YouTube To Broadly Release Call-To-Action Overlays, Allow Linking Off-Site

Tomorrow, YouTube is going to release a very important addition to its suite of advertising products, and it has the potential to have a huge impact for politicians, brands, and charities alike. The funny thing is, you probably thought it was already out there.

The product’s official name is the Call-To-Action Overlay, and it’s about as straightforward as ads come: it’s a semi-transparent pop-up that links viewers to any website you choose. For example, I could place an overlay on a TechCrunch video inviting users to visit the corresponding post we wrote about it. Yes, it’s that simple.

It’s hard to believe, but you’ve never been able to do this on YouTube before now. If you ever wanted to drive users watching your YouTube video to another site, you’d have to include it as a link in the summary at the right-hand side of the page, which most people ignore anyway. Users can include links in annotations, but only to other YouTube videos. Think back to President Obama’s landmark election campaign, which was helped in no small part by his YouTube presence. If he ever wanted to direct visitors to one of his campaign homepages, he’d have to ask visitors to enter his site’s URL manually. That’s a pretty major hurdle to overcome. This gets rid of it.

So why has YouTube taken so long to implement such an obvious feature? The answer likely boils down to the fact that this is effectively driving traffic away from YouTube, which isn’t an ideal situation for a site that thrives on views. This is probably a somewhat scary step for the video giant, but it’s taking some initiatives to negate any possible downsides. You can only place these customized overlays on a video that you’ve entered into YouTube’s CPC Promoted Videos program. You don’t have to pay anything extra for the Call-To-Action overlay, but you do have to be a paying YouTube advertiser.

The feature has been in testing with select partners and non-profits for some time, and the results have been extremely positive. Last March, the organization charity:water managed to raise $10,000 in a single day by including an overlay on one of its videos. A handful of politicians have also been trying it out, using it to entice voters to sign their petitions. It’s worked well enough that politicians who haven’t had access to the feature are clamoring for it.

At this point the potential uses for the links are fairly obvious. Brands can link their commercials back to the products they’re selling. Publishers (like us) can link back to relevant articles. And politicians can link back to their campaign homepages or petitions. But there’s almost certainly some other kind of creative use for the new ads waiting to be tapped, just as YouTube’s annotations were used to create choose-your-own-adventure video journeys.