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Accessible e-Marketing

Be inclusive and talk to ALL your customers

The UK market comprises approximately 8.5 million disabled people (Source: ONS) - that's almost 15% of the population. They spend between £40 and £50 Billion each year (Source: Employers Forum on Disability) – that figure could bankroll a country! Can your business afford to ignore that number of potential customers?

The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) came fully into force in December 2004, and legislates against the discrimination of the disabled in all aspects of life. Whilst most of the Act focuses on physical access to buildings, etc, modern technology, including websites, is also covered.

In the USA, Section 508 provides a similar regulation, but it only applies to organisations that are federally funded. It is doubtful if the States will force the private sector to comply, but market pressure drives similar effects in their marketplace. Other countries have similar legislation to the UK.

The Web Accessibility Initiative has identified 3 levels of accessibility. These are classified as 'A', 'AA' and 'AAA'. The DDA requires websites to be at least 'A' compliant.

What's involved in making your website "accessible"?

Websites can be a difficult medium to navigate, by anyone, if badly designed and maintained. The main group of disabled users normally excluded from the web are the blind. The RNIB estimate that around 2 million people in Britain have sight problems, but many of these can and do use the Internet. They use Screen Reading software, which reads the code behind the page, and delivers it to Braille pads or voice-software. In well-designed sites, this provides as good an interface as a normally sighted person would have.

But badly coded sites are not the only problem. Bad design also includes misuse of colour, inaccessible animation and strobing, and even the use of capitalised text that causes dyslexic visitors to have problems, alienating up to 10% of the population.

Don't forget the full range of e-Marketing tools. Html e-mail shots are often overlooked in the evaluation of accessibility and usability, but still need to comply with the DDA. Often the calls to action can be hidden by inaccessible design, leading to reduced campaign success rates.

How much does this cost?

The provision of accessible e-marketing is now a legal and corporate responsibility for all business owners, but compliance should not cost you any more in your web development budget. Any web developer should now be programming in a way to comply with the law, and many of the techniques used to comply are classed as good practice.

And the benefits?

The benefits of accessible e-marketing should be self-evident. By having an accessible website, you will not exclude any potential visitors, and therefore customers. In doing this, you have the opportunity to appeal to the 15% of 'disabled' surfers, and a share of the £40-50 billion they spend. It could also provide you with a competitive advantage.

Prove It!

There is a move to audit websites for their accessibility, with a number of organisations vying to provide an audit service. But, as with all audits, they are only accurate at the time that the audit takes place, and any new code added to a site may void the rating.

The RNIB has developed an assessment called 'See It Right' that provides an audit for corporate websites. They also provide training and consultancy in the field, which to my eyes looks like a conflict of interest for auditors. They were, however, one of the first organisations to offer such an audit.

Another consultancy company is Segala, who introduced their M-Test recently. They have been most notable in auditing the mobile phone company, O2. Again, I feel that there may be a conflict of interests in their business model as an auditor and consultancy. They do, however, have a good track record as a consultancy in accessible development.

The EIQA, a quality assurance organisation, has launched a truly international quality standard called the W-Mark. Being a quality assurance organisation, they are well positioned to audit corporate procedures and code, and do not have a conflict of interest in that they do not provide any consultancy in addition to their audit. The W-Mark also assesses a company's online privacy and security policies and practices, thus covering Data Protection Act (DPA) requirements too, one of the other 200 tests they claim to carry out. Unfortunately, I feel that they have overstretched themselves with this, and therefore provide customers with a superficial ser vice. This is supported by their failure to penetrate the UK market.

A variety of other companies also provide audits, using the WAI checklist as their measurement criteria.

I recently evaluated all the FTSE-100 company website homepages, and found that, whilst many do not mention compliance, 43% do not appear to be compliant, while six appear to have achieved 'AA' ratings. Only one FTSE-100 company actually displays their audit credentials! This is a missed marketing opportunity in this age of "accessibility" for all.

Summary

Accessible e-marketing is good as it ensures that all your customers can interact with you on- and offline. Make sure that any call to action you make can be acted upon by every visitor.

Compliance should not cost any extra, but make sure to ask for assurance of DDA compliance through your web brief to your developer.

Finally, you ought to think about proving your compliance, demonstrating to all your visitors that you do not discriminate. All of this should, hopefully ensure that you get a share of the disabled market.

If you want to evaluate your accessibility, I would suggest that you use the free tools and the WAI checklists yourself. Then go to the specialist consultancies to get help in evaluating the results and correcting the issues. The 'accreditation' companies are not currently providing value for money.

Interesting links

Links listed in alphabetical order.

About the author

Thom Poole is a Chartered Marketer with the Chartered Institute of Marketing, and a member of the Marketing Society. A marketer with over 18 years experience in online marketing and web strategy, Thom is strategic marketing consultant for Jack Marketing Solutions, working with SMEs. He is just about to launch Howto-Websites.com to teach people web design from beginners to professionals. A regular speaker on the CRM and e-marketing event circuit, Thom has also recently written a book on ethical e-marketing, called 'Play It By Trust.' The book is available at the publishers as a hardback or download.

Article first published: Daily Telegraph Business Club, February 2006

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