A guide to email accessibility standards for 2020

As marketers, we strive to create a better experience for our readers every day. 

We create unique and interesting content. We dabble in the latest trends. We test our emails into oblivion for engagement.

But if we’re not following email accessibility standards, a substantial portion of our audience may not be able to understand our content – or consume it at all. 

Fortunately, it’s easy to make your emails accessible to people with all abilities if you know what to include and what to avoid. 

We put this guide together to help you follow the best practices for accessibility so everyone can enjoy your awesome campaigns.

What are email accessibility standards and are they important?

Email accessibility standards make it easier for people with different physical, mental, or developmental abilities to consume and understand your content. 

In some cases, people may use assistive technologies such as:

  • Screen readers: Software either reads text on a computer screen aloud or converts it into Braille. 

  • Joysticks: An alternative to a mouse for people with hand coordination problems.

  • Eye-tracking: Technology allows people to navigate a screen using eye movements. 

  • Magnifiers: Software makes text and screen elements larger for people with vision issues.

  • Sip and puff: Technology allows people to navigate and control a screen using their breath. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 25% of all Americans live with a disability. As marketers, it’s important to remember that everyone learns and consumes information in diverse ways. 

While everyone is unique and facing their own challenges, common impairments include the following:

  • Hearing problems exist in 15% of adults.

  • Thirty-nine million people around the world are blind and another 246 million suffer from low vision.

  • One in 12 men and one in 20 women experience some form of colorblindness

  • An estimated 2% of people live with autism, according to the CDC. Millions of adults may live with autism and not realize it, due to improved screening in recent years.

  • One in 6 children is diagnosed with a developmental disability in the U.S., ranging from mild speech impairments to severe cognitive disabilities.

It’s easy to see that certain types of writing and design can make life a lot harder for people with different abilities. Imagine receiving a transactional email from your latest purchase and not understanding anything on the screen. 

Three and a half billion people (about half the world’s population) have internet access and use email. If we use the CDC’s 25% statistic, that means nearly a billion people around the globe are accessing their inbox with some kind of disability. 

An organization called the Web Accessibility Initiative has a detailed set of accessibility standards for content creators and designers to follow. Remember that in many cases, ignoring email accessibility standards may even break the law. 

But we shouldn’t be driven by profit or legal trouble – we should want to make our email content accessible for everyone.

Email accessibility standards for copy and text elements

Many marketers already structure their emails for people with vision impairments, but they fall short with making their content accessible for people with autism. 

Skip the irony, metaphors, and sarcasm

Certain types of humor – like irony and sarcasm, as well as innuendos and metaphors – can confuse people with autism. It’s also smart to avoid any industry jargon, abbreviations, or acronyms without clear explanations.

Write clear and concise copy

Website Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) recommend writing at a lower secondary education level. Short sentences, short paragraphs, and bulleted lists can help.

The copy in this TrustedHousesitters email is straightforward and doesn’t drag on. Plus, they’ve included alt tags (or text alternatives of their visuals).

Trusted Housesitters email example

Source: Really Good Emails

Use large typeface and include a logical hierarchy

Large typeface in a sans serif font is ideal for people with vision issues. Meanwhile, making good use of headings and a logical hierarchy can help people scan for important pieces of information.

Coursera uses headings, bulleted lists, and large buttons here to make their emails accessible.

Coursera email campaign

Source: Gmail

Offer plain text and web versions

Sending out an email that’s one large image is a big no-no. It’s best to include a plain text version of every email you send. Web versions may also be useful for people using screen readers or other technologies.

Use clear branding and “From” fields

It should be clear who sent the email, both in the “From” field and throughout the body. Use a consistent sending domain and name. Try to include branding elements like logos and colors throughout the body as a reminder.

Email accessibility standards for images and multimedia

It’s important to pay special attention to the images you choose and how you present them to subscribers if you want to prioritize email accessibility standards.

Provide descriptive alt text

Many people rely on descriptive text and captions completely. Without them, people will get frustrated because they won’t understand the image context. Thorough alt text should accurately describe the image objectively and provide context to explain why you included it.

Avoid flashing GIFs

Millions of people are prone to epileptic seizures and countless others don’t know they’re at risk until something triggers their first episode. 

Meanwhile, people with sensory issues or autism may not appreciate flashing GIFs or neon colors.

WCAGs say that an image should not flash more than three times in one-second intervals. However, it’s best to just ditch the flashing GIFs and videos in favor of something less stimulating.

Make sure images add value to the content

The design experts at Nielsen Norman recommend only using images that relate directly to your copy. Including images just because they look nice can get confusing – especially for people with autism or cognitive disabilities. 

Email accessibility standards for color and design elements

Design and color play an influential role in email accessibility standards. Sadly, what most of us would consider minor mistakes have major repercussions on people with varying abilities.

Be mindful of color contrast

Millions of people live with different types and levels of colorblindness so it’s best to avoid using color to convey meaning or explanations. WCAGs recommend using a contrast ratio of at least 4.5:1 between texts and content blocks. 

group of kids in a field color blindness awareness

close up of pencils color blindness awareness

Source: Colour Blind Awareness

Tattly used alt text here, which is good for subscribers using screen readers, but the pink and gold could blend together into one brown color for colorblind subscribers.

Tattly example of color blindness issue

Source: Really Good Emails

Use large and bright call-to-action (CTA) buttons

Not only does this meet email accessibility standards, but it’s just a solid strategy for engagement, too. 

Stick with one main CTA for each email campaign so it’s clear enough for everyone to understand what you want them to do. 

Instead of a hyperlink, choose a large CTA button in a bright contrasting color so it’s easy to see. Be direct with your word choice as well. Let subscribers know exactly what they can expect on the other side of the button.

MedPage Today got straight to the point here to promote their podcast with minimal copy and a bright CTA button.

medcast email example promoting podcast

Source: Gmail

Include plenty of whitespace

Short sentences with non-justified text make it easy for people of all abilities to scan and read your email content. Cluttered content can get confusing, so whitespace is helpful for guiding a subscriber’s attention down the page.

Eventbrite fills their emails with plenty of whitespace (and one image) for the event.

eventbrite email example

Source: Gmail

Make navigation easy and clear

Navigation can get complicated and frustrating for people with different abilities. 

With links, choose anchor text that clearly states the link’s purpose and content. People should be able to understand the link from the anchor text alone without using surrounding copy for context, ideally.

You’ll also want to include all the important links people expect in your email with clear labels. Contact, homepage, unsubscribe, and social media profiles are all important items.

It should be easy to tap any links or menu buttons without someone worrying that they hit the wrong thing. Be sure to keep lots of space in between each tappable item.

Limit the need for scrolling

People may get confused or frustrated if they have to scroll through too many screens to reach the bottom of your email. 

Speaking of scrolling, requiring a subscriber to scroll both vertically and horizontally to read the entire email can cause problems – especially for people using assistive technologies.

Responsive design can help you avoid common scroll errors.

Reconsider automatic or time-based elements

With anything that automatically moves or updates, subscribers should be able to pause it and learn the information from a text-based source.

Wrap up

Email accessibility standards aren’t just important for boosting business, they’re critical for making the internet a welcoming place for everyone. Remember to:

  • Pay attention to all design and color elements.

  • Keep copy concise and straightforward. 

  • Assume you’re creating emails for people with varying abilities.

  • Consider all impairments: vision, hearing, mental, physical, and cognitive.

  • When in doubt, ask someone!

Looking for a few more ways to improve your email strategy? We put together this list of 15 predictions for 2020.

About the Author

Emma Email

Emma is an email marketing platform that gives you all the tools you need to send campaigns that really connect with your subscribers. With our​​ powerful automation and personalization features, you can create and send email campaigns that reach the right customer at just the right time. It's email marketing that works for you.

Visit Website More Content by Emma Email
Previous Article
Email Showdown: SoulCycle Vs. Peloton
Email Showdown: SoulCycle Vs. Peloton

From at-home bikes to in-person classes, cycling is trending in the fitness industry right now, and Peloton...

Next Article
How to write a welcome email that gets results
How to write a welcome email that gets results

Everyone wants to start new customer relationships on the right foot. Follow these tips to get your next we...

Want to engage your audience and grow your brand? Try Emma’s robust, easy-to-use product today.

Get a Demo