Voice-Assistants Reading Emails: How Marketers Can Adapt

April 29, 2019 | 7 minute read
Chad S. White
Head of Research, Oracle Digital Experience Agency
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The launch of the Apple iPhone in 2007 prompted a decade-long effort for marketers to make their emails mobile-friendly. The rise of voice-assistants will likely have a similar impact on email marketers, although less tectonic and probably much messier.

Let’s look at why, and what marketers should do about it…

The Rise of Voice-Assistants Reading Emails

What’s undeniable is that the adoption of smart speakers and voice assistants is growing rapidly. More than 86 million smart speakers were sold last year, with more of them sold in the fourth quarter than during all of 2017, according to StrategyAnalytics. And nearly 8 billion digital voice-assistants—embedded in smartphones, speakers, cars, and elsewhere—will be in use by 2023, according to Juniper Research.

What’s a lot less clear is how many consumers will use voice-assistants to interact with emails. Since reading an email via voice doesn’t activate its open tracking pixel, data on voice interactions is anecdotal or survey-based at best. For the time, it’s safe to assume that very few commercial emails are engaged with using voice-assistants.

The Limitations of Voice-Assistants

Voice-assistants remind us of Apple Watches and the early Blackberry devices. None of those platforms support web browsers, so it’s impossible to click through to the landing page of a commercial email.

Voice-assistants do allow for replies, which make it possible to engage with personal emails and many work emails. However, email marketers have unfortunately spent decades training people not to reply to their emails. Plus, adapting existing calls-to-action to be reply-friendly would likely be impossible for the vast majority of brands. So, for now, emails are a dead-end for all but verbal and offline calls-to-action, such as “shop our in-store sale tomorrow” or “call us at 1-800-555-5555.”

Until there are better online conversion options via voice, consumers aren’t likely to use voice-assistants to engage with emails from brands. Instead, they’ll use them to triage their inbox, just like many people do with their smartwatches. They’ll simply use it to delete messages they aren’t interested in and keep the ones they are interested in, which they’ll then truly read later on a smartphone, tablet, or computer.

How Email Marketers Should Adapt to Voice-Assistants

Since consumers can’t convert, the goal for brands is to have their emails be among those that their subscribers save to interact with later.

1. Have clear sender names, subject lines, and preview text.

Optimizing your envelop content is a best practice. Using a consistent and highly recognizable sender name helps build trust and brand engagement, using descriptive subject lines that are supported by preview text helps ensure that the right subscribers are opening each message.

But voice-assistants raise the stakes on recognition in the inbox. For instance, after reading the sender name and subject line, Alexa asks if you want to hear the full email. Siri reads the sender name and subject line, and then begins to read the email, which make a strong and descriptive preheader essential.

“In my testing with Siri, it was unable to provide me with enough info to triage my accounts like I would on my phone or desktop,” says Henry Alva, Senior Email and Web Developer for Oracle Marketing Cloud Consulting’s Creative Service group. “Often this was because of unclear friendly from names, and subject lines and preheader text that wasn’t descriptive enough.”

2. Be mindful about your choice to use emojis, special characters, and elaborate punctuation or spacing.

Voice-assistants stumble when it comes to creative text styling, as well as the use of emojis and special characters.

“There’s a lot of misuse of punctuation and grammar in subject lines,” says Kristin McCambridge, Senior UX Designer at Oracle Marketing Cloud Consulting. “Even quotes and parentheses can be problematic. Air quotes are tricky because they lose some of their pithiness when voice-assistants say, ‘quotation mark’ on either side of the word or phrase. With voice-assistants, you have to be careful that it’s not coming across in a way that you don’t intend.”

Strikethroughs are awkward like air quotes, turning something that’s supposed to be light and funny into something clunky and heavy-handed. Onomatopoeia and creatively spelled words are likely to trip up voice-assistants, as are special characters and emojis.

For example, Siri reads the following subject line as “Bee are are are are are are. Warm up with bonus miles.” That’s confusing and distracts from the rest of the message that follows.

Emojis can be even more jarring, since many emojis have names that don’t roll off the tongue very well. For example, Siri reads the following subject line as “The Walking Dead Returns on Sunday, Zombie Man." The subject line almost sounds as though Sling TV is addressing the subscriber as “Zombie Man.”

Combine emojis with creative word styling and you can get some truly confusing subject lines. For instance, Siri reads this subject line as “Sparkle sea ell ee ay en eye en gee sparkle ess ay ell ee sparkle.”

“Voice-assistants—as well as screen readers—don’t have the ability to make content translations yet, so acronyms, emojis, and other creative text treatments and wordplay run the risk of being misinterpreted by a reader,” says Kathryn Alva, Associate Creative Director at Oracle Marketing Cloud Consulting. “While these tactics can help your subject lines stand out in the visual inbox, unfortunately, they fall flat in the verbal inbox.”

And that is the choice that we face:

Should brands create eye-catching subject lines or ear-catching subject lines? [Tweet This]

Right now, it’s impossible to do both. So, it’s important to be mindful about the subject line decisions that you’re making—not just to potentially take advantage of voice-assistants, but also in terms of creating inclusive email designs that allow more of your subscribers to engage.

3. Use email accessibility best practices to be more inclusive.

Your subscribers may have permanent, temporary, or situational impairments that affect how they engage with your emails.

“Are they using a voice-assistant because they’re in a car, because they’re blind, or because they’re in the sun and can’t read their smartphone’s screen?” says McCambridge. “Designing with all of those people in mind is really important.”

Inclusive design is about using accessibility best practices to widen your audience of subscribers that can engage with your design. While there is a full-range of accessibility best practices, let’s focus on the two that have the biggest impact on how well voice-assistants can read your emails.

First, 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.   

And second, use alt text wisely and descriptively. 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 the message of your email. You should also consider not adding alt text to product images when that alt text would simply repeat HTML text that’s next to the image.

“You’ll want to ensure that the alt text adds value to the content and is not repetitive of text that also appears within the email,” says Kathryn Alva. “It’s surprising how often we see this.”

That said, logos and other images that contain graphical text should absolutely have alt text so you can communicate the text in the image.

4. Pay attention to the order of content blocks.

Sometimes the visual logic of a design doesn’t match up with the sequential reading that a voice-assistant or screen reader will do. This will increasingly cause confusion.

“A screen reader will simply move cell by cell through the email's tables, reading text and image alt text in coded order,” says Kathryn Alva. “What this means is that tables should be coded in logical order so that content is read correctly.”

In the example below, the "Exclusive Offers + More" table is coded in rows, even though the content is grouped together in columns. This causes the voice reader to address all the images, then all the text, and then all the links.

“The result is a disconnected experience,” she says. “Simply re-coding this content in organized columns solves the content-relationship issue.”

Those are our top four tips for adapting to voice-assistants for now, but it’s important to recognize that over time these platforms are likely to evolve—perhaps quite quickly.

For instance, given how clumsy reading emails can be for machines, I predict in my book, Email Marketing Rules, that inbox providers may add a new MIME part to directly address this: a voice-html part. Similar to how responsive design addresses mobile readers, this would allow marketers to craft succinct and clear messages that are intended to be read aloud.

Whether inbox providers adopt that approach or make other changes to make voice more natural, voice-assistants will continue to learn and rapidly advance, says Henry Alva.

“In terms of a new form of email client and in terms of accessibility, they are not something we should ignore,” he says. “This is a space that marketers should watch carefully.”


Need help with your email creative? Oracle Marketing Cloud Consulting has more than 500 of the leading marketing minds ready to help you to achieve more with the leading marketing cloud, including a Creative Services team that can handle any aspect of email design, coding, testing, and copywriting.

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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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