Image Alternative Text for Emails

Most emails sent today use visual elements like images and designs to help convey their message in a clear and engaging way, but what happens to these visual elements when they can’t be seen? Alternate text is the missing link. This article will help you understand what alternative text is, why it’s important, and how to properly write and test it.

What is alternate text?

Alternate text, or alt text, is a brief written description of a visual element in a digital space. An example would be a description of an email banner, a graph, or a diagram. These descriptions are usually not visible by default since the image is already conveying the associated information, but they’re still crucial to add.

Why do I need to add alternate text to my images?

There are three main reasons to add alt text to your images: increasing accessibility for people who are visually impaired, telling software like search engines what the image is about, and adding context if your image won’t load. We’ll go into more detail on each of these reasons below.

Accessibility for people who can’t see images

Many people who are visually impaired or unable to see your images for another reason rely on software that reads text out loud to understand your message. Text-to-speech software can’t see the images any more than a visually impaired person, so alternate text tells the software how to describe the image.

Tells software what the image is about

It’s not just text-to-speech software that needs to know what your images contain. Search engine algorithms incorporate alt text descriptions into the results they show people, especially for image searches. Any other software that needs to understand the message you’re trying to send with your image will also be relying on the alt text.

Adds context when images can’t be loaded

What happens when your image isn’t loaded on a webpage or an email you sent? Usually, the alt text is displayed instead so people can still get a sense of what the image meant. This is especially common with emails, since many email providers block automatic image downloads. In this case, alternative text for your images might help convince someone it’s worth the time to press the image download button and view your email the way you intended.

How do I add alternate text for images to emails?

While it depends a little on the email client you’re using, the general process is fairly standard. When you’re working on an email template and add an image, there should be a field where you can add alt text specific to that image. There should be an alt text field for each image you add, even if it’s a background image. You might have to poke around in the email template to find it, or check the documentation for your chosen email client.

Tips for writing good alternate image text for emails

Now that you have an idea why to add alt text and how to add it, we’ll talk about some strategies to help you write alternative text for emails that is effective. There are several important tips to keep in mind when adding your descriptions:

  • Convey the reason for the image
  • Be concise and accurate
  • Practice describing images
  • Mark decorative images
  • Test your emails when you’re done

Next, we’ll go over each of these strategies in more detail, including why they’re important and how to use them.

Convey the reason the image is included

It’s not enough to state what’s in the image if it’s not clear why the image was included. Think about what the point of having the image in your email is, and make sure this is incorporated in your description.

A simple example is an image of your company’s logo. If you only describe what the logo looks like without explaining that the image is a logo, the alt text is missing context and the viewer won’t understand its meaning.

If the image is linked, the alt text should describe what happens when the image is clicked. An example would be an image that opens a chat box. If you only describe what the image looks like, the user won’t know the purpose of the image is to give people a way to start a chat.

Alt text for complex images like graphs, diagrams, and charts should include the key takeaways from the content at the very least. Consider what the graph is telling people who look at it and summarize that result instead of simply saying the image is a graph. If you have a lot of information in an image, you may want to have a text version of the information linked elsewhere that’s more in-depth than the brief alt text description.

Be concise and accurate with your descriptions

Alt text is meant to be no more than a few brief sentences, so it’s important to make each word count. Being concise is helpful when using alt text in emails because when email clients only load alternative text instead of images, that description has to convince people to download the images. You have a better chance of persuading people if they understand quickly why the image is important.

It’s not necessary to include phrases like “this is an image of…” or “a picture of”, since software understands that alt text is meant to describe images and will provide that context if necessary, like in a text-to-speech program. You can also limit your descriptions to only the most key elements of the image. This would mean focusing only on the parts of the image that are important to sending your message.

Accuracy in descriptions is important for both people and search engines. Inaccurate descriptions will make it harder to understand what you’re trying to convey to people. In addition, search engine algorithms frown on discrepancies in your content, like mismatches between your alternate text and the rest of your message.

Practice describing images

The best way to learn how to write precise, accurate alternate text quickly is to practice. There are a few ways to do this. You can find some images, describe them on a separate piece of paper, and then ask someone to read it and tell you what the image’s purpose is. There are also a few resources to help you learn strategies for image description, including one that helps you describe graphs and diagrams and another with some examples of good alt text.

Mark decorative images

Some images in your emails might not be there to send a particular message; they’re only there to make the email look nice visually. Examples of decorative images would be simple backgrounds, borders, and other similar elements. If the image is purely there for decoration, you can mark it as decorative, so text-to-speech software knows to skip over it.

Your email client should have either a way to mark it as decorative (usually in the same place as the alt text field), or you can leave the alt text field blank. Check the documentation for your email provider to learn the specifics.

Test your emails

Once you’ve written your alt text and incorporated it into your email, it’s important to test it’s working properly. If it doesn’t work right, your email will look unprofessional at best, and it may not send the message you’re trying to send.

A robust testing strategy includes testing how your email will look in multiple configurations. Each email client your recipients use may display the image descriptions differently or may not display them at all. Some may automatically download and display the images, some might have settings chosen by the user to display the alt text instead, and still others may automatically block all external content.

The only way to know for sure how your email is going to look in someone’s inbox is to simulate it. There are tools out there to help you test different configurations of email clients, browsers, settings, and other variables so you can quickly and efficiently check that your emails will perform how you expect them to.

Email testing tools that can help

Mailosaur offers email and SMS testing software tools that can help you create fast, effective tests to see if your alternative text is working, and test other aspects of your emails so you’re always giving people a good impression. Reach out to us today for a free trial, or to learn more about how our software can make your life easier.