Why Marketers Should Build Accessible Websites

Episode 79

April 14, 2020

Why do marketers avoid website accessibility considerations? In this episode of The Kula Ring, Jeff W. White talks about where marketers fall short when building websites and web content for all users, and how accessibility features and conversion goals can work together to build a good user experience.

Why Marketers Should Build Accessible Websites Transcript:

Announcer: You’re listening to The Kula Ring, a podcast made for manufacturing marketers. Here are Carman Pirie and Jeff White. 

Jeff White: Welcome The Kula Ring, a podcast for manufacturing marketers, brought to you by Kula Partners. My name is Jeff White, and joining me today is Carman Pirie for another of our exclusive COVID-19 sequestered podcast episodes. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah, I think they’re exclusive because we just can’t get anybody else to air them. 

Jeff White: Well, they might air them, but they’re not gonna share them quite-

Carman Pirie: It sounds nice when you say air. It’s like we’re back in 1982 or something. 

Jeff White: Man, if 1982 me knew what 2020 me would be doing. I was nine. Yeah. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. 

Jeff White: Wasn’t thinking about that. 

Carman Pirie: Ronald Ray Guns in the White House. 

Jeff White: Yeah. When was the Cuban Missile Crisis? 

Carman Pirie: Oh man, don’t… It was before that, but don’t. Let’s not do this. Let’s not test my history. For today’s show, I think we wanted to pick up where last week left off. I had been asking you a bunch of questions to assist marketers in evaluating a website and thinking about their web presence at a deeper level, and I know that we touched on accessibility during last week’s show, but we didn’t really, as the kids say, unpack that as well as we could have, I would think. 

Jeff White: I’d say that’s right. I don’t know that the kids say unpacked. I haven’t heard my teenage kids saying that.

Carman Pirie: They probably don’t, you know. Yeah, they don’t say it at all, do they? Oh, man. All right. Well-

Jeff White: More generation-

Carman Pirie: Old white guys say it if this is any example, but let’s see, so let’s talk about it further. Because look, I’ve heard you complain enough about how marketers approach accessibility, so let’s just get some of that complaint out in the open. What are the biggest problems that you see and or things that people just aren’t doing that they should be doing? 

Jeff White: Sure, so I think last week we talked a bit about the issues with contrast on websites, and how there are guidelines to be used to ensure that any text that is on the site is fully legible to those with no vision or low vision. And I mean, you know as well as I do, you’ve worked with a lot of designers, we love subtlety. Foreground-background relationships, like light grey on white, it just looks great to a designer’s eye, but it’s not legible. It doesn’t have enough contrast. And the website content accessibility guidelines, or WCAG, outlines exactly what those specifications should be around the amount of contrast, and how much the foreground text should contrast with the background, and there’s different levels of this, too. I mean, you’ve got AA, which is kind of the current, de facto standard, I’d say, and then AAA adds an even greater requirement for contrast, so small text needs to have an even larger degree of contrast. There’s additional guidelines within AAA around accessibility for those with cognitive disabilities, as well, that needs to be kept in mind. 

One of the easiest things for a marketer to check would be to install a contrast checker in their browser and have a look at their website, and just see how it actually manages that. 

Carman Pirie: So, is that available for free? Like what would be a free contrast checker? 

Jeff White: Yeah, so there’s a number of different ones out there. If you just Google WCAG color contrast checker, you’ll find a number of different options. There’s plugins for Chrome, and Firefox, and Safari, and all the other browsers, so you can just readily click on that and it’ll tell you exactly how much contrast there is in the different sizes of text, and it looks at that and also can show you if there are issues for people with color blindness, as well, because that’s something that you don’t necessarily think about. A combination that can be good for low-vision people may also have issues if color is the only thing that’s actually being used to distinguish between and create hierarchies of information. 

So, yeah, you want to consider size, weight, color, and all of those different things when you’re looking at contrast. 

Carman Pirie: And before we move too far away from it, you’ve mentioned AAA versus AA standards in website content accessibility guidelines. Would the AAA come into play for more like government online service design and things of that sort, whereas corporately, more of the AA is the selected standard? Or am I missing something? 

Jeff White: I don’t know that you can necessarily suggest that one is for one group and the other is for a different group. I think it’s more that as more and more organizations adopt technology to ensure that their sites become accessible, and that they actually implement these things, each successive tier of accessibility guidelines is meant to address additional things that weren’t able to be addressed. Because they don’t want to carve off too much, so that people just simply cannot actually implement these things. So, really what we’re talking about is AA came out a few years ago, AAA is more recent, and it’s gonna continue to get more and more stringent as we address different concerns and needs of the disabled population. 

Carman Pirie: Very cool. Very cool. That’s incredibly helpful. So, beyond contrast when it comes to accessibility, what are some of the other mistakes marketers make? 

Jeff White: Well, I think one of the biggest ones is that we don’t necessarily consider that we need to provide alternative content for rich media. And what I mean by that is anybody who’s ever put content into a website before, added an image to a webpage in something like WordPress or whatever, you’ve seen a box for the alt tag, and what alt stands for in this case is alternative content, so that those who can’t see the image, people who can’t see the photograph, diagram, whatever it is, should be able to read a description that explains to them what that image is and what value it’s adding to the content on the page. 

And what’s really wild about this is that a lot of social media tools also have the ability to add alt tags. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn all have the ability to add this alternative text for any image or video that’s uploaded to the site. The same is true with your own website, and I think this is probably one of the places where accessibility often falls down. Because when your agency helps you launch your new site, all of the content is in there, it’s all been tested, and checked, and perhaps all of those alt tags have been put in place, but going down the line, as more and more time goes by, and new content editors might get trained at your organization, you’re not necessarily paying as much attention to the alt tags, and that’s where a lot of the accessibility starts to fall off, is when people have to maintain their own site. They don’t necessarily know what that tag is for and aren’t necessarily paying attention to it. 

But it really is, providing alternative measures for rich media is really one of the biggest things, and that goes into captions in videos, so that people who can’t hear can follow along and read. Transcriptions for audio files and podcasts, for example, are a measure of alternative content, and anything that you can do there to actually make that content more accessible to people is a huge part of that, and you’ll often see that. In fact, you sent me a tweet over the weekend of an accessibility nightmare, and I think it’s a really interesting story, so why don’t you share that? 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. Well, I think it’s interesting, because we’re really talking about accessible communications, not just about accessible websites when we bring up this example. And I think it’s… There would be a lot of marketers out there that have been putting out communications around their firm’s COVID-19 response, and in this case, so this example was actually a reporter for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, up here in the Great White North, so it’s a state-owned broadcaster who is reporting locally, here in the city of Halifax, that there had been a pizza establishment where there was a COVID concern, so the local health department was putting out an alert that anybody that had been to this particular pizza establishment to get takeout or what have you over X number of days should monitor their condition and potentially get tested for COVID. 

So, all that to say the reporter tweeted this information, but the information, the meat of it, was contained in two images in the tweet that you had to read. And I noticed, I mean I think the tweet was maybe five minutes old when I noticed somebody had replied to them saying, “I’m blind, and I don’t know which restaurant is being mentioned in this warning. Can you tell me?” So, I responded and let them know, but it was just… It just brought it home to me when we talk about accessibility, it’s not just about WCAG standards, it’s about somebody actually in their community potentially not knowing which restaurant to… Basically not knowing which public health advice to follow, because they’re not getting… that information isn’t accessible to them. 

And to your point, Jeff, I guess an alt tag would have just taken care of that. 

Jeff White: Absolutely, and I think it’s something as we try and share more information via social platforms and a lot of people extend their ability because of course you have character limits on Twitter, and things like that, so they try and extend the usefulness, shall we say, of the content that they’re sharing, by taking screenshots of larger bodies of text and sharing that instead, but really what they’re doing by not making that content native to the platform, they’re actually making it inaccessible to those with disabilities, because they’re also not then taking the opportunity to add the alternative text for that image. 

Carman Pirie: And we’ve seen this more than in just images, and more than in just social media. We’ve also… I guess in some ways, the battle against the PDF has been part of this, as well. Hasn’t it? 

Jeff White: Absolutely. And I mean, you will recall we had an initiative a number of years ago, I even presented a paper on it at HubSpot’s Inbound conference, that we killed, “Kill the PDF,” and PDFs are an absolute nightmare for accessibility. They’re very difficult to add the appropriate structure and information. Screen readers have a really hard time with them. Even normal, everyday people trying to navigate a PDF on a mobile device, you can picture somebody trying to zoom in to read the body copy in a PDF brochure or something like that. They’re not great for anything accessible, or for any content that you actually want people to be able to consume, I guess. 

So, we’ve certainly been railing against them as the sole way of providing eBooks, and instead have been working with our clients, and for ourselves, as well, and converting all of that content into accessible web pages, instead. Providing a PDF download as an option, but not making that the primary vehicle for that content. 

Carman Pirie: It was a funny experience, I must say, because in coming up with Kill the PDF, I don’t mind telling listeners that as a marketer, we thought we were pretty clever. And the first and most often complaint we got was, “Yeah, but I still want a PDF, though.” So, we’ve had to make the accessible web page have a PDF download option, as well. Just to serve both masters. But I think it’s actually worked out quite well, and it makes that content much more accessible to, like you said, disabled visitors or what have you. 

Jeff White: Oh, quite right, and I mean in this case, we’re actually adding functionality back for folks who don’t necessarily have disabilities, so that they can access content in the format that they prefer. That’s how I would say we’re doing it. 

Carman Pirie: And they’re a standard tool in a marketer’s toolkit these days, eBooks, PDF downloads, and my bet is most people just don’t think about it. Of course, that’s how an eBook format will be done. 

Jeff White: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. And I mean, there are certainly benefits to the PDF format from a printing perspective and all of that, but really, at the end of the day, the web has come a long way, and the reasons that we used to use PDFs, because they provided more capability from a layout perspective, and the ability to brand it exactly how we want it, those were a lot of the excuses we as designers used for why we needed PDFs instead of integrating content into a web page. Those have largely evaporated at this point. 

Carman Pirie: It’s probably the same argument you all made to support Flash for a long time. 

Jeff White: Oh, man. Yeah. No, and as someone who not only used Flash, but also taught other designers how to use it, it’s a dark period in my history. I’d rather not talk about it. 

Carman Pirie: We’ll scrub past that. 

Jeff White: Yeah. Well, I will say this. Back in 1999, I had the Macromedia Shockwave site of the day with Yahoo, and with Macromedia, so we were big in the Flash thing, but we moved past it. 

Carman Pirie: So, for all of you listeners out there that are under 35, I’m not even gonna try to explain what Macromedia, Flash, or Yahoo is. So-

Announcer: Are your digital marketing efforts bringing in too many junk leads? Stop wasting time and distracting your sales team. Account-based marketing can help give your marketing strategy the laser focus on qualified buyers that you need to increase your pipeline velocity, close more deals, and grow your business faster. We’ve created a sample manufacturing ABM plan to help you get started. Download the sample manufacturing ABM plan at bit.ly/sampleABM. That’s B-I-T.ly/sampleABM

Carman Pirie: Beyond accessibility, and the accessible communications as we were talking about, and kind of alternative content for rich media, are there other mistakes we ought to be aware of, or things we ought to be keeping in mind as marketers? 

Jeff White: For sure, when it moves past just being accessible, and ensuring that our sites are available for all users, whether they have normal vision, or low vision, or hearing disability, or any of those things, there are things that we often do as marketers that render our sites to be a bit more hostile toward the user, and more about our needs as marketers rather than the needs of the people who are arriving at our site. And I think we’re all somewhat guilty of that. Some of the worst offenders are the email newsletter popup that generates the second you load a page, just as you’re trying to read that content. That is a user-hostile thing to do. 

And I think in a lot of ways, marketers do this because, “Well, you know, when I added that in, I got a 0.1% lift in our conversion and number of people accessing the newsletter.” And that may be sometimes, although I would say that my experience hasn’t necessarily been that these actually convert better than more appropriately placed CTAs, but I think that this idea that we need to provide as many ways into our funnel, as it were, using conversion popups, and ad popups, and all of those things, they’re not really thinking about how that’s going to be perceived by the user who’s just looking to get some content, just looking to get some information, and looking to get a job done. 

How many people are going to bounce from the site as a result of something like that? They may not go right away, but it probably doesn’t put a great taste in their mouth. 

Carman Pirie: Look, I can’t disagree with you. I mean, I think just as a user you get frustrated by this, but at the same time, isn’t the fact that it’s so ubiquitous now make it a less severe offense? 

Jeff White: I don’t know. I mean, I’ve been around the web a long time, so I tend to be a little bit more of a purist about these kinds of things, but the one thing I would say is that there are ways to do this that are unobtrusive, that are still going to garner enough attention that you should be able to kind of draw somebody to that if they find that interesting. Maybe don’t have the popup load as soon as the page has completely drawn. Instead, wait until they scroll halfway down the page of the content, and then slide it into the margin. This is especially problematic on mobile devices, where a popup will come up for either a newsletter signup, or to get the app version of that site, or whatever that happens to be, and it completely impedes your ability to do the job you were trying to do. 

So, I think if we can do this in a way that is going to draw some attention to the action that we would like people to perform, while still allowing them to browse, and navigate, and read, and consume the site without being completely blocked, then I think it’s an acceptable thing to do. When we start to completely cover the whole page with it, or have multiple popups going on at different times, then I think you’re really kind of contributing to an overall user-hostile behavior. 

Carman Pirie: And I mean, it seems like to me, too, when people do that, what they’re trying to do is they’re trying to apply a layer of conversion focus, potentially on an online asset that doesn’t have any. And I think part of what you’re saying is if you actually built that online asset, if you built that website with a view to it being conversion focused from the start, and considered that in your information design, then you wouldn’t have to resort to these ham fisted, clunky popups. 

Jeff White: I think you’ve, again, captured my words and turned them into something much more palatable and understandable. Yeah. 

Carman Pirie: Well, we can just cut that piece out. They’re often lipstick on a pig, like you’ll hear, “Okay, our site isn’t converting the way we want. Let’s put this on it.” Like that’s how these things often come about. 

Jeff White: Yeah. No, I’d agree with you there, and I think that idea of empathy for the user, I mean, it’s very obvious when you’re talking about website accessibility. We’re trying to be empathetic towards users of all abilities, and with all different types of assistive technology and so on, that the same rings true when we’re talking about trying to ensure that people can enjoy and understand the content of the site without being impeded by popups. 

The other place where this comes to life, and we see this a lot, especially as a company that works with a number of Canadian manufacturers, is the multilingual requirement of a lot of sites. It’s something that is usually not overlooked, necessarily, but, “Well, do we really need to provide the whole site in French? Or Spanish? Or whatever that second language happens to be?” You know, our position has always been that if you’re going to create content in one language, and you have the requirement for another language, you should provide complete parity for that content in all the languages that are important to you, that your buyer personas and your ideal customer profiles are going to require. Wouldn’t you say? 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. For me, it’s just like if the money’s good enough to go into your bank account, then your marketing should be good enough to go in the native language. 

Jeff White: Yeah. 

Carman Pirie: Of that customer. And I know, I know it’s heavy lifting. I know it’s a lot of work. I understand that, and I also understand the arguments that people say, “Oh, well, the English is the language of business in our industry, though.” And everybody says that, of course, is English. 

Jeff White: I have never, ever heard a French customer, client of ours say, “You know, English is the language of business, therefore we’re not going to do the French to the same extent.” 

Carman Pirie: Yeah, exactly, or yeah, Cantonese. No. They’re never going to say that. Of course, those users would prefer an experience in their language, and I guess as you say, it’s a demonstration of empathy, but it’s… Yeah, it’s just I don’t know, to me it’s almost just even more fundamental than that. 

Jeff White: Yeah. Yeah. 

Carman Pirie: It’s like if you’re gonna feel good about cashing their check, you maybe ought to feel better about the marketing you’re creating for them. 

Jeff White: And maybe there’ll be more checks to cash if you actually produce the content in the native language. 

Carman Pirie: Well, and I have to believe that’s true. Of course, it’s pretty hard to do this in a split test, isn’t it? It’s one of those things you have to believe a bit on faith. 

Jeff White: Yeah. Yeah, that’s quite right. Yeah. I really don’t have anything else to add to that. 

Carman Pirie: Well, yeah, because every… If you try to test it in any way, shape, or form, there would always be a bunch of other considerations impacted in that test, like it’s not at all scientific. It’d be very hard to execute as a pure A-B as an example, and things like that. 

Jeff White: For sure, but I do think, and I think we can begin to wrap this up. There’s been a lot of tips over the last two episodes about this. The last one that I wanted to cover is this idea of, and this is more something of thinking about how your internal organization wants access to content on the website, and of course I’m talking about the ubiquitous homepage carousel. And this is something that you can test, actually, unlike multilingual sites.

We’ve seen through our own testing, we’ve seen a number of studies about this, and really, it just all points to the fact that homepage carousels do absolutely nothing to allow people to see different panes of a piece of content on the homepage. Really, the only thing anyone ever interacts with is the very first thing they see, wouldn’t you say? 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. All the data points to that. Yeah, in the history of the deployment of carousels, there’s never been one time when the user was actually served by it. It’s always the organization trying to fool themselves. 

Jeff White: Yeah.

Carman Pirie: Trying to give equal priority to this department, as well as that department. This product versus that product. And often it’s a game of internal politics, and either that or it’s just a lazy way of homepage design, to say, “Well, rather than try to communicate all that we want to communicate on this page, let’s have this scrolling carousel that’ll do it for us, rather than us have to think much harder about it.” 

Jeff White: Yeah. 

Carman Pirie: If you look at the stats of that, like you say, always, 75, 80% of the eyeballs are only on the first pane of the carousel. 

Jeff White: Yep. 100%. And the other problem with them, too, is that often they’re not just difficult to use, they’re very problematic for users with disabilities, because they don’t, they’re usually implemented with something like JavaScript, so a lot of that content ends up getting hidden, and is in fact inaccessible, including the very first frame of the carousel, and as a result, they’re really just a bad idea all around. 

Carman Pirie: And even worse, how many times have you seen them, and people just have an image in there, right? So, all the copy is just embedded in an image, and there’s not even an H1 on the homepage, you know?

Jeff White: Yeah. No, this is something, we should have an entire episode just showcasing the futility of carousels. 

Carman Pirie: Our next episode is going to be titled Stuff Jeff and Carman Complain About All the Time. 

Jeff White: The audience will drop off rapidly. 

Carman Pirie: Indeed. Well, Jeff, look, it’s been good chatting about this again, and kind of diving further into it. Thanks so much and look forward to picking up our conversation again next week. 

Jeff White: Indeed. Thanks a lot. 

Announcer: Thanks for listening to The Kula Ring, with Carman Pirie and Jeff White. Don’t miss a single manufacturing marketing insight. Subscribe now at kulapartners.com/thekularing. That’s K-U-L-Apartners.com/thekularing

Read Full Transcript


Jeff White



Carman Pirie


The Kula Ring is a podcast for manufacturing marketers who care about evolving their strategy to gain a competitive edge.

Listen to conversations with North America’s top manufacturing marketing executives and get actionable advice for success in a rapidly transforming industry.

About Kula

Kula Partners is an agency that specializes in maximizing revenue potential for B2B manufacturers.

Our clients sell within complex, technical environments and we help them take a more targeted, account-focused approach to drive revenue growth within niche markets.


You are using an outdated browser. Things may not appear as intended. We recommend updating your browser to the latest version.