Social Media Accessibility Best Practices

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

In the early days of social media, none of the dominant social networks were accessible. Navigating social content online was often difficult, if not impossible, for users relying on assistive technology such as screen readers.

But times are changing, awareness is growing, and many of today’s leading social networks now provide features that help make their content more accessible to users with limited mobility or impairments.

Here’s how you can leverage these features, combined with established Best Practices for Social Media Accessibility, to promote more inclusive social media marketing that will open your online community to an underserved audience with massive buying power:

How to Make Your Social Media Accessible

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  1. Describe Images and Graphics Using Alt Text or Captions
  2. Add Open Captions or Subtitles to Videos and Movie Clips
  3. Provide Transcripts for Videos
  4. Add Captions to Video Format Posts such as Stories
  5. Limit the Use of Non-Text Objects like Emojis and GIFs
  6. Use Accessible Designs
  7. Capitalize Each Word in Your Hashtags
  8. Keep Your Hyperlinks Short
  9. Spell Out Acronyms When They’re Introduced
  10. Keep Flashing Animations to 3 Times per Second
  11. Only Link to Accessible Web Content
  12. Be Mindful of Representation and Advocacy

1. Describe Images and Graphics Using Alt Text or Captions

Adding image descriptions with alt text helps screen readers and assistive technologies explain your images for users who are blind or low-vision.

Twitter and LinkedIn allow you to manually compose alt text descriptions for images included in your tweets or posts. Meanwhile, Facebook and Instagram offer that same manual option in addition to a feature called “automatic alt text,” which uses object-recognition technology to automatically populate generic descriptions for all images uploaded to your network.

However, it’s important to remember that automatically-generated alt text descriptions aren’t that descriptive and could typically use lots of improvement and clarification, as demonstrated by Facebook’s famous (infamous?) “image outage” that revealed how their AI was tagging photos. You can improve them by adding your own description of photos and images in the text of your posts, which also accounts for screen readers that may have issues reading alt text on different social networks.

While we’re on the subject, we should remind you to also avoid embedding text in your images whenever possible. For starters, embedded text is not selectable, which creates poor user experience on top of inaccessibility. But more importantly, when low-vision users magnify these images by zooming in, your embedded text becomes pixelated.

Important note: If your post shares another media post or links to a media file, rather than attaching or posting the media file itself, you should provide a media label in your copy that indicates what type of media is being linked (e.g. “PHOTO”, “VIDEO”, “AUDIO”).

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2. Add Open Captions or Subtitles to Videos and Movie Clips

Most of us are familiar with “closed captioning” that we’ve seen on TV shows, but the growing proliferation of video content across social media networks has popularized “open” captioning (also called “subtitles”). Open captioning all your social videos is necessary to make them accessible.

The difference between “closed” and “open” captioning simply lies in your ability to “turn off” closed captions, as opposed to open captions or subtitles that are permanent, always visible, and typically not formatted as white-colored text set against a black background, as closed captions usually are.

Open captions make videos more accessible for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, but they serve many more users as well. Think about it: How often do you see people watching videos with the sound off, whether to avoid disrupting people around them or because they’re watching the video in a loud environment? On Facebook alone, it is reported that 85% of video is watched without sound.

When adding captions, keep in mind that they will occupy part of the screen, so make sure your captions don’t cover any important visual details that display in those screen areas during your video.

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3. Provide Transcripts for Videos

If the videos you post on social are hosted on YouTube, Vimeo, or any other platform, make sure you include a link to written transcripts of your video.

Your transcripts should not only describe the audio track of your video, but also include any contextual descriptions that help explain what’s going on visually in the video (especially if it’s an animation).

You can include a link to these transcripts either in the body of the social post, or placed in the video’s description section on YouTube, Vimeo, etc.

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4. Add Captions to Video Format Posts such as Stories

Not all videos shared on social networks are published as “video posts” in the traditional sense. Video-centric posting formats, such as Facebook or Instagram Stories, should also be captioned. Stories are ephemeral visual posts that publish to a user’s Story feed for a short period of time (usually 24 hours) before disappearing, and they comprise both live videos and images enhanced with effects, graphics, and text.

To help you caption your Stories and similar video-based social posts, there are a wealth of apps and services you can use. Try Clips or CaptionThis for Apple devices, and AutoCap for videos on Google or Android devices. If you prefer a more streamlined process, you can search for companies online that provide video captioning as a service for a reasonable fee.

No matter how you choose to add captions, make sure all captions include any relevant contextual information beyond spoken dialogue and sounds in the video’s audio track. For example, if the only sound heard during a video clip is a music track, your caption should describe that music; write a descriptor like “🎶 Orchestra playing ‘Beethoven’s 2nd’” or list the artist and song title like “🎶 Radiohead – ‘Lotus Flower’” to give the viewer a full understanding of what’s perceivable when the video is watched with the sound turned on.

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5. Limit the Use of Non-Text Objects like Emojis and GIFs

We can all agree that emojis are fun, right? And they’ve certainly become more popular in the age of the smartphone. Still, when a screen reader encounters emojis, they must read the name of each one out loud.

That means in our previous example, the first caption would read as “musical notes orchestra playing Beethoven’s 2nd” or “musical notes Radiohead Lotus Flower,” neither of which are terribly disruptive. However, if we had written the caption as “🎶 Orchestra playing ‘Beethoven’s 2nd’ 🎶” instead, then the screen reader would say “musical notes orchestra playing Beethoven’s 2nd musical notes.”

That’s an example of how emojis can be needlessly cumbersome for users of screen readers, and you can easily avoid it by dialing back your usage of emojis in captions and many other content areas–such as comments, status updates, and image-based posts like Snapchat Snaps or Instagram Stories.

It’s not only important to limit the number of emojis you use, but also to use emojis that have shorter, less disruptive names whenever possible. For example, the 😀 and 😄 emojis may look alike, but the first emoji’s name (“grinning face”) isn’t even half as long as the second emoji’s name (“grinning face with smiling eyes”).

Another popular posting format is GIF (graphic interchange format), an image file consisting of multiple frames that play in sequence to form a brief animation. Unfortunately, GIFs do not typically have a way to add alternative text that helps screen readers interpret and describe them to those who are visually impaired. Moreover, certain GIFs may have flashes or other animated elements that make them a higher risk for photosensitive viewers.

With these potential issues in mind, it’s generally best to avoid GIFs unless you can describe them in the text of your post, or they directly reflect the copy attached to them (such as animations in a tutorial).

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6. Use Accessible Designs

Accessible designs account for the unique challenges that users with disabilities or impairments may face when encountering needlessly complex or intricate combinations or arrangements of color, images, text, or information. That’s why you should avoid complexity and emphasize simplicity when designing and formatting graphics or visual content for your social media campaigns.

While we’re on the subject of colors: You should aim to meet an established threshold of color contrast in all your designs. A minimum 5:1 ratio is recommended for accessibility because it helps colorblind users distinguish separation of colors in your designs; but the benefits of high contrast apply to all your users, because most social media is viewed on mobile devices, and a 5:1 contrast ratio helps those users see content on smaller screens while viewing outside in sunlight or inside well-lit indoor areas.

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As hashtags have become more popular across multiple social networks, it has become common for them to consist of more than one word. Unfortunately, it is also common to see these multi-word hashtags entirely in lower-case.

Hashtags with multiple words that are all lower-case text are harder for screen readers to interpret. Keep your social hashtags short, and remember to capitalize each word so that they #ReadLikeThis instead of #readinglikethis.

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For the same reason we advise keeping your hashtags short, you should keep hyperlinks and URLs short whenever possible because screen readers have to read them out to users, just as if they were words strung together in a long hashtag. There are many tools out there like Bitly that offer a free and easy way to not only shorten your URLs, but also track clicking activity for each of your shortened links.

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8. Spell Out Acronyms When They’re Introduced

Screen readers might confuse some users if they read out acronyms used in your copy without first explaining what that acronym stands for. Even some commonly known and used acronyms would sound odd or incorrect without context, especially if they sound like actual words like MADD or SWOT.

To avoid confusion, make sure you spell out each word of acronyms when they are first introduced in your text, followed by the acronym inside parentheses. For example, you could write “Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) is a nonprofit organization in the United States and Canada. Founder Candy Lightner established MADD in 1980.”

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10. Keep Flashing Animations to 3 Times per Second

Known as the “Three Flashes or Below” threshold in the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the practice of limiting flash animations to 3-per-second or less will help avoid inducing seizures among your more photosensitive users.

Many people aren’t even aware they are prone to flash-induced seizures until they happen, which makes it even more dangerous to ignore this threshold. Even disregarding the potential danger and inaccessibility, you should avoid all flashy animations because they’re often distracting and irritating, which might actually cost you followers in the long run anyway.

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11. Only Link to Accessible Web Content

Many social media posts include links to external pages or content on the web. To maintain accessibility on social media, you should make sure the websites linked in your posts are also accessible.

Check linked content to verify it follows the best practices for accessible social media listed here, and avoid sharing links to hostile or inaccessible web content whenever possible.

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12. Be Mindful of Representation and Advocacy

At its core, social media accessibility is about fairness and inclusion. To make your social media more accessible, the best practice of all is to empathize with your audience of disabled and impaired users. Post compelling and thoughtful articles created by and/or for the disability community.

Better yet, invite users with disabilities or impairments to contribute their own ideas and opinions to your content. You’ll find their fresh and unique perspectives will resonate with your followers and encourage more of them to chime in on important conversations happening on your social channels. And your accessible social content will allow a wider audience to engage with and learn from your growing online community.

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