What content strategy and technology will leading brands use in 2024?

The state of digital content 2024

Industry insights

Making digital experiences accessible: Wins and work remaining

by Erica Gunn  |  October 17, 2022

4 min. read
A group of co-workers sharing data and information online.

If I asked you to name the organization that shapes our online experiences more than any other — that influences the way we consume digital content in whatever form it takes — which would you choose? Perhaps you would choose Apple, Amazon, Facebook or Google.

How about W3C? “Who?” I hear you ask.

In my opinion, W3C is one of the most important but least known organizations that influences our digital lives. It’s also the answer to the question: What did the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, do next? Berners-Lee founded W3C at MIT in 1994 with the idea of developing “protocols and guidelines that ensure the long-term growth of the Web.” The organization’s goal is to ensure that the benefits of online access are “available to all people, whatever their hardware, software, network infrastructure, native language, culture, geographical location, or physical or mental ability.”

Today, 464 organizations are members of W3C: from Apple, Amazon, Meta (a.k.a., Facebook) and Google to Sony, Huawei, the BBC and automakers like Volkswagen. Organizations are making regular and similar changes to their user interface (UI) and overall user experience (UX) of branded content today. For example, TikTok is introducing English language auto-captions. In a different category of accessibility, Twitter moved to improve alt-text image descriptions in April this year. Many companies are contributing to the vision of a web where everyone can experience, enjoy and transact online without barriers.
Co-workers combining data and elements for a more seamless experience and providing accessibility.

What do we need to fix?

But there’s a simple message for us all. We have work to do.

A 2022 audit of the homepages of the world’s top 1 million websites by the training and consultancy organization WebAIM measured against the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines found 50,829,406 distinct errors. That’s an average of about nearly 51 accessibility issues per homepage.

In my opinion, we’re simply not doing enough to make our digital real estate open to everyone. If you want to get a practical sense of what’s going wrong, take a couple of minutes out of your day to listen to screen-reader software reading your organization’s homepage. Can the screen reader read all of the content, or does it skip bits? Does it hit an internal link in the middle of the page and navigate somewhere else? Does it ignore your call-to-action buttons? And are the videos or images just read out as garbled file names?

This is frustrating, right? Now consider that vision disability is one of the 10 most common disabilities among adults in the United States — we’re talking about millions of potential clients and customers struggling to navigate your site. And the fixes are relatively simple. If the page is set up correctly — with headers, form and button labels and alt-text for images and video — it’s more likely that screen readers will read it correctly. There are then questions around design and color palette … yes, questions that every CMO loves. A subtle, low-contrast palette might look great: all shades of blue, for example. But a high color contrast between background and fonts could make it easier for some to perceive content. Relatively simple changes — and ensuring that accessibility is front of mind for any web build or design brief — can make a major difference.

And according to WebAIM, the picture varies from sector to sector. Three fields where accessibility is strong are:

  1. Law, government and politics.
  2. Social media.
  3. Science.

Three areas where accessibility is weak are:

  1. Shopping.
  2. Real estate.
  3. News, weather and information.

You can find the full ranking, industry-by-industry, based on the IAB’s classifications here.
Co-workers working seamlessly in an online workspace that is accessible for all involved parties.

Why accessibility is for everyone

Berners-Lee’s vision of a World Wide Web accessible to everyone raises one of the most intriguing aspects of our digital habits. The tools and technologies that W3C’s standards have inspired over the last 28 years have found applications far beyond what was intended. Take Netflix, for example. Heather Dowdy, Netflix’s director of accessibility, said this year that “over 40% of our members watch content with subtitles on — that’s more than just our members with disabilities.” That’s the potential for language learning, children improving literacy skills as they watch TV, and inevitably, people just making the choice to watch on silent. Even copywriters may use screen readers to read their copy aloud and proofread for mistakes. I believe clearer, cleaner, easier to read and simpler-to-navigate digital experiences are better for us all.

But ultimately, the question of accessibility is a challenge to your brand values, brand reputation and business proposition. Do you believe that your goods and services should be open to the widest possible marketplace? If the answer to the question is a resounding “yes” — as it should be — your efforts in the digital space to make that happen will likely be rewarded with greater reach. Increasing the usability of your website by making it more accessible, for example, could lead to higher search visibility in search results. There could be a positive SEO side effect of your efforts. And customer awareness that your organization takes accessibility and inclusivity seriously could correlate with increasing customer loyalty, as “57% of consumers are more loyal to brands that commit to addressing social inequities in their actions,” according to research by Deloitte. The same research shows that development of key performance metrics is a hallmark of high-growth brands. Doing the right thing makes business sense.

Originally published on Forbes.