How to make your emails more accessible – and why it matters
Email open rates can be improved by making sure they’re readable and relevant for the maximum number of people.
As every marketer is probably already all too aware, email open rates average at around 20% – that means for every five people who receive your email, four won’t even open it. That might sound depressing but there are two ways of looking at email open rates.
On the debit side, 80% is a lot of wasted communication. Yet, given that there are around 15 trillion commercial emails sent each year (of which SparkPost handles 40%), there are still a lot of emails which are being read.
The big question for marketers is inevitably ‘how can open rates be improved?’
There are many reasons why branded emails remain untouched – after all, the average person receives over 100 emails a day. For some, though, the reason why they haven’t opened the email might be not because they don’t want to find out what it contains or because they have ‘meeting bloat’, but rather that they can’t actually read or understand the email in the first place.
They may be one of the 2.2 billion people globally who the World Health Organization considers to have a near or distance-based vision impairment. Or, if the email is sent only in English, they might be one of the 3.6 billion internet users across the planet for whom English is not their primary language.
As email marketers, we need to ensure that our messages can be read by anyone who wants to access them. They need to be easy to read and understandable for everyone, regardless of disability or language. That is why accessibility considerations should be central to the entire email creation process.
Adhering to basic accessibility guidelines for the creation of email also has the added benefit of ensuring that the marketing messages don’t end up being overly complex, which, in turn, could also have a positive impact on open and interaction rates.
Meanwhile, creating emails in different languages should also not be seen as a nice-to-have for marketers. If you are a brand with a global footprint or global ambitions, multi-language emails could seriously improve open rates and may give you a significant advantage over your rivals.
Setting sensible, accessible style rules
It is important that you or your designers develop an accessibility mindset. This process is about marrying company branding guidelines with a set of basic rules to deliver accessible and effective emails.
In some instances, it might mean tweaking design elements, but in my opinion the benefits of higher open rates significantly outweigh the cons of potentially slightly diverting from brand design rules.
Take point size for example. It could be that your business has an established point size for type, which it may have stuck with for decades. However, if that point size is less than 14pt, when it comes to email marketing you may have a problem.
Text needs to be large enough so that everyone can read it. If your readers are squinting, zooming in or, even worse, popping off to get reading glasses, you may have already lost their attention and any chance of any interaction will be gone. So stick to a font size of at least 14pt, and think about line height so readers have enough space between lines to read clearly.
Ask yourself, too, is your company typeface easy to read? Before you send out emails, test the font to see what it looks like and how legible it is on different screen sizes and devices (find out for example, what percentage of your target audience reads your emails on mobile, and if appropriate optimise emails for smaller screens). Simple, classic fonts work best. There is a reason why some typefaces are more widely used than others.
Think carefully about embedding image content
For many marketers the jury is out on the effectiveness of embedding GIFs and videos into email newsletters.
From an accessibility perspective there is a very good case for not using GIFs at all. Firstly, not all your readers will see them, as background images and GIFs aren’t fully supported in Outlook. Furthermore, a flashy GIF with fast-moving frames will not only annoy some of your readers, but it can actually trigger seizures in people who suffer from photosensitivity.
If you are insistent that including GIFs will raise engagement levels, then make sure you include ‘alt text’ to provide context. This helps readers with visual impairments understand the message of the image or GIF.
Other things to bear in mind include ensuring that links are clear and underlined (if you just colour them they could be overlooked by people with colour blindness or low vision) and breaking up text with clear, bold subheads. If you have specific title, header and sub-header elements in your template, screen readers can identify these are different areas of the email and treat them as such, rather than adding it all into a text field.
Mind your language
Creating email newsletters in different languages is something that many marketers should be aspiring to. Once you have optimised a newsletter to the point that it works effectively in one language, if you are a global company, explore localisation next.
If you offer multi-language emails, people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to read newsletters can receive and engage with them. At the same time, even people who speak English as a second language would have to make less effort to read their emails, which might make them more inclined to open the email in the first place.
There are simple ways to translate content using online tools like Google Translate. Yet these are only partially effective, and may end up creating content that is confusing to readers and possibly damaging to your brand.
At the other end of the scale, you could invest in local translators, though this may create cost and efficiency issues. Employing 20 different staff to translate a newspaper into their local language is both expensive and time-consuming.
Then there is also the issue of language losing meaning as it is translated. For example, the first James Bond film, Dr No, opened in Japan in 1962 with the bizarre title of ‘We Don’t Need No Doctor.’ Then there is a notable global fast food brand whose tag line ‘Finger Licking Good’ means ‘eat your own fingers off’ in Chinese.
At Sparkpost, we refer to the process of optimising email content in different languages as transcreation. We have a tool called Taxi, which helps your marketing and translation teams translate the context of your email, rather than just the content. This ensures the content actually works in a local culture, thereby avoiding embarrassing mistakes, or strange sentences and structures.
Don’t forget to think about images too. They need to be optimised so that they work in local markets. An obvious shortcut is to make the images of people you use as diverse as possible, with different ages, ethnicities and genders.
That said nothing beats offering bespoke images on a market-by-market basis. Visuals should reflect the real world and therefore help to make the newsletter as customer-centric as possible.
Email is, in my opinion, the leading customer communication tool for marketers. No other platform can compete with its direct, dynamic, interactive approach. Yet, as savvy marketers are all too aware, their customers receive a lot of emails and only have a limited amount of time each day to consume content. Marketers need to work as hard as possible to make their branded emails stand out.
Making emails accessible is the right thing to do from a company perspective – surely everyone needs to be treated fairly. But it can also improve email delivery and open numbers. And in many businesses, small margins like these can lead to big wins.
For an easy-to-use 10-step guide on accessibility, download our 10-step checklist here.
Elliot Ross is email evangelist at Taxi for Email, a SparkPost company.