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10 Things Every Digital Marketer Needs to Know about Web Accessibility

Tyler McConville

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How to remove the barriers around your content for people with disabilities.

Ask most digital marketers what their top priorities are and they’ll usually give you the same answers: customer engagement, better conversion rates, higher search rankings and larger social media audiences. But ask about web accessibility and you might get a blank stare.

While accessibility has become more commonplace in the last few years, it’s still largely overlooked by marketers. This is partly because it doesn’t seem to fall under the marketing umbrella. How does making a website more accessible to everyone connect with spreading the word about your brand?

As it turns out, the two are more closely linked than many marketers realize.

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Web accessibility is a critical issue for all users, but especially for people with disabilities. To understand how large of a group that is, consider these statistics:

  • According to government census data from 2010, 56.7 million people in the U.S., or 19 percent of the population, had a disability.

  • The Pew Research Center reported that 23% of those Americans don’t use the internet at all. (Only 8% of other Americans report never going online.)

  • The 2016 Click-Away Pound survey found that 71% of online shoppers with limitations will abandon a site if they find it hard to use.
    • That same survey revealed that 82% of these customers would spend more money if sites were more accessible.

If that’s not enough reason to prioritize accessibility, then maybe the prospect of being fined or sued will do the trick.

In the first half of 2018 alone, nearly 5,000 web accessibility lawsuits were filed, and that number is climbing. In addition, if your site isn’t accessible, it may incur legal penalties and/or fees, depending on where you’re based. The EU Web Accessibility Directive, revised in September 2018, enforces accessibility standards on all public sector sites and penalizes sites that don’t comply. Countries like the U.S. may soon follow suit.

Finally, there’s the risk of negative publicity. Several companies have recently experienced major customer backlash as a result of their sites or apps being inaccessible. One noteworthy case occurred when a blind customer sued Domino’s Pizza after being unable to complete a purchase using the company’s app.

Of course, everyone can benefit from accessibility. For example, anyone who uses a mobile or smart device will enjoy the upsides of accessibility. Optimized accessibility also helps people with changing abilities, situational limitations, and slow or limited bandwidth.

There are enormous benefits to having an accessible site. Avoiding legal trouble isn’t the only perk you’ll enjoy—I’m talking about big wins for your business. Since more users will be able to access your site, you’ll see performance and metric improvements across the board. You’ll increase conversion rates; improve load time; increase search rankings; gain more links; enhance social sharing; and much, much more.

But there’s still an important question here. As a marketer, what should you be doing about accessibility? To help you out, here’s a list of the 10 most important things you need to know about accessibility.

1. Understand What Web Accessibility Entails

When most people think of accessibility features, they think of something like alternate image text for vision impaired users or subtitles for hearing impaired users. However, features like these only scratch the surface. Accessibility includes a wide range of features that help all users take full advantage of the internet.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) developed the Web Accessibility Initiative to create standards for online accessibility. Their Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are especially important for our purposes. These guidelines outline what accessibility includes and are a must-read for every marketer.

2. Accessibility Can’t Be Treated as an Afterthought

As evident from cases such as the Domino’s lawsuit, many marketers have failed to integrate accessibility into websites, apps and campaigns. In doing so, these marketers have excluded a significant part of the population and reduced the size of their audience from the outset. They’ve effectively sabotaged their own work from the beginning.

When a user realizes they can’t access content, they’ll almost undoubtedly abandon the content (as shown by the Click-Away Pound survey). Even if you fix the problem, the damage is already done. That’s why treating accessibility as an afterthought is a surefire way to lose a significant portion of your audience for good.

3. Read Up on Accessibility Laws in Your Country

As I mentioned earlier, accessibility laws vary from country to country. Even if your country doesn’t impose fines or legal penalties, you still need to understand the laws to make sure your content is compliant. You can find many accessibility laws on the W3C site.

4. Consider Outsourcing Work to Improve Accessibility

Making your site and marketing as accessible as possible will take a lot of work. Depending on the type of content, you may need to transcribe, add written notes, modify color schemes, or even modify the inputs that people can use to interact with your content. In many cases, it’s worthwhile to outsource that work to people who are experienced in those fields.

5. Accessibility Needs to Be Built into Written Content Too

Accessibility is largely about providing alternate methods of content consumption and improving the user interface, but written content also must be optimized for accessibility. Written content needs to be carefully and intentionally crafted in order to be as accessible as possible. Elements such as heading structures, page layout and font size all contribute to accessibility. For more on this, the W3C has a list of tips for writing with accessibility in mind.

6. Non-text Content Always Needs a Text Alternative

Any sort of visual or audio-based text should always have a text alternative. This doesn’t mean just video, images and audio––many interface components also require text alternatives. (The search bar is one example.) The W3C has a list of examples on its Accessibility Principles page.

7. Design for Keyboard-only Input and Navigation

Many users cannot use a mouse or trackpad and rely entirely on the keyboard. As such, the W3C states that sites should provide “keyboard access to all functionality, including form controls, input, and other user interface components.” This is a huge aspect of accessibility, so don’t overlook it.

8. Forms are Often Inaccessible

The humble form is usually an accessibility nightmare. The Journal of Accessibility Studies published a particularly revealing study: Only 28% of blind users were able to successfully complete an online job application. Because forms and applications aren’t typically designed with accessibility in mind, many users can’t interact with them. When you’re creating forms, be sure to make them just as accessible as all of your other content.

9. Better Accessibility Means Better SEO

If you read through the W3C’s accessibility guidelines, you’ll notice that some of them seem quite familiar. That’s because many of the structures used for accessibility are also used for SEO. For example, specific and meaningful URLs boost SEO, but they also aid users by allowing them to identify what page they’re on. There’s a powerful synergy between accessibility and SEO, so the more accessible your site, the healthier your SEO will be.

10. Design Matters Too

Accessibility means optimizing more than just content. The actual layout and design matter significantly. I’m talking about the colors you use, how you arrange elements on a page and the types of elements that are present. After all, no one will be able to understand your content if the design stops them from doing so. For example, if you use blue and purple text in close proximity, color-blind users may not be able to read it.

Accessibility is Key

Lack of accessibility is a growing problem. As marketers, we want to get our content in front of as many people as possible, but how can we truly do that if we ignore accessibility? (Spoiler alert: We can’t.)

To make the internet better for everyone, we need to start seriously focusing on accessibility. That means creating and designing with accessibility as a priority. If you do this, you’ll experience overwhelming results. By improving the accessibility of your content, you’ll ensure that it will reach the maximum number of people, and you’ll be doing your part to decrease the digital divide.

Tyler McConville is an entrepreneur and the founder of Unity Compliance Inc., an agency focused on digital accessibility in a global market, with a vision of empowering those in need.