#7: How to make your social media accessible

If you're not writing your hashtags in Camel Case, this newsletter is for you.

In case you missed it, Instagram is testing a very useful new Stories feature: caption stickers.

With the new feature, any time you have audio in an Instagram Story video, adding the caption sticker will automatically generate closed captions for the Story.

Given that 40% of Instagram users watch Stories with sound off1, this is a feature that all brands and creators should be itching to use in their IG Stories once it's rolled out. I'm one of those users who never watch Stories with sound on, and I automatically skip any Stories that show someone talking without subtitles/contextual copy added. So, if you want to improve your engagement/completion rate on your Stories, you should be adding subtitles (via the caption sticker or otherwise)!

In honour of the new feature, I thought I would use this week's newsletter* to talk about how to make your social media more accessible. It’s a practice on which I've only recently started educating myself, so I hope you find the lessons just as valuable as I have!

*A personal note: When I started this newsletter I advertised that it would be "weekly-ish", and I'm quite self-conscious that I've fallen short on that promise. However, I've recently been sidelined by some personal health issues, so it will be quiet on the newsletter front from me for the next little bit. After some time off & focusing on my health, I hope to come back stronger and with a clearer vision for School of Social 💪

1) Use Camel Case for Hashtags

Did you know that all hashtags should be written in Camel Case to be accessible? This is something I learned recently. Camel Case means you capitalize each word in a hashtag, which then allows screen readers to read each word separately rather than alltogetherinajumble.

Unfortunately, social media platforms aren't yet aware of this and often autocomplete hashtags as all lowercase. Fight the urge to use autocorrect and manually capitalize your hashtags!

Two more tips for making hashtags accessible: Avoid using them inline as much as possible. When a hashtag is randomly in the middle of a sentence or paragraph #likethis, this interrupts the flow when it's being read aloud by a screen reader. Instead, put them at the end of your caption.

Second tip: Instagram strategies aside, if you're going to attach a list of 5-30 hashtags to a post, it's better to put them in a separate comment rather than the post caption. Imagine a screenreader getting to the end of a sentence and then reading "hashtag sunset hashtag beach hashtag thailand hashtag vsco hashtag likeforlike" - it's super annoying for users.

2) Add subtitles to all videos with audio

Subtitles not only make your video content more accessible for users who need them but create a better user experience for all of your followers. In 2016 it was reported that 85% of Facebook users2 watch videos with sound off, a behaviour that I've also observed in my brand's content. Moreover, subtitles help improve average watch time, reach, and engagement. So, the verdict is pretty clear: if you're publishing a video on social media with audio, add subtitles!

You have two options for adding subtitles: closed captions and open captions. Closed captions are added natively within social platforms, which means they can be turned on/off by users and translated (platform dependent). Usually, you need to upload them as a .srt file. Closed captions are available on Facebook, IGTV, Twitter, YouTube, and LinkedIn.

Open captions are subtitles that are "hardcoded in" by the video editor. These are best used on platforms where closed captions aren't available, like TikTok and IG Reels, or if you have a strong brand design language that you want to apply to the subtitles. Luckily the new IG Stories caption sticker will automatically add closed captions!

Accessibility-wise, closed captions are preferred over open captions.

3) Don't use fancy font generators

I'm definitely guilty of this one: using a "bold text generator" to create "bolded text" to paste into a long-form Instagram caption to give it better formatting. I see brands do this a lot, and also normal users who want to jazz up their names or social media bios with fancy fonts (reminds me of the good old MSN days).

Unfortunately, the text that is generated isn't really text - the characters are from a symbol-based font (Unicode) that can't be read by screen readers.

Instead of relying on faux bold or italic text for emphasis, use line breaks and clear, succinct writing for your social media copy.

4) Always add alt text

This is one practice you may already be aware of (and if you're doing it already, major props!): adding alt text to images. Alt text is read by accessibility tools to describe an image for the user. Some quick tips for creating good alt text:

  • You should be adding alt text every single time you publish an image, not just in some cases

  • No need to start with "image/photo of ...", just go straight to describing what's in the image

  • Keep it short and use plain language (leave the brand voice to your post copy)

  • Avoid acronyms (screen readers don't always read them correctly) but do use proper nouns/names and identifiers that add context

Another social media accessibility best practice: Don't publish images with long paragraphs of copy in them. As you can guess, screen readers can't read any text in a .jpg/.png image file. If your higher powers do come to you asking to post a "brand statement" with paragraphs of tiny copy, link to a page that contains the full copy in text format so that disabled users can still understand it.

5) Don't use emojis as bullet points

Not gonna lie, I'm sad that this is an accessibility faux-pas. I love my emojis as much as any social media marketer, and daymmm do they make lists look sexy in a post caption. However, emojis have meta descriptions (they are images, after all) that are read aloud by screen readers. So yes, cute for formatting, but not cute for accessibility.

Some more accessibility considerations for emojis: Because their meta descriptions are read aloud by screen readers, it's best to use emojis in moderation and at the end of post copy, rather than mid-post. Otherwise, you risk muddling clarity and extending the time it takes for your copy to be read. And most of all, don't use emoji memes or ASCII art on Twitter - these are super inaccessible and confusing for disabled users!

An exception to this is if an emoji is being used in-line to replace a word, like this: "What's your favourite type of 🍕? I'll eat any kind as long as it has 🍍 on it". This is screen reader-friendly.

Unfortunately, there’s no word on when the IG Stories caption sticker will be officially launched for all brands and users to use. In the meantime, there’s a workaround using the Instagram Threads ad - watch the tutorial here.

Huge credit to Alexa Heinrich for opening my eyes to the best practices of accessible social. If you're a social media marketer, you should definitely follow her on Twitter and sign up for her newsletter. We can all do a better job of making the online world more inclusive and accessible.

If you learned something today, please reply to this email or hit the 💬 below and leave me a comment! This will help me improve future newsletters and make them more relevant to you 💌

Further Reading

  • Accessible Social Checklist - A super useful checklist from Alexa Heinrich to help you remember all of the guidelines above and in a format you can share with your creative stakeholders

  • Creating Accessible Social Media Campaigns - The UK Government Comms Team created this extensive guide to making social media campaigns accessible, covering all things from links to images to emojis and hashtags - it should be required reading for all social media marketers!