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Email Accessibility Best Practices

Make your email marketing content more accessible to users with disabilities or impairments by following these best practices and guidelines.

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Most digital marketers know that web accessibility is both a legal obligation and an ethical imperative for businesses, yet the accessibility of email marketing campaigns often falls short of the standards set for websites and other prominent, public-facing digital marketing channels, such as social media. But websites are only one channel within an organization’s comprehensive digital marketing strategy.

Meanwhile, an estimated 69% of all businesses use email marketing to drive sales growth and customer engagement. That’s why we’re focusing this post in our Accessible Digital Marketing series on a simple question each organization should ask itself: How do we make emails and email marketing campaigns more accessible?

Why Accessible Email Marketing Matters

Email delivers strong digital marketing ROI when it comes to generating new business through lead nurturing and engagement, but many email marketers are still way behind when it comes to making their emails accessible.

Meanwhile, an estimated 56 million people in the U.S. alone suffer from some form of disability. When these potential customers with visual impairments, limited mobility, or cognitive limitations are prevented from “seeing” your inaccessible email marketing campaigns, that means 15% of your potential market is not getting your message. That is simply bad marketing.

Instead of ignoring such a large portion of your audience, follow these steps to make your emails more accessible:

How to Make Emails Accessible

Use Concise, Descriptive Subject Lines

Subject lines are the first thing that any potential reader will notice, so make them concise and descriptive of your content. This gives your email recipients a proper idea of what to expect when they open your email.

This isn’t merely a best practice for email accessibility, but also a good strategy for email marketing in general, because well-written subject lines tend to increase open rates, improving your chances that more readers will click through.

Keep Readability Between 6th and 8th Grade Levels

Improve your conversion rates by making sure your email content is written in a direct, readable fashion so that it can be understood by anyone, including those with cognitive impairment.

While the readability of content might seem debatable, it can actually be quantified based on tests that measure the complexity of your copy and assign a reading level to it. A generally accepted benchmark for email readability is on a scale between the sixth- and eighth-grade level.

To check for this, many word processors like Microsoft Word include a feature that uses the Flesch-Kincaid reading ease formula to score the readability of your text. If your software doesn’t include this, you can copy/paste your email text into any free readability test online. For Flesch-Kincaid tests, make sure your content scores between 60 and 70 (nearly equivalent to an eighth-grade reading level).

Use Proper Email Text Alignment

You may love the way text looks when it’s centered, but the alignment of text in your email copy affects your email accessibility. Justified (where the content fully aligns from margin to margin) or centered text alignment will make your emails more difficult to read for some recipients.

Use left-margin alignment–also called “ragged right” because the lines break irregularly–to make your copy more accessible to those with cognitive challenges such as dyslexia. This is also a general best practice because left-aligned text is easier to read for all people, not just those with vision impairments or cognitive difficulties.

Include HTML Headers and Semantic Tags

Users with visual impairments will often use screen readers to access digital content. Including headers and semantic code to organize text within your email HTML allows screen readers to more accurately understand and convey the structural hierarchy of your email content for your readers.

Helping your potential customer more easily navigate your email and grasp your messaging with header tags will increase your chances of earning click-throughs to landing pages that effectively convert more of your prospects.

Avoid Using Images, else Include Descriptive Alt Text

Emails with beautiful, eye-catching images look terrific, and many potential customers will respond favorably to them. However, including rich images in your email content will risk limiting the reach of your email campaigns for a couple of reasons.

First, many email service providers automatically filter emails with large media files like images, moving them to spam or junk folders as a precaution to protect recipients from potentially malicious files or viruses. Second, screen readers cannot render an image.

To avoid these pitfalls, don’t rely on images to convey the “meat” of your email marketing message. Instead, use text to convey the most important and appealing aspects of your content.

When you simply must use images in your emails, be sure to always include descriptive, keyword-oriented alt text so that screen readers can describe them to visually-impaired readers. If any images are included purely for aesthetics, identify them with an empty alt tag (alt=””), which tells screen readers to skip it.

Anchor Text Should Describe Target URL

You should avoid using text such as “Click Here” or “Tap Here” as links, whether they are hyperlinks within your copy or labels for your buttons. This kind of vague anchor text is little more than an obstacle for users of screen readers, especially if you haven’t included more descriptive labels for each link within the HTML.

Instead, try to hyperlink the part of your copy that describes the URL’s destination. This will avoid disrupting your user experience by letting readers know what to expect when they click. For example, if you were linking to WCAG, you should link the words “Web Content Accessibility Guidelines” instead of formatting it like “Click here to view W3C’s Web Accessibility Guidelines.”

Use Proper Text Contrast and Size

When it comes to digital accessibility, proper color contrast applies to email design just as it applies to website design. This is not to say that vibrant colors cannot be used in your email, but rather the color contrast should be high enough to be easily readable by those with visual impairments who are not using assistive technology.

Likewise, best practices for email accessibility suggest using a text size of at least 14 pixels. This won’t just benefit those with vision issues–any reader can more easily consume your content when it’s not tiny. Also, consider offering users an option to easily enlarge your email fonts without using browser commands.

Avoid Flashing Images and Animations

Blinking or flashing images and animated GIFs might seem like appealing ways to get people’s attention, but you should avoid using them in your email marketing campaigns. If any of your readers suffer from photosensitivity disorders, your flashing content could trigger seizures and other dangerous physical reactions.

WCAG 2.1 Success Criteria 2.3.1 mandates that none of your content flashes more than three times per second. Regardless, flashing media in your email marketing is generally considered bothersome and ineffective at improving engagement.

Make Emails Navigable by Keyboard Only

It’s easy to assume everyone reading your emails can use a mouse to move through your content on desktop, but that is not the case. Make emails accessible for users who rely on keyboards for navigation by simply testing it yourself, using the tab and other keyboard buttons.

This is also where your semantic HTML markup really comes into play, as it helps screen reader users navigate your text based on the content hierarchy you’ve established with header and paragraph tags.

You should also make sure each link is visibly highlighted as you tab through your text. Finally, check links for clickability by making sure your spacebar or enter buttons activate each one.

Provide Plain Text Versions

When sending an email campaign, you should include a plain text version of your email. Some email marketing platforms, such as MailChimp, help you by automatically including a plain text version of your emails.

Plain text versions allow recipients using screen readers to more easily read your emails. Regardless, the success of your email campaign should not hinge on rich text formatting or imagery, so optimizing your plain text email will make it more likely to engage all of your campaign recipients.

Email Marketing Accessibility Moving Forward

Whether your email campaigns are supplementing PR efforts, driving sales, serving existing customers, or promoting brand awareness, email marketing is an important tool in any organization’s digital marketing toolbox. That’s why accessibility is just as important for email marketing as it is for website development, web design, and social media.

When you consider our dependence on daily electronic communication and digital exchange of information in the modern era, accessibility in the digital world is becoming just as important as ramps, automatic doors, and braille on keypads we often see in the physical world. If anything, digital accessibility seems to be gaining traction, considering it took center stage at Apple’s 2019 developer conference, where a new Apple commercial showcased accessibility features that will be offered in Apple’s next operating system.

But making technology more accessible is more than just a cultural trend. It’s a recognition that those of us working in the digital space have an ethical (and often, legal) responsibility to drive innovation that’s more inclusive of users with disabilities.

No matter what your email marketing goals may be, following these best practices for email accessibility will give your email campaigns the best chance of reaching a wider audience and engaging more of your readers, which is simply good business.

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