Let's Talk About Social Media and Accessibility
Featuring an interview with accessibility advocates, Alexa Heinrich and Meryl Evans.
Before consulting, I worked at one of the largest publishing companies in the U.S.—not once was I asked about or educated on how to make social posts accessible. Within the social media industry, there seems to be a lack of awareness (and a lack of accountability) on making content that’s inclusive, specifically for people who have a vision disability or blindness, people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, and people with dyslexia or cognitive learning disabilities.
Candidly, creating accessible social content is something that I need to work on as a social media professional, and I’m guessing some of you might need to as well. That’s why for this week’s newsletter I spoke with accessibility advocates and marketing professionals, Meryl Evans and Alexa Heinrich. We talked about ways brands can be more inclusive with their content, fixing the lack of education, and how they’d like to see the landscape change when it comes to accessibility within social media.
Rachel Karten: Can you each tell me a bit about your background within marketing?
Meryl Evans: I've been a full-time freelance digital marketer since 2005. Before then, I started doing writing on the side while still working for a corporation. I met Hank Stroll, an online publisher who taught me a lot about email and content marketing before it had a fancy name. Even in my first job after college to 2005, I always did something marketing-related somewhere in my work. I've worked mainly in B2B marketing doing writing, editing, strategizing, email marketing, social media marketing, and content marketing. And now I'm doing accessibility marketing.
Alexa Heinrich: I’m currently the Social Media Manager at St. Petersburg College (SPC) in Florida and manage the college’s numerous social media accounts. Before SPC, I worked in Chicago at City Colleges of Chicago (CCC) for six years and had various marketing roles that ranged from social media, advertising, and graphic design to video production and event planning. When I’m not working at SPC, I run the Social Media Tea account where digital marketers submit anonymous confessions about what it’s like working in social media. And if I’m not doing all of that, I’m giving educational presentations on accessibility for social media. My friends like to jokingly ask if I ever sleep.
RK: Can you talk about your accessibility advocacy work specifically within marketing and how you started it?
ME: It all started with an invitation to speak at AccessU in 2019, a premier digital accessibility conference. I felt like I found my place ... my why. But wasn't sure how I was going to go about it. I kept writing ... I got more speaking opportunities and it blew up from there. Now I work with two widely-respected accessibility companies and get so many invitations to speak that I have to be selective because I still have a job and need to rest to be better for everyone. We're not good for anyone if we don't take care of ourselves.
AH: My advocacy journey actually started as a complete accident. While I was working in Chicago a few years ago, one of my job responsibilities was managing the web sliders on our homepage. One day, the digital strategist on my team asked me if I was adding alt text to the sliders, and I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about. After that, I started doing more research into what accessibility meant for digital platforms, specifically social media.
Because I was working for an academic institution, I hated the idea of my content being an obstacle to someone getting a college education and made it my mission to make the online world a more accessible place for everyone. From there I just felt obligated to help other marketers understand the importance of making accessible social media content and never shut up about it.
RK: There is a large population who has a vision disability or blindness or who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. What are ways brands (and honestly just people on social media, in general) could be more inclusive with their content?
ME: That's just it. Creating accessible content for websites and social media is so easy. The hard part is on the back-end of websites and apps, but that's not marketing's problem. In social media, it's a matter of captioning videos, adding alternative text to images (some call it image description), using emojis and hashtags more efficiently, copying/pasting the captions (script) into the post for those who use screen readers and Braille readers. It's also about making smart color choices and linking the right words, not "click here" or "here" or "read more." Imagine using a screen reader and hearing "read more" five times. How do you know which one you want?
Accessibility is everyone's responsibility including marketing and sales. Marketing is the one that tends to post content that customers see. Sales produces documents that are often not accessible. There's no such thing as an accessible document. A document isn't complete unless it's accessible. "Accessibility is not a 'feature'."
AH: I could give you a whole list, honestly. A lot of social media users don’t really think about how individuals with disabilities engage with digital content, which is a shame because there are so many easy things that everyone could be doing to make their social media accessible.
Most people know that they should caption their videos, but it’s also important to add alt text to images so that screen reader users can access them. You need to put hashtags in #CamelCase and make sure that you’re placing emojis at the end of posts so their meta descriptions don’t cause clarity issues. It’s also important that content creators avoid completely inaccessible practices like using alternative characters and ASCII art.
Again, I could easily go on for hours about all the ways you can create accessible content, but the most important thing that anyone online can do is think outside of their own lived experiences when they create social media content. We don’t all experience or navigate social media the same way, and our content should reflect that whether we’re an everyday user or a major brand.
RK: Why do you think the majority of brands on social media haven't been super inclusive with their content up until this point? Is it an education problem or an unwillingness to change problem?
ME: I believe it's an education and lack of awareness problem. Companies need to conduct accessibility and empathy training for all employees. Colleges need to incorporate accessibility into their curriculum. K-12 too. In some cases, it's an unwillingness to change as change management is hard. Instead of trying to go from 0 to 60 mph ... let's take it one step at a time at 10 mph. Start small and build from there. Think progress not perfection.
When we bake accessibility into all of our processes, we're designing for our future selves. We're all going to become disabled or impaired. It's a matter of when. When you get sick, you become temporarily impaired. It can cause cognitive impairment and affect how you comprehend content. A bad night's sleep or being stressed will also affect your cognitive function. Injuries can affect our ability to engage with content. When I had thumb surgery, I couldn't use a keyboard or mouse. I could only type with one hand. So, I tried speech-to-text software and that was a disaster. The only good to come from that was a couple of hilarious blog posts.
AH: I would definitely say it’s an industry problem and an education problem. Social media is still considered the baby of the marketing world, and it’s still evolving, too. It was only in 2018 that Instagram introduced alt text to the app. Twitter just updated the platform a few months ago so you can upload an SRT captions file with a video directly from the tweet composer window instead of having to do it through Media Studio.
Even with these updates, the platforms themselves don’t do nearly enough to promote how people, or the brands they partner with, can effectively use their accessibility features to create inclusive content. Twitter has started being more transparent about its plans surrounding accessibility, but the push needs to come from every corner of the industry.
Educational marketing curriculum is still playing catch-up, too. Accessibility has always been more of a priority for web developers than digital marketers, so it’s unlikely that accessibility for digital content like social media is a standard syllabus topic in most colleges and universities. I’ve spoken to several college marketing classes in the past year about accessible best practices for social media, and oftentimes the professors learn just as much as their students from my presentation and openly admit that. If we’re going to seamlessly make accessibility part of the content creation process in the industry, then we need to start with formal education. New marketers should enter the industry armed with at least the basics and then be able to mentor their younger peers later in their careers.
In the next few years, how would you like to see the landscape change when it comes to accessibility within social media?
ME: Thanks to the crisis, companies have had to adapt to how they do business and that meant doing more of it online. It was a wake-up call they needed. They discovered people couldn't access their content. Because of this, Forrester research has found that more than 80% of companies are making digital accessibility a priority. It won't be easy as succeeding means changing the company's mindset and it begins at the top. It's going to take time to reach marketing and social media influencers as people tend to think digital accessibility is the web development department's responsibility.
That's why I spoke at Content Marketing World. The point of that was to reach marketing leaders and I'm continuing to do whatever I can to reach more marketing and non-tech leaders. We're seeing some progress, but we have a long way to go. Of course, I'd like to see more alternative text on images, captions and transcripts for videos, effective color choices, and proper treatment of emojis and hashtags. But it's going to take a village to educate people and leaders to view accessibility as a must-have, not an optional feature.
AH: First and foremost, I want the platforms to push accessible best practices and features more. I want them to be transparent about how they can be used by everyone, but especially brands and elected officials. I would also love if learning about accessibility within digital marketing was more of a standard at major conferences. Every marketing event that features speakers should always have a session not only on accessibility, but multiple areas of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. This needs to stop being such a novel topic for our industry.
Most importantly, I just want more people to care about creating accessible content and stop acting like it’s one more thing or the death of creativity. I saw this great tweet a few months ago that said, “Accessibility isn’t more work, you were just cutting corners before. The work was incomplete.” That’s how we should all feel about it. We should care if people are being excluded from the conversation or can’t access vital information online. Making your social media content accessible isn’t one more step in the content creation process, it’s a missing step.