Digital accessibility is a set of practices that improve the internet for everyone including people with disabilities. On this blog, we typically focus on website accessibility, but email accessibility is just as important — by incorporating a few best practices, you can reach more people, improve open rates (the percentage of your audience that opens each newsletter), and make stronger connections with readers.
In this article, we’ll introduce a 5 tips for designers and email marketing professionals. Our recommendations are based on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the most widely cited standards for digital accessibility. While WCAG isn’t specific to email content, its principle-based approach can be extremely helpful when planning your next campaign.
1. Structure your newsletters for accessibility
Your audience may resize your newsletters or use assistive technologies to read. Like websites, emails need to follow a consistent, navigable structure. Some quick tips to keep in mind:
- Give each email a relevant and concise subject line. The reader should know exactly what to expect when opening the message.
- Use subheadings to break up your content. Make sure your headings give relevant information about the contents of each section.
- Use colors consistently. This is especially important for longer email campaigns — both for branding and for accessibility.
- Pay attention to link text. If readers follow a link, they should understand exactly where they’re going. For more info, see our quick guide to accessible hyperlinks.
2. Don’t rely on images alone to convey information
Email marketers often focus on visual elements — and there’s certainly nothing wrong with aesthetically pleasing newsletters. However, avoid relying on visual elements alone to convey important information.
People with vision-related disabilities may be unable to perceive your content, and some people disable images by default when loading emails. Review your newsletter as plain text to determine whether you need to provide more context.
Wherever possible, tag your images with appropriate alternative text (also known as alt text). If you’re creating HTML newsletters, the process is the same for adding alt text on a website. Write clear, simple descriptions that explain the purpose of the image (or button, or other visual element).
3. Pay attention to color contrast and color choice
Color contrast is the difference between the brightness of the background and the brightness of the text (and other elements in the foreground). Poor color contrast can make emails difficult to read for people with color blindness and other vision disabilities.
WCAG recommends a minimum color contrast ratio of 4.5:1 for normal text and 3:1 for large text for Level AA conformance. Sites that conform with Level AA standards are generally considered to be reasonably accessible.
When styling your emails, limit the use of reds and greens to accommodate readers with color blindness. Avoid using color alone to convey meaning; for example, if the email reads, “click the red button,” some users may not be able to identify the red button. “Click the button on the left" would provide better guidance.
4. Make sure your newsletter uses accessible fonts
Some fonts can increase reading difficulty for people with dyslexia, low vision, and other disabilities. Choose a simple, unadorned font — san serif fonts are generally preferable for web content because they display better on computer screens and mobile devices.
Other considerations to keep in mind when choosing a font:
- Common sans serif fonts include Arial, Helvetica, Lucida Sans, Tahoma, and Verdana. When in doubt, choose one of these fonts — they’re extremely popular for a reason.
- Make sure your font is large enough to be legible on smaller screens. For email content, it’s generally a good idea to set normal font sizes to 12pts or larger. However, the content of your email will determine the appropriate font size, so this isn’t a strict rule.
- Maintain appropriate line spacing. Spacing will vary depending on your font choice and the amount of content, but provide enough space to keep the text legible.
You might consider fonts that have been developed for people with dyslexia or visual impairments. Examples include Read Regular, Lexie Readable, and Tiresias. However, for emails, consistently supported fonts are usually a safer choice — unless you have a clear reason to do otherwise, stick with common sans serif fonts.
5. When sending HTML newsletters, offer an alternative option
Some email clients may not render HTML newsletters properly, and some users may prefer plaintext. Offer your readers alternatives wherever possible. For example, the Bureau of Internet Accessibility’s newsletter contains a link to view each email as a web page.
You might also consider asking users during signup whether they’d prefer HTML or plaintext. Make sure your plaintext emails contain all of the relevant content from the HTML version.
Prioritize accessibility when writing newsletters
The tips above should help you develop an accessible mindset when planning your email marketing campaigns. By thinking about your entire audience — and the various ways that they access your content — you can develop more effective content.
Make sure that every member of your team shares a commitment to accessible design. Review your emails thoroughly before scheduling them, and make sure you understand the four main principles of accessibility: Content must be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. These principles can help you make strong decisions when creating.
If you’re new to the world of digital accessibility, we recommend using our free accessibility resources to learn more. For additional tips, you can sign up to the Bureau of Internet Accessibility’s monthly newsletter or by entering your email address in the form field below.