Many accessibility features can expand your audience in unexpected ways. Subtitles and closed captions are excellent examples — and if you’re reaching out to younger internet users, accurate captions are absolutely essential.
In a 2022 survey performed by language learning platform Preply, about 50% of Americans said that they use subtitles “most of the time" when watching content. The study also showed a prominent age gap: Among members of Gen Z (people born between 1997 and 2012), 70% said that they use subtitles frequently. For comparison, 53% of millennials (people born between 1981 and 1996) gave the same response.
The respondents said that they used subtitles for a variety of reasons: About 75% of people said that they needed to improve understandability when audio was muddled, and 29% said that they used subtitles to avoid disturbing roommates or family members. About 20% of respondents said that they use subtitles to learn a new language.
But regardless of why people are using subtitles, the takeaway is clear: If your content doesn’t have an accurate text alternative, you’re missing an opportunity to connect with your audience.
Subtitles are legally required and essential for many users
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires most organizations to provide accessible online content, and missing captions are frequently cited as an accessibility failure in ADA lawsuits. Captions are explicitly required by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), widely considered the international standards for digital accessibility.
And while adding captions isn’t especially difficult, many brands make mistakes:
- Captions may not sync correctly with audio content.
- Captions may not contain all of the dialogue, musical cues, or important sound effects from the video.
- Automatic captions — while better than nothing — may be inaccurate.
- Pre-rendered (or “burned-in") captions may not be readable with screen readers (assistive software that converts text to audio).
These mistakes can create legal liabilities, but they’re also a practical concern. If your brand fails to provide users with multimedia that fits their preferences, you’re limiting your reach.
One study from Facebook found that video posts received nearly 60% more engagement than other types of post. An estimated 85% of Facebook videos are watched on mute, so closed captions aren’t an optional feature.
For Gen Z workers, accessibility isn’t an extra
When you embrace accessibility, people notice. That’s also true if you ignore the best practices — especially if you’re targeting a younger audience.
In a 2021 survey from HRDive, 99% of Gen Z workers said that workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) was important to them. 80% of those respondents said that they’d be more likely to apply for a company that accommodated employees who identified as neurodivergent.
Simply put, younger people care about inclusivity. If your outreach materials are inaccessible, they may assume that your company has different values.
Accessibility is the future — and the best practices benefit everyone
In this article, we’ve focused on Gen Z, but it’s important to remember that everyone benefits from digital accessibility. Following WCAG can improve experiences for all users, regardless of their abilities and browsing preferences:
- If you write accurate alternative text (also called alt text) for an image, you’re making your content more useful for people with vision disabilities — and if your image fails to load, the alt text will help visual-first users understand the purpose of the missing content.
- If your website follows WCAG’s requirements for color contrast, it’s more readable for people with color vision deficiency (CVD) and other vision-related conditions. Proper color contrast may also help people who browse your site in direct sunlight.
- If your content can reflow, it provides a better experience for people with vision disabilities who “zoom in" on text. Responsive content also enhances experiences for people with smaller mobile devices.
By creating more inclusive content, you can realize more of the benefits of digital accessibility. Accessible design is simply good web design — and WCAG provides an excellent framework for making improvements.