. I did so in Episode Six of a YouTube series I’ve created called “Channel Surfing”. The series highlights three YouTube content creators each week that I personally enjoy.

The first five episodes were now the control group, having similar tags, similar running lengths and consistent titles/descriptions. For the experiment to work, the sixth episode, the video utilizing the gamed thumbnail, would have to be titled, tagged and described in a similar fashion. And it was. The only notable difference between the first five episodes, and the latest sixth episode, was the use of the thumbnail image.

Forty-eight hours after uploading Episode Six, here are the results of the experiment:

Cumulative views per episode:
Ep. One: 549 views (uploaded over two weeks ago)
Ep. Two: 431 views
Ep. Three: 356 views
Ep. Four: 136 views
Ep. Five: 515 views (episode mentioned on YourTubeNews)
Ep. Six: 5,981 views (after only 48 hours)

Episode Six, with its intentionally provocative thumbnail, had more than three times the views of all previous episodes combined, in just over two days. While it may be stating the obvious, an attractive thumbnail will land you more views. However, the episode had no more comments or ratings than any of the previous episodes. Proving that views alone won’t help you build an involved audience.

As an interesting side note, during the time Episode Six and all its hottness were on the Most Viewed list, I gained just over thirty new subscribers, a forty-eight hour record for my channel. Those viewers may have clicked for the cleavage, but stayed for the content.


The most frequent private message I receive on YouTube asks, “How did you get ________ to appear in your video?” After writing and appearing in numerous collaborations with some of the most popular viral video makers on YouTube, I’ve formed a bit of a stock answer to these PMs. When I’m feeling coy, I simply reply, “I asked nicely.” But when I have time to write a proper answer, I explain much of what follows:

  • ALWAYS have a solid idea for a video before contacting anyone about collaborating. YouTubers spend enough time as it is writing and creating their own videos; they will be much more likely to work on a collab with you if you have a plot/story/concept that you can easily explain to them.
  • ALWAYS set a deadline for when their footage should be in your e-hands. If two different subs contact me about making a video with them, one who wants the footage by next Friday and the other who wants it “whenever I get a chance,” it’ll probably be a while before the second person gets anything from me.
  • SOMETIMES it helps if your collab concept fits into a plot thread the other video maker has already commented on. When I asked Spricket24 and Nalts to appear in my prank calling video, the two of them had a faux e-fight raging on YouTube and I was able to work it into the script, making it more relevant and fun for both of them to participate.
  • NEVER be demanding. You’ll need to be persistent; people are generally busy and forget things. Sending occasional follow-up or reminder emails is okay. But, accept that it’s also okay for whomever you’re contacting to say “no,” or to not reply at all. Not everyone wants to participate in the community or collaboration videos. Always be polite when contacting people – don’t burn bridges.

Of course, there are a few technical issues you should keep in mind as well. Make sure you ask for file formats and compression codecs your video-editing program can open. If you’re on a Mac, you may not be able to use .wmv files, for instance. What about the aspect ratio? Videos look more cohesive if they remain in one aspect ratio (4:3 (fullscreen) or 16:9 (widescreen)) throughout. If these are details you’re concerned with, make sure you mention that up front.

Finally, be kind in your editing. Some will send more than one take so you can choose which best fits the scene. Others will pre-edit their material before sending it; you should respect those edits and not chop up the footage any further. Large video files can be sent easily using host sites/programs such as or Pando if you don’t have your own server.

Remember to have fun with it. Collaborating is a great way to work with the viral video makers whose work you enjoy. Collaborations can also expose your audience to new channels or personalities, and in return, their subscribers will have the opportunity to see you. If you have any questions or other suggestions, contact me on YouTube:

fallofautumndistro has written for and/or co-starred in his videos with IanCrossland, MikeSkehan, MysteryGuitarMan, Nalts, Mr. Safety, Spricket24, sxephil, vlogbrothers, WhatTheBuckShow, Woody and Greg from HBO’s Man In The Box and many others.