Is your email campaign’s content easy to access, understand and interact with? Are your emails accessible to subscribers who are visually impaired or have difficulty hearing or are using assistive technology (AT)?

Does email accessibility matter in email marketing? From improving the quality of your email’s content through delivering the perfect email experience to your subscribers to increasing your ROI, there are plenty of reasons as to why employing email accessibility is important. 

“As email developers, we spend hours getting an email to look just right in a client with less than 1% market share but very few of us will spend a few minutes making the email accessible.” – Mark Robbins

When you first designed your email you presumably thought everyone who receives it would be looking and experiencing it the same way, right? Well, we are sorry to say that this would not be the case. With all the time you devoted to ensuring your email campaign is pixel-perfect both in the inbox and on the small screen, you’ve probably neglected to consider how accessible your email would be. 

In this article, we’ll cover the following topics about email accessibility:

  1. What is email accessibility?
  2. Stats on visual impairment and disabilities
  3. What are the most essential email accessibility requirements?
  4. The law and email accessibility

Let’s dive in.

Accessibility is a term thrown around quite often when referring to web design. It serves as a founding pillar of not only design but user experience as well. However, when used in the context of email marketing, accessibility refers to the process of ensuring all the recipients on your mailing list will receive and understand your email message perfectly. Regardless of any possible visual impairments, disabilities or use of assistive technology (AT). Overall, accessible content is much more readable, logical and usable by everyone, not only people with disabilities. Not to mention that good email accessibility means good usability which leads to better conversions and consequently, greater ROI.

According to stats, 77% of marketers state that email accessibility is a priority for their brand. However, only 8% thoroughly adhere to accessibility best practice. The reason for the latter lies in the misconception that optimising emails for accessibility is a Herculean task. As an email marketer, you might not be 100% sure where to start. But the truth is, if you have a list of email accessibility best practices at your disposal, the whole process would be as easy as ABC.

Let’s take a look at some statistics on visual impairment and disabilities.

According to the UK’s NHS, one in ten people in the UK has dyslexia creating an obstacle for them when it comes to reading, writing and spelling. Visual impairment (loss of vision or colour blindness) is another disability to take into account. The NHS states that almost 2 million people in the UK live with sight loss, with 360,000 people registered as either blind or partially sighted. 

Additionally, according to the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), the rough estimate of people with sight-threatening conditions has reached 6 million. So, if your mailing list is primarily UK-based, at least 10% of it is people who have some form of visual impairment. 

The global outlook is not looking good either. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), around 2.2 billion people suffer from visual impairment or blindness, with one billion of them (which is 12.82% of the global population) living with moderate or severe vision impairment. Furthermore, the WHO estimates that more than a billion people globally live with a form of disability.

Further stats show that across Europe an estimate of over 30 million people are either blind or partially sighted and an average of 1 in 30 Europeans experience sight loss. In addition, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that around 1.3 million Americans are legally blind, with about 4.2 million being visually impaired. 

As you can deduce from these stats, the email accessibility of your marketing campaigns will be valuable for billions of people globally. Ah, let’s not forget it’s also good for business.

Many visually impaired or disabled people use assistive technology (AT) to have better access to the internet and their emails. Such assistive devices include – 

a) screen readers – they render text and image content as speech or Braille output. They are essential for people with visual impairments and learning disabilities;
b) magnifiers – an assistive technology (AT) which interfaces with a device’s graphical output to display an enlarged screen;
c) joysticks – an alternative to mouse-based navigation;
d) eye-tracking – it allows people to control computer interfaces with eye movements enabling people with physical and cognitive disabilities to navigate easily; and
e) sip-and-puff (SNP) – an AT used to send signals to a device using air pressure by ‘sipping’ (inhaling) or ‘puffing’ (exhaling) on a straw, tube or “wand”.

According to the WHO, one billion people require assistive technology products today, with more than 2 billion people worldwide expected to need at least one assistive technology product by 2030.

In addition to all the adaptive tools available, as an email marketer, you can improve engagement and effectiveness of your email campaigns by making them more accessible to those billions of people just by implementing a few simple code and design improvements. It’s a market you probably never thought to explore, however, it’s there for the taking.

Essential Email Accessibility Requirements 

You probably thought your email campaigns have been performing awesomely. However, did you consider how accessible they are to both your current and potential audience? 

Before moving forward with your email marketing campaigns, we highly recommend evaluating your efforts so far. The easiest and the most visual way to do so is for you to pick one of your most recently send emails, print it (or open it on a separate screen), outline the goals you want to achieve, write down your notes and start designing. But, way before you do that, as an expert email marketer, you need to know what constitutes an accessible email; and, what are the main requirements you need to meet. 

Every email campaign must – 

1) maintain a logical reading order

In contrast to web pages, HTML emails and templates are usually coded using tables. Why? Because this is the most reliable way of creating layouts that work across different desktops, mobile, webmail and email clients. If you have not planned and thought this thoroughly, you risk recipients you rely on keyboard-only access not to receive your content in the order intended. For example, screen readers read tabular content from left to right and from top to bottom. Here is an example of how a two-column two-row tabular email template would be read – Email Accessibility: Everything You Need To Know | - free email marketing software

Now, think about how easy it is for such an email to be read. We are not saying it’s hard. But, why wouldn’t you want to simplify – and preserve the logical reading order – by designing (or selecting) an email template with a better layout. For example, the below one-row, two-column template guarantees much better email accessibility.

Email Accessibility: Everything You Need To Know | - free email marketing software

If you are wondering why this requirement might be of particular importance we have only one thing to say – responsive email layouts. With the advancement in technology and the ever-evolving email trends, it’s crucially important to ensure your email campaigns are easily accessible not only for a selected few (being it 5K or 50K) on your mailing list; but also, to all subscribers – current and potential. Therefore, creating a logical reading order which gives your subscribers a comfortable reading experience.

2) include HTML heading elements

To ensure the hierarchy of your email is conveyed properly to screen reader subscribers, it’s very important to utilise header tags such as header <H1> or <H2>, table <table>, paragraph <p>, etc. These tags help your subscribers differentiate important parts of your email’s content on screen readers; as well as, give your readers a more pleasant reading experience by allowing them to navigate a perfectly hierarchical structured email.

3) consider colour contrast

How much of your attention is focused on the colours used in your email campaigns? Have you ever considered some of your subscribers can have moderately low-vision or are colourblind? 

According to the stats listed at the beginning, the chance of having visually impaired subscribers is quite high. Thus, the contrast ratio of your email is essential for its accessibility. For example, would say white text on a yellow background (or vice-versa) is easy to read? The answer is ‘No, it is not.’

According to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, to meet AA level standards your email’s design should have a minimum contrast ratio (CR) of 4.5:1. If the text in your email is larger than 23px or if it’s bold text larger than 18px then the CR should be 3:1. To gain some context as to what we are waffling on about, keep in mind that the same colour ratio (white on white, for example) has a contrast ratio of 1:1; whilst white on black has a ratio of 21:1. Here are some more contrast ratio example for reference –

Email Accessibility: Everything You Need To Know | - free email marketing software

Overall, ensuring there is a sufficient contrast (according to standards, of course) between your email’s content and background colours is crucially important to its accessibility – not only for people with visual impairments but also, for all of the subscribers on your mailing list.

4) include alt text to all images

Subscribers on your mailing list might be using screen readers or they might have images blocked in their email client. If that’s the case, overloading your email campaign with images – no matter how relevant they might be – is not only pointless but also, unnecessary. Instead, make sure the critical content is outlined in the body of your email.

However, you are not designing emails only for visually impaired recipients. You are designing them for all recipients. As such, using proper alt text (the brief description to each image) is a definite ‘must’. Just keep in mind that there are two forms of images – decorative and informative. The first type does not require an alt text – just leave the attribute empty (alt=””). The latter, however, requires you to give in a descriptive and short alt attribute to highlight the relevance of the image.  Here is an example –

Email Accessibility: Everything You Need To Know | - free email marketing software

5) ensure links have meaningful, descriptive text

We all use links in our email campaigns. However, it’s crucially important to remember that when your subscriber reads the link(s) it should convey the purpose of it. The link text reveals to the recipient what will be displayed if they click on the link. Ah, and let’s not forget that link text is also used by screen reader devices for document navigation purposes.

As a general rule, it’s advisable to avoid generic link text like “click here” or “further details”. Instead, add more context to the link text to make sure the recipient understands what it is about. For example, “Writing Marketing Emails 101”.

6) include a plain-text version

Different subscribers will have different preferences. Some might want to receive HTML emails, others might prefer a plain-text version. The debate regarding which format is better has been ongoing for quite some time. However, there’s no reason for you to worry about this because we have some great news. 

When sending emails via professional ESP(s) – like EmailOut – a plain-text version of your campaign is simultaneously generated with your HTML one for those of your subscribers who might prefer this format. Ah, with EmailOut, you can even edit the plain-text version yourself.

7) have a ‘one-of-a-kind’ descriptive subject line

The first thing that will grab your subscribers attention is the subject line. As such, you must ensure that no matter if they read it themselves or if it’s read to them by a screen reader, the subject line will be meaningful, concise and descriptive enough to grab their attention; and, make them open and interact with your email. Keep in mind that visually impaired people rely heavily on subject lines to determine if an email is relevant to their needs and worth their time.

8) test, test, test

To make sure the email campaigns you are sending out are accessible, your best course of action is following the requirements we have mentioned and test, test, test. An extensive email accessibility process contains two important steps: 1) utilising accessibility testing tools* and 2) live test sends. 

There are 6 elements that must be tested to evaluate email accessibility – 

a) keyboard access and visual focus – this test’s purpose is to check the possibility of reaching all email content using only a keyboard;

b) image alt text – the purpose of this test it to check and ensure al the informative images used in your email campaign have an alt attribute;

c) headings – the goal of this test is to check and make sure that headings are marked-up accordingly and following a proper hierarchy;

d) reading order – this test’s goal is to check that screen readers can read the email’s content in a logical order;

e) zoom – it tests if your email (viewed in a browser) can be zoomed to at least 200% without losing any content or functionality; and

f) mobile device – considering how popular the use of smartphones and tablets is, it’s essential to check how accessible your email is on different mobile devices. Since most operating systems have built-in screen readers such as VoiceOver for iOS, TalkBack for Android and Narrator for Windows, make sure to test extensively before hitting ‘send’.

Email Accessibility And The Law

Ensuring the accessibility of your email campaign is a legal requirement in a lot of countries. There is disability rights legislation all over the world that’s intended to make sure people with disabilities are not unfairly disadvantaged in daily activities. 

An aspect of accessibility is ensuring your website and communications are compliant with your country’s legislation. You can do so by following the W3C’s web content accessibility guidelines (WCAG). Why are we mentioning this? Since your email campaigns can be viewed on the web as well, everything you do to comply with  WCAG will also improve your email accessibility. Furthermore, according to WCAG, your content must be POUR – 

a) Perceivable – available by sight, hearing and even touch;
b) Operable – easy and able to navigate;
c) Understandable – easy to comprehend which applies to both content and design; and
d) Robust – usable by multiple agents including assistive technology.

Failure to comply with such legislation opens the door to possible legal ramifications and no one wants that.

Final Thoughts

Now that you know the basic email accessibility requirements, you can take steps towards creating more accessible email campaigns. It’ll help you not only expand your reach by including more people (do you recall the stats?) to your audience; but also, to ensure a more user-friendly experience for your subscribers and leads who have varying visual impairments or other disabilities.

Email accessibility is about more than just improving your subscriber experience for a handful of people. It’s about creating the perfect experience for everyone and having a more inclusive email marketing strategy. Not to mention it’s also a legal requirement.

Highly recommended further reading – 

1) Plain Text vs HTML Emails
2) Irresistible Email Subject Lines
3) Email Design Best Practices

*Email Accessibility Test Tools

1) Google’s Accessibility Developer Tools 
2) Wuhcag’s WCAG 2.0 Checklist
3) W3C’s Detailed Accessibility Checklist
4)  A11Y Project’s Checklist

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