Billions of people with disabilities have difficulty engaging with traditional emails. These email accessibility best practices can help improve their experience — and your email performance.
- 15% of people worldwide have some form of disability, including visual, physical and cognitive challenges.
- Email accessibility design and coding help ensure your messages are understood by all your audience members, with and without disabilities.
- Email accessibility best practices include specific guidelines related to email colors, fonts, margins, buttons, animation and more.
- Developing checklists and using online evaluation tools can help your team follow email accessibility guidelines.
If you’ve heard buzz around email accessibility and wondered just what it is, why it matters and how to incorporate it into your email campaigns, we’re here to help. Without getting into all the nitty gritty technical details, we’ll share an overview that will help you understand email accessibility best practices, so you can put a critical eye on your campaigns before they fly out the door.
What is the purpose of accessibility?
Let’s start with some important statistics. Did you know that 15% of the global population lives with some form of disability?1 That includes physical, motor, visual and cognitive impairments, ranging from the 2.2 billion people with near or distant vision issues2 to the 1 million veterans with compromised vision.1 In addition, 15% of people have dyslexia, while 8% of men and 0.5% of women experience color blindness.2 Plus, a constantly shifting group of people experience temporary disabilities, such as recent hand surgery, broken eyeglasses or lost hearing aids.
For these people, understanding and interacting with many traditionally designed and coded emails creates challenges, even if they’re using a screen reader or navigation tools.
Focusing on email accessibility literally makes your email messages accessible to this large audience. Not only can accessibility enhance engagement, appreciation and trust, but it can also help you steer clear of legal problems. Nearly 11,000 federal lawsuits related to accessibility (or lack thereof) were filed in 2020.3
One bonus: When you apply email accessibility practices, you also make your emails more appealing to other audiences, because it’s essentially all based on human-centered design principles.
One more bonus: Less than two-thirds of marketers consistently consider accessibility when developing emails.3 And that means if you do, you can gain a competitive advantage.
What is email accessibility?
Hopefully you’re sold on the importance of email accessibility. As for what it is, there’s no dictionary definition (yet), but CCG Digital Director Becky O’Brien explains that it’s a style of designing and coding that helps ensure your message can be understood by every audience member, even those with disabilities.
If that’s what email accessibility is, as a general concept, then what is an accessible email? It’s one that follows guidelines for a wide range of elements related to fonts, colors, white space, content, document structure and more.
Unfortunately, there are no true email accessibility standards. However, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has a list of website accessibility requirements for state and local governments that could be applied to email and used as a basis for determining what makes an email ADA compliant. And many marketers turn to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). This resource provides technical standards for websites, but again, much of it can be applied to email.
8 Email Accessibility Best Practices
At CCG, we both design emails from the ground up and code emails designed by other client teams. “When we get those predesigned emails from clients, the biggest accessibility issues we see are related to color contrast and font size,” says O’Brien.
Let’s take a look at those two elements and a few other email accessibility best practices that every marketer should be incorporating today.
Simply put, says O’Brien, “you want enough color contrast so the copy is easy to read. For instance, you don’t want to put medium green text on a light green background.”
Instead of simply using your own judgement, O’Brien recommends using a color checker — like the free ones from WebAIM and Accessible Web — to test your emails. These provide an objective evaluation based on common visual impairments.
The examples below, from WebAIM, illustrate foreground (text color) and background color selections, and the accessibility ranking of the color contrast. The sample on the left shows an unacceptable level of contrast, while the sample on the right shows an acceptable contrast.
While we’re talking color, another email accessibility best practice is to avoid making any part of your message dependent on color. For instance, don’t give direction such as “click the blue button,” because people who can’t see well or can’t see all colors will have trouble picking out the right button. Similarly, make sure your text links are identified by more than a color — always use a second feature, such as an underline or a hover action that changes the cursor.
“Especially for mobile, since the devices are so small, you want the font larger so it’s easier to read,” says O’Brien. Besides size, fonts that are less condensed are also easier to read, since it’s easier to distinguish each letter. “Since people tend to scan emails, you want to make it as easy and efficient as possible for them to get your message,” adds O’Brien.
Text vs. Images
Many people with visual disabilities use screen readers to turn on-screen text into audio — and those readers typically don’t recognize (and won’t read) text in images, says O’Brien. That makes it important to put as much of your message as possible — and especially the critical points — into text, not images. This matters for your general audience, as well, since people with images turned off won’t get your message, either.
“Instead of a whole coupon being an image and having text within the image, you can code it so the copy portion is actual text,” says O’Brien.
Simple layouts are ideal for email accessibility. They help people with brain impairments — which may cause processing challenges — and people with visual disabilities more easily identify the main message and avoid sensory overload.
Consider single-column designs, shorter paragraphs and reduced number of graphic elements, such as images, tables and even link buttons.
“Giving more ‘air’ around the copy with wider margins and line spacing also makes an email easier to read,” says O’Brien. “Emails with tightly stacked copy are hard to follow because it all blends together.”
She also recommends left aligning copy, particularly larger copy blocks, because people with dyslexia have trouble reading centered text.
Buttons and Scrolling
People with arthritis, hand tremors, missing limbs and other motor disabilities may have trouble navigating through an email or clicking on buttons and links. Some people must use keyboard navigation or a mouth stick instead of a traditional mouse. (WebAIM also shares a method for checking keyboard accessibility here.)
An accessible email, then, should avoid any elements that require precise actions. For instance, make buttons larger — think about making them large enough to click with your thumb, suggests O’Brien. And surround them with ample white space so it’s easy to click the right spot.
Motion and Animation
Some disabilities, such as neurological issues, can put people at risk of seizures from flashing content, like GIFs and other animation. To make your email accessible for these people, keep it subtle and slow. For instance, says O’Brien, “Make sure that any animation doesn’t blink or flash more than three times every second.”
Digging a little deeper into the technical details, email accessibility also relies on properly coding the document’s structure in ways that make it easy for screen readers to interpret your message. This essentially boils down to using semantic code, which allows screen readers to identify text versus design elements, as well as being able to distinguish content hierarchy, such as headlines, subheads and lists.
An important point is how to code tables, images and other non-text elements, says O’Brien. For example, she explains, if you don’t want the table information to be read, you can set the presentation role (or its synonym, “role none”). This tells the screen reader the table is being used only for presentation, or as a graphic. Note that when you use this tactic, you should also use descriptive alt text for the “hidden” elements.
If you do want copy within a table to be read, a best practice is to tag the table with <tbody>, <thead> and <tfoot> to identify different parts of the table so the screen reader can translate the table by row and column, says O’Brien. However, whenever possible, use lists instead of tables, she adds.
Whether someone has a cognitive, visual or auditory disability — or no disability at all — using simple, concise language will help ensure your message is easily and quickly understood by any audience. Avoid acronyms, jargon, complex sentences and lengthy paragraphs. Do aim for shorter sentences, shorter words and skimmable design elements, such as lists.
To add clarity and enhance accessibility, use descriptive text for hyperlinks. For instance, instead of the old “click here” be more specific on why someone should click or what happens when they click: read the report, enroll now, get the stats and so on.
If your content is audio-based (videos, podcasts) make sure to add captions and text transcriptions.
How can you tell if an email is accessible?
It’s important to understand these top email accessibility best practices. And there are even more technical details your team can consider. So, it can be challenging and take time to make accessible design and coding second nature. We’ve found that having our own email accessibility checklist helps our team hit the mark.
Your design and coding team can create its own checklist. You can also leverage online email accessibility checkers like these:
If you want to take a deeper dive into email accessibility, we recommend the W3C’s online Accessibility Fundamentals Overview.
While shifting to email accessible design and coding takes some effort upfront, you may be surprised how easy it gets once your team is accustomed to the new approach. Then you’ll reap the benefits of strengthening email engagement and overall relationships with all your customers, whether they have a disability or not.
From email accessibility to responsive design to dynamic and variable content, our financial marketing digital team applies cutting-edge trends and best practices to help our clients improve customer engagement, retention and revenue. See how we can help you. Call us at 303.986.3000 or click the button below to schedule a free consultation.
1 “Before You Hit ‘Send,’ Consider These Email Accessibility Tips,” DigitalVA, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, posted May 25, 2022, https://www.oit.va.gov/news/article/?read=before-you-hit-send-consider-these-email-accessibility-tips, accessed Sept. 9, 2022
2 “What Is Email Accessibility and Why Is It Important,” Nupur Mittal, Mailmodo, posted Jan. 4, 2022, https://www.mailmodo.com/guides/email-accessibility/, accessed Sept. 9, 2022
3 “Email Accessibility Guide: Best Practices for Marketers,” Elise Georgeson, Email on Acid, posted May 20, 2021, https://www.emailonacid.com/blog/article/email-development/email-accessibilty-in-2017/, accessed Sept. 9, 2022