If you’ve been on YouTube recently, you know it’s not a platform that celebrates subtlety. Splashy neon thumbnails adorned with floating heads — tongues out and eyes bulging — reign supreme.
But how did over-the-top visuals, voice-overs, and scripts become the norm? And why are these big emotions so effective at influencing viewers?
The answer, for the most part, involves human psychology. And creators have learned tricks to attract, retain, and manipulate viewers to behave in certain ways, whether that’s watching videos for longer or buying more products.
Vying for a piece of that pie are YouTubers like Pete Judo, a behavioral scientist and creator who makes videos about habits, productivity, and psychology.
Judo says that while TikTok videos are too short to build lasting connections with audiences and content on a streaming service like Netflix is too long and overproduced, YouTube is a happy medium for reaching viewers and turning them into future customers.
“YouTube is a uniquely powerful platform for brand partnerships and captivating viewers, because creators are able to develop and foster long relationships with their audience,” he says.
Though TikTok now lets some users film videos up to 10 minutes long, YouTube is still the platform for creators who want to dive deeper into subject matter — YouTube videos can be up to 15 minutes long for most users, and verified users have no time limits.
Anna Sullivan, founder and CEO of the Creative Exchange social media agency, says that shorts (whether on TikTok or YouTube) are intended for quick bumps in traffic and immediate viewership, while longer videos aim to gather traffic over time.
“Since YouTube was created, it has become one of the top search engines,” says Sullivan. “YouTube built off the importance of searchable content, being a parking lot for things people will want to learn, see, do, focusing on evergreen content vs. trends like so many other social channels.”
Gen Zers and millennials in particular are shifting to favor social media over traditional search engines, meaning that brands who want to reach younger audiences will need to have a social media presence on platforms that support videos like YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram if they want to engage with those age groups.
The real challenge for creators and brands, though, begins once a viewer has clicked onto a video. Viewers need to be hooked, captivated, and, in a best-case scenario, retained for the entirety of the video.
This is no easy feat, but experts like Jake Thomas, who runs the Creator Hooks newsletter, have psychology-backed tips to overcome the odds.
Thomas recommends starting with a good title for your YouTube video, a pivotal step for drawing in viewers. He says titles should hit on at least one of three click-worthy emotions:
Curiosity: “You’ll Never Guess What Happened When I X” or “This Entrepreneur’s Biggest Regret in Founding X”
Fear: “Five Apps You Will Regret Buying”
Desire: “How To Make Your First $10k on YouTube”
By tapping into these basic human emotions with your YouTube titles, you can more effectively reach potential viewers and customers and persuade them to click play.
“Knowing your audience is huge — knowing why they’re trying to watch your video, why they’re searching for that keyword, and why they clicked on your video,” says Thomas. “Then open loops and give people a reason to stick around.”
Opening loops, whether through the overt “Wait until the end for a surprise… ” or a more subtle option, can help with retention and get people to “click and stick,” as Thomas says.
For Judo, YouTube thumbnails are what can distinguish a viral hit from a flop, and he uses behavioral science to create successful ones.
He says one of his go-to techniques is “costly signaling,” when a thumbnail conveys to a potential viewer that the video took a lot of time and effort to make, and thus will be high quality and valuable.
As far as what images work in thumbnails, the data shows human faces are superior. And Judo’s knowledge of human behavior backs that up: “Our brain is highly sensitive to detecting faces. We have a part of our brain called the fusiform gyrus that’s main function is to do this,” he explains.
To tap into viewers’ brains, he recommends creators focus on six universal human emotions (coined by Dr. Paul Ekman). The emotions — fear, anger, surprise, joy, sadness, and disgust — are thought to be understood by all humans, and therefore can serve as powerful tools for reaching viewers.
“YouTubers can think about which emotion they are trying to convey in their thumbnail title combo,” says Judo. “A clearly defined emotion is likely to be a more compelling proposition to prospective viewers, than an ambiguous one.”
He cautions, however, that the data on face-forward thumbnails is now widely known, making the platform saturated with them. Today, to be different, it might be worth experimenting with thumbnails featuring something else.
Along with capitalizing on click-worthy emotions for a video, Thomas says there are a handful of “quick triggers” that can make YouTube titles more effective:
Trend jacking/timeliness: Mold your content to what’s going on right now — this can be as simple as adding the year to your title or names of events and holidays (Christmas, Super Bowl, Olympics, etc.)
Authority: Name-drop people who are in positions of power (CEOs, celebrities, etc.)
Time frames: Include a time frame in the title that promises something to your viewers (“How to get a six pack in six weeks,” for example)
Target beginners: Including words like “beginner” or “first” can make videos feel more approachable and attract all kinds of viewers (“How to get your first 1k subscribers on YouTube,” for example)
Everyday things: Use words such as “every day” or “daily” to convince viewers your content is approachable and can be easily plugged into their schedules (think, “20-minute daily English learning routine”)
Thomas says that while these tactics can help get viewers to click on your video, creators still need to be purposeful about opening loops within their content to keep people curious and engaged.
And on YouTube, injecting curiosity often means amping up the emotions:
“Extremes work well on YouTube,” says Thomas. “If you can take a bland statement and spice it up and make it extreme, you’re probably going to increase your click-through rate and more people are going to view it.”
While big emotions, purposeful titles, and well-curated thumbnails can all help grab viewers and stand out in a saturated market, content creation is ultimately a skill that needs mastering.
“There is no shortcut to being a great YouTuber,” says Judo. “Being a YouTuber is an art, it's a skill… The most important thing is to get good at making videos, and earn your audience's trust.”