YouTube Cards Vs. YouTube Annotations: When and Why To Use Them

YouTube Cards Vs. YouTube Annotations: When and Why To Use Them

  • Focus: Video

If you are just creating a YouTube Channel for the first time, or if you haven’t used your YouTube channel for some time, you will notice that there are many tools that are at your disposal. Two of the most popular tools allow you to add Annotations and Cards to your videos. The ability to add annotations has been around for over seven years, but YouTube cards were launched in early 2015. With the advent of YouTube cards, many people have began asking, “What are the differences between the two options?” and of course, “Which one is the best?” If you’re wondering that, too, then you are in luck, as we will breakdown what these two important tools are and how you can best utilize them.

Now, before we dive into what the similarities and differences are between YouTube annotations and YouTube cards, let’s first explain their purpose. Both options were created to help you establish Calls-To-Action (CTAs) in your video. CTAs are meant to incite the audience members to commit to a specific and, more importantly, immediate action. The CTAs can tell the viewer to view another specific video, visit a particular website or even simply subscribe to your channel.

Waverley Knobs - Boston MA - YouTube Cards Vs. YouTube Annotations: When and Why To Use Them

Knowing your audience, your specific messaging, and what actions best assist your brand/channel will lead to successful CTAs. If you are a person who is an occasional video creator, or you’re mostly a viewer, you may not see the importance of these tools – but if you are a company or a content creator, treating your channel like a entertainment or informational business, proper CTAs become invaluable.


YouTube Annotations

If you have viewed your fair share of YouTube videos, you most likely have seen many annotations (and the abuse of those annotations). As the quote goes, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” And, unfortunately, we are bombarded by sudden speech bubbles exploding onto videos telling us to follow this, subscribe to that and make sure to LIKE! LIKE! LIKE! An overabundance of annotations have annoyed many a viewer. Yet, when appropriately employed, annotations can assist with building your audience and garnering increased engagement for your content.

YouTube annotations are highly customizable, which is great! To start off, there are 5 different types of annotations: a speech bubble, a sticky note, a title, a label and a spotlight. You can change the annotation colors, size and manipulate its location and place it anywhere on the video viewport, or screen area.

Waverley Knobs - Boston MA - YouTube Cards Vs. YouTube Annotations: When and Why To Use Them

Annotations have eight core CTA purposes and two hidden purposes of which many people are not aware.

YouTube annotations can be linked and drive viewers to:

  • View another video
  • Start watching a specific playlist
  • Be sent to a specified channel
  • Drive traffic to a Google+ profile/page
  • Give them another way to subscribe to your channel
  • Send people over to a crowdfunding project
  • Drive traffic to an associated website
  • Drive traffic to a link where they can purchase merchandise


One of the hidden purposes is for informational correction. If your video covers a topic that is informational or educational, things can become outdated quickly or perhaps you misspoke briefly or had an incorrect word usage. Instead of redoing an entire video because of one word or one minor point, you can have a textbox annotation appear that assists the viewer by updating them, or informing them of the correct information. Think of this technique like the corrections and clarification notes that online publications use for their articles.

The second hidden purpose is for people to easily skip ahead to a specific section of a video. For example, if you are doing a tutorial on a product, you can list a menu at the beginning of your video that list the different segments that people can jump directly to. This way you are saving the viewer’s time if they are already familiar with the other aspects that you cover within the tutorial.



Beyond annotations being overly used, are there any other downfalls? There is one major downfall, which actually drove YouTube (essentially, Google) to create the Cards: annotations do not work on mobile devices. With the increase in mobile device audiences, YouTube created the concept of a card so that brands or companies could continue to benefit from proper audience engagement.


YouTube Cards

Waverley Knobs - Boston MA - YouTube Cards Vs. YouTube Annotations: When and Why To Use Them

YouTube cards have been a nice addition since early 2015. They are denoted as being “cleaner” than annotations and very mobile friendly. On any video that has a YouTube card, you will see an ‘i’ icon. If you don’t click on that icon, the cards will appear from the right side of the video at a specific previously designated time.

When you do click on that icon, all of your cards will appear and you can click again to make them disappear. This is already a nice addition in comparison to annotations, as the viewer as full access to your CTAs at all times. On the other hand, annotations will appear and disappear based on the time you scheduled them to appear in the video editor.

Cards have six core CTA purposes:

  • Drive traffic to a specific video
  • Drive traffic to a specific playlist
  • Channel promotion
  • Accepting donations (if a 501 c3 organization)
  • Create a poll to engage your audience with and receive results directly from your viewer base
  • Drive traffic to a specified website

Many believe that even though cards work on mobile devices, they still have their own downfalls as well. Some users are not happy with the fact that YouTube cards are not customizable (like annotations). You cannot change colors, change sizes or even the placement of the cards.

Also, cards cannot function in quite the way that the spotlight annotation does. A spotlight annotation is a empty textbox-like tool that can be placed overtop of an image or ‘button’, that is created in video post-production, which can make that object linked to anything you want (such as, link to another video or website). Many prefer this option since it keeps the viewing space ‘cleaned up’ rather than having objects appearing over the video, thus annoying the viewer (think of how annoying pop-up ads are and you will understand their frustration).


Final Verdict

Waverley Knobs - Boston MA - YouTube Cards Vs. YouTube Annotations: When and Why To Use Them

YouTube has stated that the cards will eventually fully replace the annotations but after a year of existence, that doesn’t seem to be the case. To many content-creators, even though the ability to have CTAs on mobile is important, they also want more customization options. This thought process has deemed cards to be far more viewer-friendly than content-creator-friendly. This is why Google is still experimenting and building out the cards tool until they feel there is as best of a balance as possible.

If you don’t care about customization, and are instead interested to know the actual impact of annotations vs. cards, research shows a higher click-through rate (CTR) with annotations than they have with cards. Overall though, the actual engagement for both is fairly low, especially in comparison to having a video be suggested by YouTube, which yields an exponentially higher CTR.

In the end, our suggestion is to use both options strategically, and sparingly, within your videos. By using both annotations and cards, you are still able to have some customization and the ability to use the spotlight annotation, while also engaging mobile users (which make up around 50% of all YouTube views).

Don’t forget! Even though it is important to strategically use annotations and cards, you will also need to successfully brand your channel and use effective SEO tactics. For more on this, make sure to read: Branding Your YouTube Channel: What You Need To Know.

by Evin Charles Anderson


For more than a decade, Evin Charles Anderson has explored the intersection of performance, production and promotion. As the CEO and Creative Partner of Waverley Knobs, featured in Lifehack and CEO Blog Nation, he helps clients shape, shoot and share unique and engaging brand stories that inspire action, innovation and change. Evin’s independent, Hollywood and commercial film experience and marketing expertise means he not only knows how to visually tell a story for his clients, he knows how to position that story for real-world impact and business results.

In addition to running Waverley Knobs, Evin is a professional actor and director, as well as co-creator of the podcast Branch Out: THE Marketing and Digital Media Podcast. He also teaches acting, directing and marketing classes for the City of Cambridge in Massachusetts. Evin’s film Paperthin has been featured at The Magwill Film Festival in California, and Waverley Knobs’ short film, The Heist, has been featured in Examiner and MobileMovieMaker.

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