The Email Marketer’s Guide on How to Write Alt Text

Melanie Balke
June 20, 2023

I’ve discussed accessibility, but there’s never a bad time to learn more about email optimization!

Whether you’re writing a promotional email campaign or designing an entire web page, the ability to write good alt text is important. One might even say it’s an essential skill to have!  A good description helps Google rank your web page, while bad alt text creates usability and accessibility problems for everyone.

Now, most articles about this topic will focus on the SEO aspect.

Yes, it’s true that keywords and image alt text boost your prestige. But they also have a place in your emails! As such, today’s blog post is more general than others. I won’t be diving into the nitty-gritty technical details unless absolutely necessary.

Instead, I’ll be focusing on adding alt text to any image and how you can improve your skills!

What Is Alt Text?

An abstract aurora borealis pattern. "The Basics: What Is Image Alt Text?"

As usual, let’s start from the top.

Alt text is also known as “alt-text” or “alternative text,” but its function is always the same. No matter how you slice it or say it, this part of a web page (or, in this case, an email!) increases its overall accessibility.

Obviously, it gives visually impaired users the opportunity to experience your content as intended. However, it also allows users with spotty internet connectivity to interact with your messages.

Alt Text and Screen Readers

Flowing patterns. "Accessibility: Image descriptions help users access and understand your content."

Whenever people think of alt text, they tend to think about screen reader users.

Accessibility is a huge issue, and even the smallest modifications can make an ordinary email an extraordinary experience for everyone. After all, a screen reader user won’t enjoy messages with an empty alt attribute. At best, the software glosses over your content. Alternatively, you get the worst possible result, and the software tries to read aloud your file name!

Alt Text as a Fallback

Overlapping leaves. "Technology: Descriptive text ensures your content is accessible to everyone."

Secondly, descriptive alt text is important for users with poor internet connectivity.


Well, when a web page fails to load its contents, it automatically searches for a fallback. For every image, it tries its best to find some way to describe the content, and alt text is the most common substitute. Generally, you’ll see an image-sized spot occupied by the provided alternative text. You may also see a broken image icon with overlaid text.

While neither of these results is optimal, per se, they’re preferable to blank, description-less spaces! At the very least, they give visual users a sense of what is supposed to exist on a page and a general overview of the image’s content.

Alt Text and Search Engines

Paint spattered to look like stars. "Discovery: Search engines take your alternative text into account."

This final point isn’t really relevant for email marketing, but it’s still worth saying.

Well-written descriptive text can improve your search engine optimization (SEO) and increase your brand’s reach. Web crawlers will look at your image descriptions, and that text is one of the many factors that impact the effectiveness of your SEO strategy.

This does not mean that you should engage in keyword stuffing. Your images are not SEO tools; they’re ways to enhance your content and convey a message. The few extra visits you may get from cramming keywords into your alt text aren’t worth the discomfort you create for users with visual impairments. Moreover, keyword stuffing can actually lower your overall discoverability. Search engines can easily detect inappropriate image descriptions, and that can dramatically lower your standing with them.

Basic Rules to Know

Abstract shapes. "The Rules: 4 Important Things to Know."

Now that we’ve established why alt text is important, let’s dive into the “how.”

Think about your average email message.

You’ll have your headers, body, and essential links — the meat and potatoes of your marketing campaigns. And, in all likelihood, your images are secondary to this content. They may support the surrounding text, but they shouldn’t be replacing it.

With this in mind, let’s start the lesson with some basic rules.

1. Cut the Fluff

Dark patterns in light sand. "Brevity: Keep image descriptions short."

One of the most common mistakes when writing alt text is including something like “an image of” or “a photo of.” Both of these phrases can be eliminated from your alt text vocabulary as extraneous information.

Most popular screen readers make clear distinctions between text and images.

Similarly, you don’t need to describe everything. In other words, decorative images don’t need alt text. Per established web accessibility guidelines, visual flourishes — such as custom horizontal dividers, section breaks, and similarly stylized embellishments — can have an empty alt attribute.

2. Don’t Rely on Images to Convey Important Information

A worn-out speed limit sign.

Another common faux pas is making the image the center of attention.

Yes! Your images matter. They give your content a massive boost and add flair to otherwise dull material. But that doesn’t mean you should stuff the most important website content into your JPEGs. Don’t rely on images to convey your key points, and remember to always include an appropriate description of the image’s content.

This is particularly important for complex images (i.e., charts, graphs, and infographics). In these situations, you want to describe the image content and any relevant information. You’ll also need to consider how the content can be presented in a text-only format.

When using complex images, include contextual clues in the body text. Consider the character limit, and include essential information in the plain text of your content. For example, the results of a test — as displayed in a graphic — should be explained (or at least alluded to) in the main body of a page. This allows users to understand an image without needing to load the entire web page. Moreover, it reduces the overall length of your image alt text.

And that brings us to our next point…

3. Think About the Context

Blurred vertical lines with spatters of paint. "Context: Think about what your audience already knows."

What is the context of your image?

As we’ve established, a purely decorative image can be ignored. But you can also reduce the amount of work on your end by thinking about how an image is presented in a message’s text.

Let’s start with an example. Let’s say you have an email message about an upcoming basketball game. In addition to your header, which clearly mentions the game, you’ve included a textual outline of the event details. At the end of the email, you’ve included a properly formatted button (ideally built on HTML code) that leads users to where they can purchase a ticket. Finally, in the middle of this, you’ve used your content management system to add a photo of the basketball team.

The email described above. "The Big Game Is Coming Soon. The game starts on Monday, April 13, at 3:00 PM. Don't miss out! Get Tickets."

Obviously, you have many options for writing your alt descriptions. Your go-to pick may be something like, “The Falcons, our school’s basketball team, on the court.” Or you might say, “The Falcons basketball team on their home court.” There’s nothing wrong with those image descriptions, but they’re repetitive.

You can easily pare down these descriptions. After all, this is an email; there’s no need to stuff keywords into your content. Since the audience is already anticipating a basketball-themed message, let’s eliminate that bit of information. Furthermore, we can safely remove mentions of “our” team; our subscribers already know who they’re rooting for!

With this in mind, and considering the context, a shorter — yet still completely acceptable — image alt text might say, “The team, excited to see you on Monday!” If you’re not thrilled with the emotional angle, a more neutral option may sound something like, “The team prepares for Monday’s match.”

That was a lot of information, but we can boil it down to a few simple rules, namely:

  • Avoid repeating established information
  • Consider the context when writing an image’s description
  • Describe the image according to the audience’s established understanding of the content
  • Think about how screen readers will read your content

4. Tell Users What Functional Images Do

Cubes and spheres. "Function: Tell users what functional icons do."

We’ve already blown past a thousand words of explanation (amazing, right?), but there’s still a little more to learn!

Our last rule concerns how visually impaired users interact with content. More precisely, I’m talking about functional images, otherwise known as “icons.” If you minimize this window, you’ll see at least one or two icons on your desktop (probably for your web browser and email software).

While you want to describe the content for most images, icons are a bit different. Instead of describing the image, you’ll want to tell users where the image leads. For example, a “read more” icon can be described as “Expand for more detail.” A Facebook icon will often be described as “View the Facebook page.”

Let Us Handle Your Writing

Overlapping leaves. "Let Us Help! Hire a Team of Experts."

That’s a lot to consider, right?

How can anyone — let alone a small business owner — possibly juggle all of that while creating unique content for subscribers? It’s a seemingly monumental task, but there’s an easy solution.

Call me! We’ll chat about your marketing plan. I’ll also show you how a team of experts can help you reclaim your time and focus on the behind-the-scenes magic of your business.

My team can handle your needs, and we know how to write alt text. More importantly, we know how to make amazing email campaigns! Don’t believe me? Check out my blog to see how much my team knows! You’ll also find plenty of amazing tips and tricks to amplify your own marketing.