Most marketers are aware of the importance of accurate captions.
Captions are, of course, primarily an accessibility feature — they make videos more useful for people with hearing disabilities — but they also improve experiences for people who simply browse without audio.
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), widely considered the international standards for digital accessibility, requires captions for live and pre-recorded videos.
However, many creators make the mistake of assuming that adding captions is enough: WCAG also requires audio descriptions for pre-recorded media, which benefits a completely different audience.
What is an audio description, and why is it important?
An audio description (AD) is a verbal explanation of visual content. It’s intended for people with vision disabilities — captions, on the other hand, are intended for viewers who have trouble hearing (or choose to browse with their sound off).
Two WCAG standards are relevant here:
- WCAG Success Criterion (SC) 1.2.3, “Audio Description or Media Alternative (Prerecorded)” (Level A): An alternative for time-based media or audio description of the prerecorded video content is provided for synchronized media, except when the media is a media alternative for text and is clearly labeled as such.
- WCAG SC 1.2.5, “Audio Description (Prerecorded)” (Level AA): Audio description is provided for all prerecorded video content in synchronized media.
If your goal is to conform with WCAG Level A, you don’t technically need audio descriptions; a text alternative (such as a transcript) can serve the same purpose. However, audio descriptions are necessary for certain types of multimedia under Level AA. Read more about the differences between WCAG conformance levels.
To understand how ADs improve web experiences, try listening to an example. Here’s the opening scene of Disney’s The Lion King with an accurate audio description.
As the clip plays, a voice explains all of the important visual content, using the occasional poetic flourish to convey the context to the listener.
Audio descriptions don't take much extra work, but they're enormously beneficial
About 8% of the U.S. population has one or more vision impairments. Not all of those people use audio descriptions, but they might find them helpful — and if you’re already drafting a script for a video, you can easily write and record an audio description to improve engagement.
Audio descriptions are only necessary when your multimedia contains important visual information that is not available through the audio track. If your video consists of a single performer talking to the audience, you may not need a separate audio track.
But if your video has important visual information, writing an AD can benefit your marketing plan in several ways:
- You’re creating content for a wider audience. Users with visual impairments aren’t locked out of the conversation.
- Writing the description may give you insights about your messaging. For example, if you’re describing an important visual, you might decide to include that description in the primary audio track and captions.
- Simply providing an audio description showcases your brand’s commitment to inclusive design. You’re demonstrating that you value all of your users, not just those with certain sensory capabilities.
When provided alongside captions and transcripts, audio descriptions can be a powerful marketing tool. However, make sure you understand the best practices for writing AD scripts. Be descriptive, use meaningful language, and don’t talk over dialogue, sound effects, and other important sounds.
For more guidance, read: How Audio Descriptions Enhance Accessibility (And When to Use Them)
Make accessibility part of your marketing plan
To build an inclusive marketing strategy, you’ll need to think about the needs, expectations, and preferences of users with disabilities. An accessibility-first mindset can help you understand the different ways that your audience engages with your content.
And while ADs, captions, and transcripts are useful tools, you’ll also need to test your website to find (and fix) other types of accessibility barriers. Remember, if people have a positive experience with your brand, they’ll tell others — but if they have a negative experience, you may not have another opportunity to win their business.
If you’re ready to embrace the principles of accessibility, download our free eBook: Developing the Accessibility Mindset.