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Hacking YouTube for Direct Response Marketing

Published: April 16, 2018

Author: Ashley Mo

Our blog theme this week: getting the most out of YouTube advertising, brought to you by Sr. Account Manager Ashley Mo.
YouTube advertising
As direct response marketers, we have to stay on top of new trends and figure out how to make them work for us. With digital video ad spending expected to grow double digits annually through 2020 (source), YouTube’s advertising platform is ripe for exploration. It’s especially great if your core audience skews younger. YouTube reaches more 18-49 year olds than any broadcast or cable TV network, and that’s just looking at mobile (source).
The problem with YouTube advertising is that while the platform works well as a branding and awareness tool, it’s not so great for direct response. Google wants its users to be engaged, so getting users to take specific actions that require leaving YouTube has not been a priority. As a result, ads automatically optimize toward view rate and engagement, not toward the clicks to website you may be looking to generate.
With performance as a primary goal, we asked ourselves, “How can we game the system to drive valuable website conversions for our clients?” Through some clever account restructuring and feature optimizing, we’ve figured out a few hacks.

Step 1: Customize the advertising experience as much as possible.

YouTube TrueView in-stream ads offer quite a few freebies that many advertisers don’t know about. You can add a call-to-action overlay that will hover over your video all of the time (even when it’s not an ad). You can even append UTMs to the URL so that you can track user behavior once they get to your website.
Call-to-action overlay

A companion banner will also appear alongside your ad. YouTube will auto-generate one from your video if you don’t have one, but it’s better to create a custom companion banner similar to your banner ads. This way you can feature a call-to-action button. Every click matters!
Companion banner

Last, think about the landing page you’re driving viewers to. It may not make sense to drive users to a generic home page. If possible, drive to a custom landing page featuring content related to the video the user has just watched. This makes for a better user experience and can reduce bounce rate.

Step 2: Limit your reach.

The beauty of YouTube is that even at $.01 per view, you can generate a ton of views for your ads in a short period of time. When it comes to driving actions, however, you’ll want to reduce your reach so that it caters to your core audience. Broader targeting may provide a lower cost-per-view (CPV), but the key here is that you should be willing to pay more for views of valuable users, i.e. ones that are more likely to convert.

Example: We’re willing to pay up to $.29 more per view for Non-Converters because the conversion rate for this audience is 10X higher!
I could write an entire whitepaper on audience targeting in YouTube, but for now, I’d say test whatever works well for you in Display Network campaigns. If you haven’t run GDN campaigns before, try lower-funnel targeting like Customer Match & Remarketing.
Another thing to consider: what do typical conversion rates for your product look like on desktop and mobile? For one client that we work with, desktop conversion rates have always been higher, so we excluded mobile completely from our campaigns. Over half of YouTube traffic is on mobile, so if you don’t control for it, your spend will lean towards mobile.
Last, make sure you add frequency caps at the campaign level. This will help you control for number of impressions and views per user so you can reach more unique users.

Step 3: Create single-video ad groups.

To be honest, this game-changing discovery was serendipitous. We had a situation where one video ad was bringing in a CPA well below our goal, but it wasn’t getting much spend because Google was favoring another video in the same ad group that had a higher view rate. As an experiment, we split the better performing video out into its own ad group with the same targeting and then increased the bid. In doing so we were able to force more views and spend to this top-performing ad and, as a result, drove more conversions.
It’s pretty easy to explain why this worked. We were able to take control away from Google by forcing its algorithms to favor the videos we knew would perform better by setting a higher max cost-per-view bid.


Following these best practices won’t guarantee you success on YouTube, but they should help you avoid easy mistakes. There are many other important factors that can influence outcome, the main one being your video. According to Google, creative can be responsible for 70% of a campaign’s success (source). At the end of the day, it’s important to test, test, test. As more advertisers explore YouTube ads and the platform evolves, these hacks will change, so you’d better get started right away!

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