Some of YouTube's systems feel archaic in the face of the mobile revolution. The company's still using its annotations – large channels rely on them frequently, too – but they never made annotations compatible with mobile devices. That is, not until cards, which are a clean, mobile device-friendly means of offering brief contextual links. Cards are easier to implement too, and thus reduce workload on the content creator.
But annotations are still important. Probably.
To determine if it's worth your time to add an end-slate that uses annotations for click-through videos, e.g. a video ends, and then presents viewers with two new video options, we first need to look at Analytics.
Navigate to Creator Studio → Analytics and view the device split between mobile and desktop computing devices. Note that “desktop” also means “laptop,” here; we're really just differentiating between “phone/tablet” and “computer.”
Once in the Analytics pages, check for mobile device split. If a significant portion of your viewers is still represented by desktop, then we're immediately trending toward annotations being “worth it” for YouTube. By the same token, a reasonable split favoring mobile – maybe 30% or more, though it's up to you – would dictate that cards are also worth time. This would also be a good place to explore your demographic split, useful for picking up your first sponsor.
When Annotations Aren't Useful
Annotations become an immediately wasted effort if you spend the first few seconds of a video lobbing annotations at the viewer. Keep it lean: Use annotations sparingly, and use them only for “good.” Don't annoy viewers unnecessarily; they'll immediately disable annotations, which means that the rest of your work on helpful links will never get seen.
Annotations also won't help with mobile devices, as they simply won't be displayed. If the majority of your viewership is on mobile, consider focusing all your efforts on cards.
It's also not a good idea to “hide” annotations within a video. Don't try to trick viewers into clicking on them – just like an ad, it'll result in general distrust of the content and video abandonment. We don't want that.
Let's look at best practices for annotations.
Best Practices for YouTube Annotations
Don't go crazy with these things. We've all seen the videos where folks spam annotations to pop-up every few seconds. In such an instance, the best case scenario is that the viewers hide your anntoations – rendering them all pointless. Worst case, they just leave completely.
The goal with annotations is to encourage click-throughs to more content (after the video), correct errors in the content that deserve a note, or encourage subscribing.
It's best to have a dedicated “end slate” or “post-roll” video that houses most of your annotations, if not all of them. A simple end-slate will suffice, though collaborating with an animator or graphic designer could produce something unique and eye-catching for your end-slate video. Still, something as simple as a “Subscribe!” button and a couple of related videos would be a good baseline. We'd recommend two related videos, a subscribe button, and (if relevant) a button linking to a twitter account or merch page.
There are three items you need to control for annotation placement: (1) The type of annotation, (2) the position of the annotation, (3) the duration of the annotation.
For (1), we'd suggest using “Spotlight” in end-slate / post-roll videos. Other options are present, like “note” (more useful for a correction or update), “speech bubble” (resembles a cartoon-style bubble), title (for large text/title cards), and “label.” Play around – but we do prefer Spotlights for end-slate videos.
For (2), stretch the corners to fit your buttons/videos that have been rendered into the slate, then position the text box wherever you want it. If you opt not to use the text box (e.g. you've already rendered text in the video), simply leave the text area (right of the video) blank. The text box will not appear if no text is inserted by the creator.
Item (3) is only separately highlighted because of how easy it is to overlook.
But what about elsewhere in the video?
Try not to push too many annotations within the early seconds of the video, as that's when a viewer is most likely to abandon the content. Put one or two related videos at the end and maybe a “subscribe” button, then link all three elements with annotations. You should reserve the beginning portion of a video for “cards,” which are cleaner and more user-friendly.
Finally, check the numbers. Spend a week or two using annotations in strategic and experimental ways, then go to Creator Studio → Analytics and check annotations. You want to see a low close rate and high-ish CTR. A CTR approaching or exceeding 1% is decent. Note that shorter videos often have a higher CTR (click-through rate) within post-roll videos, as users are more likely to make it to the end of the content.