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8 Ways to Optimize Your Emails for Accessibility (& Why You Need To)

June 3, 2021

If you’re an email marketer, then you know how important it is to deliver the best content to your subscribers. You’ve been using your analytics to determine the timing and deliverability. You’ve probably spent countless hours figuring out the configurations to make sure every email looks perfect on both mobile devices and desktops. You think you have it all figured out, but are your emails accessible to everyone?

email accessibility stats

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According to the CDC, 61 million adults in the United States live with a disability, which is 26%, or roughly one in four. Additionally, the assistive technology industry is projected to reach $26-$31B in 2024, nearly doubling with respect to 2015 ($14B).

It's time to step up your game and start implementing the best practices for email design accessibility for all walks of life. Read on so you can choose the best colors, fonts, formats, and more for reaching more subscribers and aligning with assistive technology.

Follow these best practices for email accessibility

From subject lines to body content, font sizes to colors, there are many elements of your small business's emails that should be considered in order to make the content accessible to all. 

1. Use descriptive subject lines

The most important part of any email is the subject line, plain and simple. No matter how good your email content is, it's the subject line that influences whether or not readers open it in the first place. To make your emails accessibility-friendly (and more appealing to your audience in general), you need to encapsulate what readers can expect, in about 41 characters. You can test your subject line length and quality with tools like Send Check It or Net Atlantic's subject line grader:

email accessibility—subject line checker "send check it"

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Remember, keep the subject lines relevant to your copy so that your subscribers aren’t disappointed when they open your emails. There is nothing worse than getting excited about something only to find out it was just click bait.

2. Don’t rely on color to emphasize focal points

When you have subscribers with certain visual impairments, color matters.

Check your contrast ratio

contrast can make a big difference in whether or not they engage with your email. Think about people who might be colorblind. If your email is set up to give focal points by using different colors, you’re missing out on delivering your message to anybody who can’t differentiate between colors

To check for contrast ratio, you can use tools like this one. Simply type a color name or hex code and see if it passes according to AA and AAA requirements.

email accessibility—contrast ratio tester

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Use black and white for important information

If you want to convey your message clearly and concisely, leave the colors for non-important factors and stick with the black on white for anything that will help make a conversion. If you're against just using black and white, then make sure you choose only one color for the text and one contrasting color for the background. Keep it simple.

Note: There are also email builders that can check for email accessibility, such as  Postcards. Some marketing software even allows you to view your content the same way a particular subscriber would see it.

3. Use responsive design

When coding your email campaigns, make sure that the content formats correctly, regardless of device (smartphone, tablet, laptop, for example). Without responsive design, your subscribers may have a poor experience and devices like screen readers run the risk of displaying content out of order.

Even if you have a responsive tool, double-check to see how your emails appear on desktop, mobile, and even for different email clients before scheduling them out. 

4. Check your code

There are a few code-related tips that can help you make your emails more accessible.

Use HTML tags to prioritize the information in your email

If you want your subscribers who are using screen readers to get your message clearly, then include your basic HTML code such as <h1> and <h2> for anything you believe is crucial for the recipient to understand your message. 

And if you are using a particular markup type, you can use CanIUse to see which browsers and apps it is compatible with. So if, for example, you are using ARIA  (Accessible Rich Internet Applications), you can put it in the prompt and see which browsers and apps it works well with. ARIA refers to specific HTML elements are used to bridge the gaps that occur with assistive technologies.

email accessibility—wai aria features

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Use semantic code

While some HTML elements dictate how content will look (such as with <span> or <div>), semantic code helps to define the meaning of the content. Examples of semantic tags include <summary>, <figcaption>, <time>, and <footer>. Semantics are useful in giving device readers more information to work with to deliver the best experience for their users. 

email accessibility—accessible-email.org tools

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Set language attribute

One last code-related tip: Set the HTML language attribute so that screen readers and other devices can display or pronounce your content in the correct language for your subscriber. It’s a simple fix, but one that can really improve your subscribers' engagement.

5. Tag your images with alt text

A lot of people with disabilities block images from being delivered in their emails or use screen readers. This is because flashy content or animations can cause issues, and also because your screen readers can't actually see the image. 

Or can they?

Actually, adding an alt tag to your images essentially makes them "readable" by screen readers, search engines, and more. The alt text, or text alternative, should be a brief description of the image

email accessibility—screenshot of alt text in wordpress

Similarly, if you are planning on linking to videos in your email campaigns, you might want to consider including a text summary for people who might have a hearing impairment. A lot of hosting pages offer video transcription for individuals with impairments that can hear the message you are trying to convey.

6. Check your text size and spacing

When there isn’t adequate space between lines in your content, everything may become a blur and send your subscribers away—regardless of how informative your content is. You can fix this by setting your line-height at 4 pixels to improve readability or using design elements to create sections.

You will also want there to be adequate white space between your paragraphs so that the scanners can keep their focus on what they are reading. 

email accessibility—example email with appropriate spacing

7. Use emojis wisely

We know, playing with fonts and using emojis can be fun, but do they actually add value to your content? Believe it or not, subject lines with emojis do have higher open rates. However; an emoji should never replace an actual word, it should only be used at the beginning or end of a subject line.

email accessibility—emojis in subject line

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You can include emojis in your email if you think they add some type of value, but they might not be seen by every subscriber. That is bound to happen sometimes, the same goes for pictures and videos. You can try to accommodate every type of user, but at some point, flexibility will be needed and that’s okay.

8. Check your font and size

When creating email campaigns, you want to think about the size of your text and how easy it will be to read. Try to remain at a minimum of 14 pixels, and potentially 16 pixels for mobile. This is the most common size that ensures readers won’t struggle to read your emails and that your elements won't get distorted if they have to zoom in.

Text size (and potentially whitespace) also matters when it comes to clicking links in your email. With mobile devices, the screens are often so tiny it can be hard to tap the right spot for the link. 

As for fonts, many of them are too close together or very difficult to read, especially on mobile devices. Keep it simple here. A safe bet would be to go with sans serif fonts such as Arial, Tahoma, and Calibri.

email accessibility—list of accessibiliity-friendly fonts

Note: If you don’t already know that "Click here" is not the best way to get a reader's attention, you should at least understand that subscribers who are using screen readers will often tab (skip) right past links that don’t indicate what they can expect if they click.

9. Prioritize quality content

The main goal of any email is to deliver information that benefits your subscribers and gets them to act. So not only do you want your content to be as easy to read as possible, you must make sure that the content they are reading truly adds value. If a subscriber feels you are wasting their time with useless information, they are likely to unsubscribe, or even worse, mark your emails as spam. With quality content, on the other hand, you can build trust and strengthen your relationship with your subscribers.

Reach your entire audience with these email accessibility best practices

Checking your emails for design accessibility is necessary to ensure your information, promotions, and resources are accessible to every type of individual in your database. We live in a world that continues to evolve with advanced technologies that can make life easier for a diverse range of people. So use these strategies to reach those that use them!

  1. Use descriptive subject lines
  2. Don’t rely on color for focal points
  3. Use responsive design
  4. Check your code
  5. Tag your images with alt text
  6. Check your text size and spacing
  7. Use emojis wisely
  8. Check your font and size
  9. Prioritize quality content

About the author

Andrian Valeanu is a web designer, indie maker, and founder of Designmodo. His interests include information technologies, web design, and email marketing.

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