accessibility audit icons

How to Conduct an Accessibility Audit for Email Marketing

Could an accessibility audit help make your email marketing more inclusive and engaging?

Not all email marketers are thinking about accessibility when designing and developing campaigns.  But more and more of them are realizing just how important it is to follow email accessibility best practices.

Research from Pathwire (a Sinch Company) in the report Accessibility in the Inbox found 57% of marketers do consider accessibility. However, other results from the survey suggest there’s some confusion about exactly how to design and code accessible emails.

We won’t mince words. Optimizing emails for accessibility will take time and effort, especially if you conduct a complete accessibility audit of all your emails. However, there are good reasons for taking on the task: your subscribers.

Remember the often re-told story of “The Star Thrower”? In it, a man encounters a child on a beach who is tossing starfish back into the ocean. But there are hundreds of starfish littering the beach for miles and miles. Most of them are doomed to dry up and die.

“The man laughed to himself and said, ‘But there are too many starfish on this beach. You can’t possibly make a difference!’

After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. Then, turning to the man, he said, 'I made a difference to that one.' "

The same thing is true with email design and development. If your emails are easier for even one person to read and interact with, the work you’ve put into accessibility made a difference in someone’s life.

Let’s take a look at what an accessibility audit for email is and how to conduct one.

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What is an accessibility audit?

There are several different types of email marketing audits, but an accessibility audit focuses on aspects of email communication that may be difficult to read or interact with if a subscriber is dealing with a permanent or temporary disability. Essentially, you are looking for accessibility issues in your email program.

Accessibility audits evaluate how well a service or tool is optimized to be used by everyone, including people with physical or mental impairments. Typically, a thorough accessibility audit includes the use of assistive tools like screen readers and Braille displays.

There are several goals you may have when conducting an accessibility audit:

Your organization may decide to conduct an accessibility audit of all digital assets – websites, emails, ads, apps, etc. – or you may opt to focus solely on email campaigns. 

How to start an email accessibility audit

email design system

Now that you know why an audit is so important, let’s look at what you should consider before getting started:

1. Accessibility standards for evaluation 

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is the go-to set of standards for digital accessibility. They list guidelines, along with actionable success criteria to help people optimize their technology. There are three levels of conformance:

Level A (minimal compliance): This is the bare minimum level of accessibility that your email campaigns should meet. Essentially, without these standards, your email would be impossible or extremely difficult for someone with a disability to consume.

Level AA (acceptable compliance): This is a good starting goal for companies and, when the standards are met, emails are both usable and understandable for most people who have disabilities.

Level AAA (optimal compliance): Of course, this is the ideal benchmark to hit, but it can be more difficult to make all types of content conform. Meeting these standards would make the experience equal for all those with disabilities and those without. If your campaigns are specifically focused on the elderly or people with disabilities – in the case of an eye clinic or rehab facility, for example – you should be more concerned about meeting this level of compliance. 

Take the time to consider each level of conformance and choose the one you’ll follow for your campaigns. Note that WCAG is currently on version 2.1, which was established in 2018. However, WCAG 2.2 is scheduled for release soon, which will address nine new areas around accessibility. 

In addition to these guidelines, review any requirements for ADA accessibility compliance in your emails.

2. Evaluating email elements

Now it’s time to make a list of the elements you’ll include within your audit, using the accessibility guidelines above as a framework. Here are some examples:

  • Templates: Which email templates will be included in the audit? Your welcome email? Transactional messages? Monthly newsletters?
  • Color choices: Will you consider color contrast and color blindness in your audit? This will involve examining text, backgrounds, images, buttons, and other graphics.
  • Fonts: How can the font families, colors, and sizes be improved for those with disabilities?
  • Copy: What is the reading level of your email content? Do you use a lot of technical jargon?
  • Email code: Is your code optimized for assistive technology like screen readers, Braille displays, and keyboard navigation?

Of course, there are other areas of consideration as well. Be as thorough as you can within any time or budgetary constraints.

3. Evaluating the needs of your audience

The demographics of the specific list you’re evaluating can provide valuable insight into areas of focus. Do the people on the list give any indication of potential disabilities? Here are a few examples:

  • If your list is primarily over the age of 65, they may have visual or auditory impairments.
  • If your list is primarily male, they’re more likely to have color blindness
  • If the brand you’re representing is a medical office – like an eye doctor or physical therapist – there may be an innate implication of certain impairments.

Also consider any feedback, if any, that you’ve received from your audience around the usability of your email campaigns.

4. Accessibility testing tools

Now think about what tools you’ll use to evaluate your emails. There will be some degree of manual review involved, but accessibility testing tools can increase both the effectiveness and speed of your audit. Here are some options you’ll want to consider:

If you’re an Email on Acid customer, you can take advantage of several accessibility checks built right into the software. Email on Acid will evaluate your emails using some of the most important accessibility guidelines, then enable you to fix accessibility issues in a few clicks. These tools review everything from color contrast and alt text to title attributes and presentation roles. You can either paste your email code into this tool or link to an online version to get a review of your campaign. will make actionable suggestions as to how you can improve.

Screen readers: There are a variety of options to choose from based on your operating system, but using a screen reader yourself is the best way to understand how those with vision impairments interact with your emails.

The WAVE Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool: Run the online version of your email campaigns through this tool to identify any problems and areas of improvement.

The axe DevTools extension for Chrome: Add this extension to your browser for automated accessibility testing.

For even more options, check out this extensive list of tools directly from the Web Accessibility Initiative (W3C). 

5. Creating a spreadsheet

We recommend starting a spreadsheet using a tool like Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets. Use this to compile data from both manual and automated testing processes, list scores you receive from accessibility tools, and make a checklist for improving your email campaigns.

Make a column for each of the email elements mentioned in Step 2. Include a Notes section where you can include insights and action items to help execute the findings of your email accessibility audit. Remember to reflect on the goals of your audit as well as the audience's needs.

Evaluating emails for accessibility

accessibility icon emerges from an email envelope

Now it’s time to start the evaluation process of the accessibility audit. We recommend breaking things up based on the type of campaign you’re running: transactional, marketing, newsletter, promotion, etc. 

Each of these campaigns will have different goals and priorities. For example, a transactional email will be more focused on getting across necessary information like order confirmations and shipping notices. A promotional email, however, will likely prioritize calls to action and coupon codes. Separating these will help you be more efficient and effective in your optimization.

Here are some processes and tips to help guide you through your email accessibility audit:

1. Use the POUR principles

The POUR principles come directly from WCAG and state that accessible content must be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. Let’s take a look at each of these in more detail:

Perceivable: Subscribers need to be able to consume the information presented to them. This means providing alt text to help people comprehend images, creating enough color contrast between background and foreground content, adding captions for videos, and more.

Operable: Everyone should be able to easily navigate through your email. Test all navigation components – buttons, menus, links, and other interactive elements – using voice commands, keyboard navigation, screen readers, and other methods that those with impairments might use.

Understandable: People should be able to understand both the information in an email as well as the process of interacting with that email. Make sure your text is readable and written in a way that anyone can understand. Also ensure that interactions – like clicking buttons and navigating from section to section – are set up in a way that subscribers are familiar with.

Robust: Users should be able to choose any type of technology – assistive or otherwise – to engage with your email. This means that you should focus on and maximize integration with tools like screen readers, Braille displays, and text-to-speech systems.

So when evaluating your emails, look at them from each of these perspectives and, for more details, view all of the WCAG standards.

2. Audit your email design and copy

Before diving into the code of your emails, we recommend starting with the design and copy. You’ll want to evaluate these based on a variety of factors, including:

Color contrast: Make sure that there’s enough color contrast between text and images and their backgrounds. Those with color blindness or vision impairments should be able to easily distinguish each element.

Readable fonts: Choose legible fonts rather than decorative or hard-to-read scripts. Ensure that all of your text is large enough to read – the recommended minimum size is 14px, but it will vary based on the font you’re working with. And check the spacing between letters, words, and lines of text to make sure they aren’t bunched up, even on mobile devices.

Button legibility: Check your buttons for size and readability. Consider color contrast, fonts, and text size here as well, and also make sure that it’s easy for someone to click the button on devices of all sizes.

Link appearance: All of the links in your emails should clearly stand out, using more than color alone. So instead of just making them all blue, also underline them or use an icon to set them apart.

White space: This is the amount of empty, unused space around elements. White space helps each part of your email stand on its own so that people can more easily consume information and navigate.

Reading level: Can everyone on your list read and comprehend your copy? According to UX Design, an 8th-grade reading level can be consumed by 85% of the general public, so that’s a good goal in most cases.

Information organization: Use headings to set apart different topics and areas of content and organize information with bullet points when applicable. This helps people understand, comprehend, and categorize the information in your email.

Use clear link language: Instead of using link anchor text like “click here,” be specific. Tell people what they’re clicking on and what action you want them to take. Instead, use text like, “Download our sizing guide” or “Read our guide to brewing coffee.”

Of course, there are also other elements to examine when it comes to accessible design and copy. Use the WCAG guidelines, testing tools you selected, and this helpful list of email accessibility mistakes to identify other considerations.

3. Audit your email code

Accessible email code is especially important for subscribers who use assistive tools like screen readers – this dramatically impacts how they interact with and comprehend your emails. If you’re not a developer, you may need to partner with one on your team to evaluate and improve upon these requirements. Here are some considerations for accessible code:

Alt text: Screen readers use alt text to describe an image to those with visual impairments. Make sure your text is indicative of the photo content and avoid image-only emails – they’re too difficult to accurately explain in a few select words.

Semantic HTML: This instructs screen readers on how to interpret email elements like paragraphs, headings, and buttons. Subscribers can navigate more easily rather than having to wait for the screen reader to read the entire email just to find the section they’re looking for. Learn more about coding emails with semantic HTML.

The language attribute: Let tools like screen readers know the language your email is written in to avoid confusing pronunciations. 

The code used for tables: If you include tables in your emails, always add the code role=“presentation”. This helps screen readers interpret the table correctly rather than reading all the HTML code out loud.

Subject lines and preheaders: Screen readers and voice readers vocalize subjects and preheaders so subscribers know what your email is about. Never leave these fields blank and be intentional with what you write to entice people to open your emails.

Keyboard navigation: In many cases, subscribers with impairments use their keyboard to consume and interact with your email – so make sure your campaigns are optimized specifically for keyboard navigation! This includes using :focus indicators and adding a skip navigation link.

ARIA: Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA) adds a descriptive layer of information to your code to help tools like screen readers. While this encompasses some of what we’ve already discussed (like role=”presentation”) there is more involved. You can learn more in our blog post about semantic HTML and ARIA

User testing for accessibility audits

While the tools we listed above should definitely be a part of your accessibility audit, nothing beats testing with real people. One way to do this is by manually using assistive technology like screen readers to engage with your email campaigns. But it’s even better if you can find people who have disabilities to test things themselves. 

One way to find testers is to reach out to your email audience for help. But there are also services like Fable that connect you to accessibility testers. They offer a community of people who have a wide range of disabilities and who use a variety of assistive technology tools. This helps you get an accurate depiction of the usability of your email campaigns. 

Why accessibility audits are worth the effort

While all of these steps may seem a bit tedious, an email accessibility audit is absolutely worth every second of time invested. By committing to more accessible emails, you’re increasing the chances that people convert from your campaigns, decreasing your risk of legal ramifications, and, most importantly, contributing to a more inclusive online landscape.

So take the time to audit your email campaigns regularly and ensure that every one of your subscribers can engage with and benefit from them. And with Email on Acid, you can even incorporate accessibility checks into your final checkpoint before clicking the “send” button, ensuring that every email is user-friendly every single time.

Boost ROI with Accessible Emails!

People all over the world live with visual impairments. How many of them are on your list? Can they read and act on your email campaigns? Email Accessibility is about more than just improving your reach. It shows empathy for every subscriber. Use Sinch Email on Acid to check accessibility before you hit send.

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