Alexa and Email: How to Develop Email for Amazon’s Virtual Assistant
By John Thies
Earlier this month Amazon released an update to Alexa that allows the service to access and read your emails. With that, we just got one step closer to email evolving and giving marketers the ability to provide auditory calls-to-action (ACTAs) in their email campaigns.
Linking Alexa to Your Inbox
If you want to have Alexa read your email, the first step is to download the latest Alexa app on your mobile phone or tablet. Once you have the most recent app installed:
- Click the hamburger menu in the top left corner
- Select “Settings”
- Select “Email & Calendar”
- On the following screen, click the “+” by “Add Account”.
- Choose a Gmail or Outlook.com inbox and provide your login credentials.
There does not appear to be a limit in the number of mailboxes you can link through Alexa.
Alexa also allows you to set a four-digit voice code to access the email. This comes in handy if you have multiple shared devices around your home or office.
How to Get Alexa to Read Your Email
Now that you have your account linked with Alexa, you can say, “Alexa, read my emails” or “Alexa, check my email.”
When Alexa responds, it will tell you how many new emails you’ve received within the past 24 hours and how many of those have an important label. It’s surprising that it only goes back 24 hours regardless of how many unread emails you have. I understand the logic –given that inboxes are over-crowed—but I would like to see the option to go back further or an option to read all unread email.
Alexa will prioritize emails labeled as important and then read the remaining emails, regardless of order received. If there are no “important” emails, it will read through the emails newest to oldest. If you link multiple accounts to Alexa, it will consider all the inboxes as one and follow the same read priority as I just described.
Below is how Alexa reads through your inbox:
For John, from the last 24 hours you have X unread emails, X marked important. The first [important] email is from [sender], [subject].
Once Alexa reads the email subject line and sender, it will ask you:
Do you want to [read, reply, delete, archive or next]?
What Alexa Reads
By default, Alexa will read the HTML version of the email. If no HTML version is available, it will read the text-only version.
How Alexa parses the HTML is very similar to how email clients parse and display the preheader text in the inbox. It will strip all the HTML from the email and read whatever text is left. It’s important to note that Alexa will remove all HTML comments but will read any hidden HTML (such as display: none). So, if you have any hidden content, or your HTML shows or hides blocks of content for desktop or mobile versions, Alexa will read all the content. This probably won’t create a great experience for the subscriber.
Given the popularity of emojis, I wanted to test how Alexa would interpret emojis in either the subject line or body of the email. When Alexa encounters an emoji, it will read the name of the emoji. Alexa supports emojis up to Unicode Version 10. If Alexa encounters an emoji it does not support, it will skip over it, as if it doesn’t exist in the copy.
If Alexa is reading a long email, it will read a portion of the content, stop, and provide an estimate for how long it will take to read the rest of the email. Alexa will say:
The rest of the body takes about X minutes to finish. Would you like to continue?
At that point, you tell Alexa either “yes” or “no.” If you say “no,” Alexa will ask you, “What would you like to do?” and ask whether you want to read, reply, delete, archive, or move to the next message.
I found one frustrating experience with this feature: If you say “yes” to continue reading the rest of the message, Alexa is stuck reading the message until it finishes. I tried telling Alexa “stop” and closed the Alexa app. When I opened the app again and asked it to read my email, Alexa picked up where it left off and I had to wait until it finished. Hopefully, Amazon will be able to fix this user experience in a future release.
Tracking Emails Alexa Reads
Unfortunately, when Alexa reads an email, it does not trigger an email open within your email analytics. This is because it does not open an email in a browser that would trigger the image pixel to load.
Alexa and Email Accessibility
If you’re not creating accessible emails, I highly encourage to you learn more about it and start incorporating email accessibility best practices into your next campaign. However, when it comes to Alexa reading email, there is no accessibility support.
As I mentioned earlier, Alexa strips all the HTML from the email and reads the remaining text. This means it also removes all ARIA HTML attributes (roles, states and properties), image alt text and semantic elements.
It’s important to note that proper punctuation is incredibly important given how screen readers and voice assistants interpret the email copy.
How to Prepare Your Next Email Campaign for Alexa
Given the rise in popularity of voice assistants like Alexa and Siri, email marketers must now rely on text to convey their message, rather than text with the support of images. It’s almost as if we are going back in time when email didn’t support HTML and we could only send emails with ASCII text.
I’ve outlined some tips to help you optimize emails for these auditory interactions.
Set a Trustworthy From Name
Always use a trustworthy and recognizable from name. If you are sending a campaign on behalf of your company and you use an individual’s name; be sure to follow it up with the company name as well. For example:
John Thies on behalf of Email on Acid
Create an Engaging Subject Line
The subject, along with the from name, is the first interaction the subscriber has with the email through Alexa. Make it count! Unfortunately, you do not have the luxury of preheader text to provide more context before Alexa asks the subscriber whether he or she would like to continue with the email. Make sure the subject is relevant to the content, provides context, and inspires the subscriber to listen to the email.
Use Preheader Text
It is imperative that you use preheader text to provide enough context to engage the subscriber so they have Alexa read the entire email or decide to reply. If you don’t, they will only hear a portion of the email and move on to the next message.
Avoid Image-Only Designs
Knowing that Alexa will strip all the HTML from the email and read what’s remaining could mean bad news for image-only emails. If your call-to-action is in an image, the user won’t hear it when Alexa reads the email. If you must use an image-heavy design, be sure to provide enough context in the preheader text.
Don’t Forget Punctuation
Alexa will ignore most punctuation marks (like !,%,#,*, etc.) but periods and commas are crucial to a good auditory experience. Take the following HTML for example:
<h1> <span>Alexa Roundup</span></h1> <br> Greetings! Welcome to Email on Acid’s Alexa Roundup!<br> <br>
When Alexa strips the HTML from above, it will be read the email as:
Alexa Roundup Greetings! Welcome to Email on Acid’s Alexa Round-up!
Because there is no punctuation between “Roundup” and “Greetings!” Alexa will interpret that as one sentence, which will be difficult to understand when listening to the email. The only way I was able to get around this issue was to add a hidden
<span> with a period:
<h1> <span>Alexa Roundup</span><span style="display: none; max-height: 0px; overflow: hidden;">.</span></h1> <br> Greetings! Welcome to Email on Acid’s Alexa Roundup!<br> <br>
I used the same CSS for the additional <span> as I would for preheader text. This means the user won’t see the punctuation, but Alexa will acknowledge it when reading the email.
Use Relevant Emojis
Given that Alexa reads the name of the emoji, it’s important that the emoji is contextually relevant. They need to complement the message and could be a distraction if they don’t fit the email copy.
Be Careful with Abbreviations
Alexa doesn’t always interpret abbreviations correctly as it reads text in lowercase. For example, one of my email tests included:
Only available in the US
Alexa interpreted the “US” as “us” rather than “U.S.” Try to use periods in-between each letter of an abbreviation so voice assistants read it properly. If that isn’t visually appealing, you can use the punctuation hack above to hide the periods.
Use a Valid Reply-To Address
Email should be a one-to-one interaction that gives your subscribers an opportunity to engage with your brand. This is even more important now that a subscriber can reply to emails using his/her voice. When replying to an email through auditory commands (Alexa or Siri), subscribers don’t know what address to which they’re replying. It would be a terrible user experience for a subscriber to receive a bounced email notification or never get a response.
Overall, I’m impressed with Amazon’s initial release of Alexa’s email reading function. The workflow is intuitive and easy to understand, and they’ve provided additional security if you have an Alexa device in a shared environment.
I also like how Alexa reads a portion of an email and then asks if you would like to continue reading with an estimated time remaining, although Amazon could improve the user experience with that feature.
While we are still in the early stages of auditory email clients, I’m excited about what the future will hold for email in this space as we get one step closer to having auditory calls-to-action (ACTAs).
Author: John Thies
John is the man behind the scenes who makes sure everything is running smoothly. He loves all things technology, from programming to tinkering with mobile devices to reading the latest issue of Wired magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @johnethies.