Rodriguez: The Difference Between Accessibility and Inclusion in Email Marketing


Over the last few years, the email industry has been increasingly focused on accessibility. That’s a good thing, especially considering that such a large percentage of the world’s population suffers from some sort of disability, whether it’s permanent or temporary.

For example, the World Health Organization counts around 1.3 billion people with vision impairments. For those users, ensuring that emails are accessible, whether they’re on typical devices or accessed through assistive technology like screen reading software, is absolutely vital. That’s why it’s been encouraging to see a greater focus on accessibility in email.

But technical accessibility is only a part of the picture. Other industries are moving beyond accessibility and working on crafting truly inclusive experiences for customers. This begs the question:

What is accessibility, how is it different from inclusion, and how can we improve both in email marketing?

What is accessibility?

The simplest way I’ve been able to explain accessibility is this: An email is accessible when its content is available to - and functionality can be operated by - anyone, regardless of ability. In a nutshell, focusing on accessibility keeps our emails usable for any subscriber.

Accessibility is almost always related to the mechanics of an email, with a strong focus on the techniques used to build the email itself.

  • Is the copy large enough to read?
  • Is there sufficient contrast between text and background for low vision users?
  • Is the code usable for screen readers and voice assistants?
  • Does the email scale well across different device sizes?

These are some of the questions we should be asking ourselves as we strive to make accessible emails.

What is inclusion?

Inclusion takes things a step further. I define inclusion as design that embraces the full range of human diversity, with respect to ability, language, culture, gender, age, and other forms of human difference.

Although it encompasses a lot of aspects of accessibility, it tends to be more about strategy and content.

Whereas accessibility ensures anyone can use an email, inclusion ensures everyone is thoughtfully considered before sending an email campaign.

Room for Improvement

In both cases, there’s a ton of room for improvement in the email industry.

When it comes to accessibility, a lot of work has been done to keep email templates accessible. I’ve written elsewhere on the basics of accessible email code. Over on the Litmus blog, we’ve tried to build on some of those ideas with posts from Jaina Mistry and Alice Li.

Research into email accessibility is ongoing, but a few key techniques are agreed upon as best practices and should be utilized by every email sent:

  • If you’re using HTML tables to structure emails, include role=”presentation” on every single table element to prevent screen readers from reading out each individual table, row, and cell to subscribers.
  • Use semantic elements like h1, h2, h3, p, etc. in your HTML code instead of blindly wrapping text in a table cell, div, or span.
  • Favor text in HTML over text in images, as images are frequently disabled by email clients, leaving campaigns blank and inaccessible for subscribers.
  • When using images, use descriptive alternative text in the alt attribute on image tags. This provides additional context for subscribers relying on assistive technology who can’t see the images themselves.
  • Use large, high contrast text with a strong hierarchy that makes scanning an email easy.
  • Favor simpler, responsive email layouts that adapt across different device sizes.

Far too often, email marketers rely on older templates or those baked into their ESPs. These templates rarely account for accessibility and force subscribers into less than ideal experiences. By improving email accessibility, we’ll improve those experiences, engender trust in our subscribers, and improve our businesses all at the same time.

There has been less research done into creating more inclusive email experiences, but we can take cues from other fields like the web and product design. Microsoft has done tremendous work on inclusive design, releasing a lot of their research and thinking in the process. Airbnb has released their own framework for thinking about inclusive design, and the University of Cambridge even released

Recognizing that email marketers are strapped for time, I’ve condensed my own research into the topic and existing resources to come up with some ideas for building more inclusive email campaigns and programs.

  • Use shorter, more readable text in emails. Less jargon, more human.
  • Go beyond translation for campaigns that are sent in different countries. Localize content by adhering to cultural conventions, sensitivities, and local customs, not just language.
  • Use diverse imagery that reflects an increasingly global and connected audience.
  • Avoid exclusionary and offensive language.
  • Focus on privacy, security, and consent for subscribers. The days of GDPR are here, so stop buying and renting lists, and lose those weeks-long opt-out dark patterns.
  • Think of subscribers as people instead of entries in a database and potential dollar signs. Consider what you want to see in an email and use that to inform your content, design, and strategy decisions.

When it comes down to it, both accessibility and inclusion translate to having respect for our subscribers. We should all respect our subscribers enough to ensure that they can actually use our emails, regardless of ability, and we should care about them enough to include their viewpoints, values, and experiences in our email strategy.

Sometimes, this may seem counterintuitive in email. A good example of this is REI’s famous #optoutside Black Friday campaign. A few years ago, sporting goods retailer REI bucked Black Friday trends by encouraging people to get away from stores and spend time in nature, instead. While everyone else was sending massive amounts of email trying to convince people to spend money, REI did exactly the opposite.

They showed respect for their customers - both their wallets and mental health. As a result, instead of seeing massive drops in business and revenue, REI experienced some amazing benefits, including a 14% increase in brand awareness, 7% lift in purchase intent, and 3.6x more traffic into their stores in the two weeks following the campaign, according to MediaPost.

Accessibility and inclusion can be a hard sell depending on industry and stakeholder opinions, but the success of companies like Microsoft, Airbnb, and REI, as well as brands like Nike embracing social causes, is strong evidence that it’s worth it.

Although implementing some of those accessibility best practices can be quick, rethinking our email programs with accessibility and inclusion in mind is hard work. But it’s work that pays off. As more of us start sending to global audiences, as the populations in developed countries continue to age, and as developing countries become more connected, accessibility and inclusion will be major drivers for every company’s success.