The Importance of Accessibility in Marketing and Advertising

Unleashing Your Brand's Power: The Accessibility Advantage

Accessibility refers to the inclusive design of products, services, and environments so that individuals of all abilities can use them. In marketing and advertising, accessibility focuses on making materials, both digital such as websites, ads, and social media content, and more traditional print and physical media, accessible to people with disabilities.

Today, accessibility is acknowledged as a key ingredient to successful marketing. After all, accessibility speaks to the heart of communication, and that is the foundation of advertising. When everyone can access and understand your content, you’ve done a better job at getting your message out. This crosses digital and traditional media bounds: a brochure with tiny text excludes many readers, just as a website does when it’s missing keyboard navigation options.

Digital Accessibility Takes Center Stage

In the digital direction of marketing and advertising, accessibility is finally coming into its own. Websites, social media posts, and online ads are powerful tools, but only if everyone can experience them and access the information they convey. Digital accessibility is a critical part of making sure that everyone can navigate, understand, and engage with your content, whether they use a screen reader, voice control, or other assistive technology.

Creating content that has included in its underlying design principles the intention of accommodating individuals with disabilities is gaining ground as a creative strategy. Aside from fostering an inclusive brand image and reaching a broader audience base, and aligning with the evolving landscape of diverse consumer expectations, it also avoids serious problems that can escalate when dealt with further down the line. For example, a color palette with low contrast may fit with your brand, illustrate your ideas, or match current trends. But if that’s what you choose in your moodboards and incorporate into your designs, you’ll be redesigning later on based on a new color scheme, in response to complaints, to avoid complications and even the likelihood of a possible lawsuit. That’s going to be expensive in both time, team effort, and financial output. Materials that are specifically designed from their earliest planning phase with accessibility in mind are a safer, smarter decision.

Why Make Marketing Accessible Now? More Than Just the Law

The importance of accessibility in marketing is growing rapidly, fueled by several factors. First, legal requirements like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) are increasingly being applied to digital spaces. Digital accessibility and online access is recognized as a human right in many governmental bodies worldwide as well as in the United States, affecting educational and economic outcomes, as well as social and communication, and essential services.

Secondly, the number of people with disabilities who need to use assistive products is projected to reach anywhere between 1.4 and 3.5 billion by 2050, with more than 2.5 billion today, representing a massive untapped demographic. The anticipated surge in demand for assistive tools and technologies is fueled by several trends, including a world with aging adults, an increase in chronic health conditions, and lingering consequences from the pandemic. This is according to World Health Organization’s 2022 Global Report on Assistive Technology.

Third, building an inclusive brand speaks to consumers who value ethical and responsible practices, making a compelling argument in your favor. And, fourth, yes, accessibility is the law, wherever you are. As of 2023, most regions, following standards like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or internationally recognized independent guidelines such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) by the W3C group, already mandate digital accessibility. This impacts marketing materials by requiring formats and functionality that are accessible to all.

The Letter of the Law, and Beyond

law accessibility connectivity

Most countries have legal guidelines that legislate the implementation and maintenance of a usable level of digital and web accessibility. In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides an overall framework for making websites, mobile apps, and digital materials accessible to people with disabilities. The ADA prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including marketing and advertising.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has developed guidelines for digital accessibility, known as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). These guidelines, formed by government-independent groups, although they are not laws themselves, are considered the gold standard for accessibility online and for digital materials. The WCAG are often used in legal cases as a reference point for digital and web accessibility violations.

In employment, for example, most jobs demand more than the minimum of digital literacy these days, regardless of industry. They require web and tech competency, and continuously updated digital skills and knowledge. In education from grade school to university, web and digital access is critical. And in marketing and advertising, accessibility is an absolute must. All marketing and advertising agencies of any size must keep up to date on the correct ways to convey their messages, keeping all consumers in mind, and providing alternative ways to access the information so it is accessible to people with a variety of impairments and disabilities.

For those with disabilities, such as individuals who are blind or visually impaired, assistive technology is helpful, but it is not enough. Screen magnifiers, screen readers, and other assistive tools can only do their job when the digital and web materials themselves have been properly formatted and prepared. When websites, applications and software, or electronic documents have forms, graphics, or keyboard interfaces that are not accessible to assistive technology users and assistive tools, they are quite useless to people with disabilities.

The implications of legal requirements for digital materials are significant, and must be considered at every step along the way in the design process. However, as trendsetters and thought leaders, management, design and content professionals in marketing and advertising should be going beyond what’s required by law. When we think beyond a checklist mindset, and put real accessibility in place in all that we produce, we are making sure that users with disabilities can enjoy full, unhindered access to web and digital content.

Where Can You Add Accessibility? Everywhere!

All the best agencies are doing it, shouldn’t you? You’ll find that once you adopt an accessibility-first mindset, it’s like Old Bay or Ninja Squirrel Hot Sauce*: you’ll sprinkle it on everything that doesn’t duck out of the way. To get started:

Where?Websites & Web AppsDigital AdsSocial MediaHardcopy & Print Collateral
How?Use clear, relevant headlines, and design them to be recognizable as headlines, visually and semantically (in code).Add alt tags to images. Test for keyboard navigation. Minimize motion. Offer animation pause or stop control options.Use relevant, descriptive advertising and marketing copy. Mysterious and inscrutable is over.Don’t use embedded text images: use real text, or add alt text. Add captions to videos.Use clear, CamelCase hashtags.Yes, you CAN use emojis accessibly, but edit, and keep them in context. Emojis must have correct alt text. Set text at 12 or 14 point or larger, in good contrast. Remember, users can’t enlarge with a gesture.Offer an electronic file or large print copy as an alternative.Use raised Braille text when you can.

*Unless you hate Old Bay and hot sauce, in which case, substitute your personal favorite flavor saviors. Please don’t make it Nutella. Nutella’s gotten almost as played out as the bacon and mustache enthusiasms.

Strategize to Broaden Horizons, Amplify Reach

Accessibility works, and expanding access works in both directions. Your marketing materials could reach an exponentially wider audience, opening doors to untapped potential customers. A person who is visually impaired could discover your brand through an audio description on a video ad. A Deaf person might engage with your social media posts thanks to clear captions. Every barrier removed strengthens your brand image and supports genuine inclusivity. It’s worth the investment of your time and effort to get accessible, and get better at accessibility.

Accessible advertising immediately broadens your market segment by creating content that welcomes and engages individuals with disabilities, amplifying brand resonance and increasing business potential both with the consumer base made up of people who have disabilities, and with people who care about accessibility and equality.

A Wider Target: Aiming for Accessibility Inclusion

accessibility across different types marketing advertising elements TV products

As we build marketing and advertising assets for publishing and distribution, we automatically begin by making lists of how these materials will be produced, and what target audiences we need to reach. Do we need to work up a TV spot and social media creatives, plus glossy 5-part packaging for a new shampoo, and a matching billboard? Do we need to reach older audiences, younger demographics, people who shop online in the wee hours of the weekend? As professionals, we already have our goals thought out by the time we start building content and design, or we should.

How should we be serving the needs and abilities of users who may often be ignored. What should we be aiming for?

Accessibility and Usability: Concurring Essentials

Accessibility and usability (here referring to web, digital and electronic aspects) are related terms, and in some ways mirror each other, but they mean different things. Usability does not include accessibility, although accessibility can contain usability.

Accessibility addresses the questions of how and whether a user with a disability can equally access, consume, and interact with web and digital experiences and information, without barriers or discrimination. The purpose of accessibility is to level the playing field and make sure that everyone is included.

Usability considers whether and how websites, applications, and related tools and interfaces can be made more efficient, more effective, and optimally useful and enjoyable for users. The end goal of usability is a better product that can be easier and more satisfying to use.

Both accessibility and usability have bottom-line benefits that accrue to anyone who plugs them in. Good marketing and advertising planning and design must consider and test for both accessibility and usability. 

Accessibility Personas: What Are They?

When we reflect on how our media and materials will likely be absorbed by people with disabilities, we may automatically gravitate towards thinking of a person who is blind, or someone who is disabled in an easily recognizable way. However, we should also be considering how our materials will be experienced by people with many types of impairments, including disabilities we are not aware of, or perhaps would not recognize. Disabilities often overlap, and we also cannot predict how their overlap works for any given individual. In short, there are checklists to run through when creating accessibility, but people cannot be too neatly defined.

One type of category we can make good use of, as long as we remember not to hold on too tightly, is personas. What are personas? They are fictitious persons created to help you think about your audience. In essence, they are data sets written around demographics, and include descriptions of what one such persona might want or need.

Example 1: Persona A might be called Evelyn. “Evelyn” is visually impaired, uses a screen reader, and prefers audio descriptions over alternative text for image description. This persona is based on the accessibility needs and preferences of some theoretical end user.

Example 2: Persona B, Omar, uses speech recognition software. “Omar” needs clear pronunciation and dictation options, and avoids jargon, idioms, and complex sentence structures. This persona is based on the assistive technology they are using.

It is understood that we are unlikely to know who has a disability, or which one, or how that affects them, and that these one-dimensional theoretical personas will often cross over with other needs and technologies.

With this in mind, we should be working towards creating design that is as universal as possible, making the best use of, but not tied too tightly to, the idea of personas.

Universal vs Inclusive Design

Inclusive design is a method with a broad scope that considers a wide range of users, going beyond accessibility or even usability. It can include multilingual interfaces, for example. Inclusive design wants to make people feel at home, feel welcomed. The focus of inclusive design is likely to be diversity inclusion, and may prioritize individual needs, with flexibility for optimal accessibility.

Universal design is based on a single-solution philosophy. Taking it to a high-level perspective, the universal design approach tries to include as many end users as it can, by designing in a way that is maximally accessible. Using easily visible and comfortably clickable large buttons on both physical and digital input options is one example of universal design: it works for many users, and can be applied to multiple products, services, and systems.

By creating universal design, with accessibility and usability integrated at every level, and by remaining thoughtful and flexible around inclusivity, we can give users their best possible experience.

Keep It Simple, Sunshine: Your Get-Going Guidelines

Although you may start with abstract ideas, the first place your marketing and advertising concepts will take shape is usually as (scribbled) text, sketch, color boards, or some combination of the three. At that early stage, consider how your end result will be used by people with disabilities. To coin a phrase, well-begun is half done, so let’s start here.

Some Ad & Marketing Accessibility Don’tsA Few Digital Accessibility Definitely Do’s
Don’t overload text with TL;DR Walls of Text. Don’t clutter verbally or visually (we know you know). Shorter text is read more by larger amounts of people.Keep it short and sweet. Brief, clear, relevant and informative text works best for everyone, not just people with disabilities. Some universal design stuff there.
Don’t forget captions and subtitles for video and audiovisual media.Do include captions or subtitles that include both the spoken information and the context.
Don’t cover important visuals with captions or subtitles.Do add audio descriptions to video when possible, so people with low vision can follow.
Don’t use all-caps except in very rare cases. Avoid small caps.Do use clean spacing and clear hierarchy, for easy text readability and information navigation.
Don’t use fonts or styles that are difficult to read.Do use fonts that are designed to be clear and easy to read. That’s most professional fonts.
Don’t use tiny text in digital text if it can’t be enlarged, and don’t use very small fonts in print items at all if you can help it.Do offer built-in available options for users so they can easily enlarge text without losing readable information.
Don’t use low-contrast color combinations. Nobody cares if it’s trendy or aesthetically pleasing if they can’t actually read your text.Do use high-contrast color palettes, especially with text or icons against a colored background.
Don’t just pick images that look glam or fun without thinking about who is being represented.Do think about who is or isn’t included in images.
Don’t bury the lede. It’s not only confusing to many readers, it’s problematic for access.Do put critical information early on in posts and publications. Don’t be repetitive, but repeat if necessary later on.
If you must use acronyms, add their full expanded text early on. And, if you’ll be linking to files, include their file extensions, such as PDF.Always use respectful language. While many prefer person-first usage for describing people with disabilities (or PwD), that’s not always the case. Deaf people take pride in Deaf culture and prefer to be called just that: Deaf. And people with autism may wish to be called autistic or neurodivergent. Bottom line is respecting the wishes of the person you are addressing. When you don’t know, ask.
Don’t use outdated terms that may offend, especially around disability and inclusivity. It doesn’t take much effort to update your own vocabulary, but do take the time to keep polite and thoughtful in all that you communicate, internally as well as in your advertising campaigns and client emails. Train team members to use correct terms as well.Do optimize accessibility for your own best SEO. Writing descriptive metadata, including alt text, and keeping site navigation consistent are some ways to boost both accessibility and SEO. Other overlapping tips include using breadcrumbs and adding relevant, informative anchor text for links.
When using hashtags, keep them in Camel Case, so screen readers can recognize the separations between words with no spaces.For accessible verification, add alternatives such as audio, or accessible text or other options, rather than Captcha images.
Don’t add in SEO (search engine optimization) keywords when they aren’t immediately relevant. Besides the fact that it’s black-hat behavior and will result in lowering your rankings on SERPs (search engine results pages), it’s obstructive to users with disabilities.For live or streaming video and television, a sign language interpreter is a good way to convey audible information.

Summing up, many accessibility bits of advice are words of wisdom you’ve already heard in other contexts in advertising, marketing, content creation, and design. So while you may not have learned much new information, knowing how to apply what you know for the best results is the key to success.

Accessibility Testing and Tune-Ups

Regularly test your marketing and advertising materials for accessibility. Seek input and feedback from people with disabilities to gain valuable insights (and yes, you should be paying them). By actively embracing accessibility, you're an important part of a world where everyone feels welcome and included.

Below are some of the types of tools available to help you break down unwanted barriers and build a truly accessible digital experience. Use them regularly, and reference guidelines like the WCAG and any applicable local laws.

WCAG Note 1: Current Compliance is Key

Many or probably most accessibility testing tools will check for WCAG compliance, directly or indirectly. Make sure the tools you use test your digital assets to fully meet currently relevant accessibility guidelines like WCAG 2.1.

WCAG Note 2: Check for Up to Date Tools

Be aware that the testing tools in the “updated” WCAG testing tool list are in some cases outdated! Find the most current accessibility testing tools for the testing purposes you need most, and vet them thoroughly.

WCAG Note 3: Get Ahead of Yourself

Although WCAG 2.2 has been released, it is not yet law in most locations. However, implement 2.2 recommendations as soon as you are able, for better accessibility and to avoid problems later on.

Accessibility Testing ToolsWhat They Can Do
Automated ScannersThese tools crawl your content, flagging potential issues with color contrast, keyboard navigation, and screen reader compatibility.
Manual TestersReal people with disabilities use and navigate your content to identify real-world issues automated tools often miss.
Alternative Text GeneratorsGenerate image descriptions for screen readers. Your best bet is to have in-house team members review these for accuracy and relevance.
Color Contrast CheckersCheck early on, or as soon as you can. Avoid locking yourself into color combinations that hinder readability.
Keyboard Navigation TestersVerify your content can be navigated without a mouse.
Screen Reader EmulatorsHear how your content sounds to users with visual impairments.
Captioning & TranscriptionMake videos and audio accessible with accurate captions and transcripts.
Accessibility WidgetsThese come with a variety of top-layer accessibility options. They can add features like font size adjustment or screen reader compatibility buttons.
Learning ResourcesGuides, tutorials, webinars and podcasts are invaluable assets for staying up-to-date and in the know on accessibility best practices.

Accessibility is more than bare-bones legal compliance; it's about building and maintaining a positive user experience for everyone. Design your marketing campaigns with assistive technologies in mind, and you'll create inclusive experiences that resonate with a wider audience.

While we’ll mention this specifically in the context of captioning and transcription, this is relevant for a variety of tools. Automated tools for testing and other accessibility purposes have improved with recent advances in AI and related technologies. For specialized or highly sensitive content, manual captionists and transcribers (or testers, etcetera) are also available in most locations. As always, check references.

The best approach to accessibility testing remains a combination of automated and manual tools combined with human expertise and oversight. When possible and in budget, hiring an accessibility consultant or agency is highly advisable. Using good quality resources and experts who come with solid recommendations can help equip you to build the inclusive digital world we all deserve.

Boost Accessibility & Brand Image

When we make sure a larger target audience is able to receive and enjoy the assets we produce, we’re winning on multiple levels. We’re following the rules and acting ethically by making materials accessible, sure, but that’s not all. We look a lot better doing it. As advertising and marketing professionals, we know image is everything, and location (location, location) is critical. Getting information out in a broader and more inclusive way, to more people in more places and positions, making sure everyone is thought of, these things may make you eligible for a marketing or even a career win rather than sainthood. And that’s genuinely okay. We’re allowed to want and to accomplish multiple goals. We can do a good job as well as doing the right thing. Let’s all win, together.

With about 15% or even 16% of people around the world, and possibly more than one fourth of Americans having some type of impairment, it’s fair to say that disability affects all of us. We all have someone we know, work with, care about, interact with daily, who has some form of disability, whether we know it or not. Many people may not be aware of the disabilities of the people around them, much less understanding of what it takes for people with disabilities to gain access to the data and services we all take for granted. With accessibility in our hands as advertising, marketing and communications professionals, we need to do better. Let’s bake accessibility in to all the collateral we produce.

Building accessible marketing and advertising means more than adhering to guidelines or fulfilling legal requirements; it's a practical way we can do better by all of us. With accessibility, we are actively embracing the human aspiration for equality and connection. By creating inclusive experiences, we pave the way for a brighter future where everyone feels valued, understood, and empowered. Let's open doors, amplify voices, and build a world that truly lives up to its much-advertised potential: reaching everyone, everywhere, with shared messages of connection.

My business is small, does accessibility really matter?

Absolutely it does, for your users, and for your own success. Even basic steps like adding alt text to images can make a big difference for someone using a screen reader. And, every visitor counts, and accessibility opens doors to a wider audience you might not have considered.

What if I'm not sure where to start with accessibility?

You don’t have to be an expert. Either consult someone who does know what they’re doing, or begin by learning the basics about accessibility, and implementing what you can, as soon as you can. Start with small, achievable steps like adding captions to videos or using larger fonts in print materials. Resources like the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) offer clear checklists and guidance.

Will making my marketing materials accessible run up my budget?

Accessibility implementation can start small, and many improvements are simple changes, like adding alt text or adjusting color contrast. In the long run, accessibility can save you money by avoiding potential lawsuits and attracting a wider customer base.

Can I just use an automatic accessibility checker and be done?

While automated tools are helpful and a great place to get started, they're not a magic bullet. Even the best-automated tools do need some human oversight somewhere along the way. And, true manual testing and feedback from people with disabilities are critical for real-world accessibility verification. Like spell check, automated tools may catch most of your errors, but eyes-on review is still a good step to take.

Does accessibility only apply to websites?

No, accessibility extends beyond websites, web applications, and digital content, and even past the tools used to interact with them. Brochures, billboards, packaging and in-person events should be designed with everyone in mind. Choose high-contrast colors for printed materials, consider audio descriptions for events, and provide clear signage for everyone to navigate comfortably.

I'm new to accessibility and worried about making mistakes. What if I do something wrong?

If your concern is legal, do bear in mind that due diligence goes a long way. So if you’ve done what you can, and you still have inaccessible information, you will almost certainly be given a chance to improve your accessibility rather than an immediate penalty for noncompliance. And, we all start somewhere. The important thing is to be open to learning and willing to improve. Listen to feedback from people with disabilities, seek out resources, and remember, every step towards accessibility is a positive one.

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