Voice Assistants Reading Emails: How to Create Voice-Friendly Campaigns

May 13, 2024 | 8 minute read
Sarah Gallardo
Lead Email Developer for Creative Services, Oracle Digital Experience Agency
Kathryn Alva
Art Director
Chad S. White
Head of Research, Oracle Digital Experience Agency
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Accessibility and inclusive design have become major digital marketing design trends as brands recognize the need to be more welcoming and considerate of consumers with a wider range of needs. Making email campaigns more voice-friendly is one element of this effort. However, it’s not without some contradictions and compromises.

Let’s look at why, and how marketers can best adapt.

Using Voice Assistants to Read Emails

The prevalence of voice assistants in our lives isn’t in question at this point. After all, every iOS device comes with Siri, every Android device with Google Assistant, and every Microsoft device with Cortana. On top of that, sales of smart speakers, like Amazon’s Alexa-powered Echo, have been strong and are projected to remain so, according to Statista research.

However, just because people have voice assistants around them at all times doesn’t mean they’re using them to read emails. Because voice assistants don’t render images, email opens are never triggered by them. And unlike screen readers used by those with vision challenges, voice assistants aren’t designed to handle the many links that are typically in marketing emails. That makes them a deadend for brand interactions, unless their calls-to-action are offline, such as “Schedule your appointment” or “Call us at 1-800-555-5555.”

Because of those design and usage limitations, brands’ open and click metrics offer no insights into the percentage of their audience using voice assistants to read their emails. Moreover, in survey after survey, checking email doesn’t even register as a common usage of voice assistants. However, according to a Data & Marketing Association survey, 7% of consumers in the UK use smart speakers to read emails, on par with the use of smartwatches to read emails.

Based on the limited amount of research available, it’s safe to assume that relatively few consumers use voice assistants to read marketing emails. To the degree that voice assistants are designed to read emails, they are geared toward handling personal messages—and even then are only intended to give users a preview of it, so they can save the ones they want to respond to later via their smartphone or another device.

Making Your Envelope Content Voice-Friendly

Because most subscribers who use a voice assistant to access their inboxes will be doing so to triage them, we recommend optimizing your envelope content for clarity and voice-friendliness. Here are a couple of areas to focus on:

1. Use a clear sender name, subject line, and preview text. 

Obviously, this is already a best practice, but voice assistants raise the bar. That’s because subscribers are unlikely to have the email reread to them if there’s any confusion.

Consider how extending your sender name might clarify what your message is about. Also consider how your preview text will sound when read directly after your subject line. Does it transition nicely? Or is it jarringly different?

Understand the risks and benefits of using a brand or person as your sender name.

2. Be mindful of how “creative” copy elements will be read. 

Unfortunately, voice assistants stumble when it comes across anything even slightly irregular. That means fun and clever copy becomes clunky and confusing copy. Here are some copy elements to be wary of:

 Emojis and special characters. Many emojis and special characters have names that don’t roll off the tongue very well. For example, Siri reads the following subject line as “Football draft your favorite toppings, earn free bread pizza ends Saturday.” The reading makes it sound as though Little Caesars has a new offering called bread pizza.
Example of how emojis can affect how an email subject line is read by a voice assistant

Also, a number of emoji have names that don’t alway align with how they’re used socially. For instance, “grinning face with sweat,” “rolling on the floor laughing,” and “face with tears of joy” all look similar.

Air quotes. Hip and sarcastic air quotes lose some of their pithiness when voice assistants say, “quotation mark” on either side of the word or phrase.

Parentheses. Similar to air quotes, little asides and clever additions sound heavy-handed when “open parenthesis” and “close parenthesis” are uttered around them.

Strikethroughs. Like air quotes and parentheses, these get awkward when they’re actually read. However, some platforms ignore strikethroughs entirely, which creates confusing, often contradictory statements. In either instance, strikethroughs aren’t voice-friendly.

Onomatopoeia. Voice assistants don’t always correctly interpret sound-based words like “Grr” and “Psst,” especially when they’re embellished in any way. For example, Siri reads the following subject line as Under 50 dollar gifts for Mom that are jue-ust right. That’s confusing and distracts from the rest of the message that follows.

Example of how creative spellings can confuse voice assistants

Irregular spacing. Particularly in between the letters of a word, extra spacing can cause voice assistants to not recognize words. For instance, Siri reads this subject line as Sparkle sea ell ee ay en eye en gee sparkle ess ay ell ee sparkle.

Acronyms and abbreviations. While voice assistants understand some common acronyms and abbreviations, less common ones can lead to strange readings. For instance, Siri pronounces “SEO” as Sea-oh. Similarly, they have issues interpreting text in all caps. Usually, they pronounce each letter—so your “LEARN MORE” call-to-action will sound like a spelling bee contestant.

That’s a long list of fairly common and quite fun tactics. You might be asking yourself, Do I really have to stop using all of those?

It’s not a ban list. It’s a be-careful-with-these list. Sometimes, you can compromise and make a choice that’s more voice-friendly. Other times, there’s no compromise to be made, which means a fundamental choice remains: 

Should you create eye-catching subject lines or ear-catching subject lines?

For most brands, email marketing is an overwhelmingly visual channel. However, for others, their audience and their ethics dictate they favor a more inclusive approach. For example, one of our clients is a drugstore chain and they prioritize accessibility and inclusive design because many of their customers experience temporary, situational, and permanent physical, vision, hearing, and cognitive challenges. They view inclusivity as core to their brand identity.

Making Your Body Content Voice-Friendly

For those subscribers who use voice assistants to read past your envelope content, consider the following tips to make their experience better:

1. Use alt text wisely. 

Inbox providers display an image’s alt text when images are disabled or blocked. Because voice assistants can’t display images, they read each image’s alt text instead. So, having descriptive alt text is a must, especially for logos and other images that contain graphical text.

That said, not every image needs alt text. For instance, you should consider not adding alt text to lifestyle images such as photos of sunsets or people working that aren’t pivotal to understanding your message. In those cases, you’d add in an alt tag, but leave it empty (alt="").

You should also consider not adding alt text to product images when that alt text would simply repeat the HTML text that’s next to the image. Speaking of HTML text…

2. Use HTML text.

Instead of embedding text inside images, use live or HTML text wherever possible. In addition to being read by voice assistants, HTML text is displayed when images are blocked or are slow to load, and can be zoomed in and out by subscribers to meet their viewing needs.

HTML text can be floated over background images and filled table cells. And thanks to good support of web fonts and even custom fonts, lots of font choices are available.

How to define the font-family for your email campaign.

3. Use semantic HTML tags.

Unlike tags like <b> and <i> that define how your text should look, semantic tags define what kind of text it is. For example, <p> indicates that the text is part of a paragraph, and <h> tags (<h1> through <h6>) indicate that the text is a header. This helps voice assistants understand and read your copy better.

When and how to use plain text emails.

4. Pay attention to the order of content blocks.

Voice assistants read content blocks and table cells sequentially. If not properly accounted for, this can cause content to be read out of order.

In the example below, for the desktop version of the email, the modules have been arranged into a common S-curve design that guides the subscriber down through the message in a back-and-forth pattern that’s engaging. To get the images to all be above their corresponding text for the mobile version, S-curve designs are often coded using RTL directional attributes so the image on the right can move to the top on mobile devices.

Example of how to code an S-curve design so it's accessible

However, this causes issues when a voice assistant or screen reader processes the content, as it will be out of order. That can be confusing. The solution is to use a mobile show/hide image instead, where the mobile image is hidden above the text on desktop and the desktop image is hidden on mobile. This creates the same visual experience on both desktop and mobile without the confusing experience for listeners.

Bonus: These Also Help Assistive-Technology Users

Screen reader users also benefit from all of the tactics we’ve mentioned, because they also struggle with emoji, creative spellings, all-caps text, and the rest. So making good use of alt text, HTML text, semantic HTML tags, and block logic not only helps the occasional Siri and Alexa user, but helps provide year-round access to users with permanent vision challenges.

That not only makes your email program more inclusive, but protects your brand from accessibility lawsuits.

How Voice Assistants May Evolve

All the major players in the voice assistant market are also major players in the generative AI market, and the addition of GenAI capabilities to voice assistants is all but certain. When this happens, voice assistants may read email content more intuitively, reducing marketers’ need to accommodate for their current somewhat rigid behavior.

That said, that shouldn’t discourage brands from making the adaptations we’ve suggested, as GenAI models have proven to be less than perfectly reliable. Putting these guide rails in place will ensure your emails are read as intended to a wider spectrum of subscribers, including those with disabilities. That will create more consistent experiences, boosting subscriber engagement.

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Need help with your email designs? Oracle Digital Experience Agency has hundreds of marketing and communication experts ready to help Responsys, Eloqua, Unity, and other Oracle customers create stronger connections with their customers and employees—even if they’re not using an Oracle platform as the foundation of that experience. Our award-winning specialists can handle everything from creative and strategy to content planning and project management. For example, our full-service email marketing clients generate 24% higher open rates, 30% higher click rates, and 9% lower unsubscribe rates than Oracle Responsys customers who aren’t.

For help overcoming your challenges or seizing your opportunities, talk to your Oracle account manager, visit us online, or email us at OracleAgency_US@Oracle.com.

Now updated, this blog post was originally published on April 2, 2019 by Chad S. White, with contributions from Kristin McCambridge, Kathryn Alva, and Henry Alva.

Sarah Gallardo

Lead Email Developer for Creative Services, Oracle Digital Experience Agency

Sarah Gallardo is a Lead Email Developer for Creative Services at Oracle Digital Experience Agency and an email accessibility specialist. With a career spanning over 12 years, she boasts extensive experience in a wide variety of email development solutions. Her advocacy for accessible emails spans more than six years, demonstrating her commitment to inclusivity in digital communication.

Kathryn Alva

Art Director

Kathryn Alva is an Art Director for Oracle Marketing Cloud Creative Services. With nearly a decade in the email industry, Kathryn is a self-professed email geek who dreams about results-based best practices, mobile strategies, and solving complex puzzles with emerging technologies. Her current clients include Amazon.com, REI, and Nordstrom. Outside of the inbox environment, Kathryn is often seen wielding power tools for various DIY projects and chasing around her active toddler (not at the same time, of course).

Chad S. White

Head of Research, Oracle Digital Experience Agency

Chad S. White is the Head of Research at Oracle Digital Experience Agency and the author of four editions of Email Marketing Rules and nearly 4,000 posts about digital and email marketing. A former journalist, he’s been featured in more than 100 publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Advertising Age. Chad was named the ANA's 2018 Email Marketer Thought Leader of the Year. Follow him on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Mastodon.


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