What the Heck is Alt Text and Why Should I Care?

Kristina Leroux

Kristina Leroux, Nonprofit Marketing Guide's Community Engagement Manager

So you found the perfect image of the perfect family that perfectly represents your cause. No words are necessary as this picture says it all, right?  Wrong! Words are absolutely necessary if you are including that image in an email (or even on your website) or your supporters could be seeing a big fat blank white space where your perfect image was supposed to be.

Alt image text or alternative image text, in plain language, is the text that shows up when someone can’t view the image due to the settings on their email or browser. There are many reasons why people won’t display images. They may not enable images in email because it takes too long to load the pictures, they have to scroll too much when viewing emails on their phone or they are worried about viruses which can be hidden in image code.

Kivi talks about including alt image text in her email newsletter and microcontent webinars, but based on the number of people who still ask me “What did she just say?” every time she mentions it, I think we need to do a better job of getting the word out. Like Ron Burgundy, it’s kind of a big deal.

For example, below is an email I received from a retailer. Kind of awesome they are giving away free sunglasses when you spend $39, right?

Email with images enabled

Except this is all I actually saw when I opened the email:

Email without images enabled and no alt text

I didn’t even know they were giving away sunglasses until I enabled the images for the sole purpose of writing this post.

This is such a simple fix, it’s hard to understand why everyone doesn’t take advantage of it – especially considering that some surveys have over 40% of email users not automatically enabling images.

They are missing out on your good stuff and you are missing out on their support.

Here is what alt text can look like.

Alt Image Text Example

This is our All-Access Pass Holders weekly email update. We really aren’t trying to “sell” anything here. It’s an informative newsletter that lets Pass Holders know what webinars are coming up and other information important to them. And it’s not imperative that they see these images in this particular case, but we still need something there to let them know what those blank spaces are.  We just made the alt text for the header a note letting them know this was a Pass Holder Update and the other lets them know that we are listing the CharityHowTo webinars Kivi will be giving in March.

Here is the email with images enabled.

Alt Text Images Enabled


Your alt text can be a simple description of the image itself like we did above, but you could think of ways to get a little more creative with it.

  • What’s the point of the image?
  • Why does your reader need to see the image?
  • What could you tell them about the image to pique their curiosity?

Let’s say Leo just completed a jobs training program your organization conducts. He was offered a job and can now support his family because of the training he received from your organization. Leo and his new employer agree to let you take his picture on the job to use in your email newsletter. The text of the email will tell his story, but seeing him at work really drives home what your training program can do.  But how can you get people to see it?

Don’t just use his name in the alt text. No one really knows who Leo is and will assume it’s just a regular ol’ picture of him. You could instead say something like:

“See Leo’s training in action.”

“This is what our graduates can do!”

“You made this possible for Leo!”

Or you could just use the alt text to, you know, ask your readers to enable the images. Marc Pitman posted this email he received that did just that.

 How you add the alt text for images will vary depending on your email service provider. You should be able to find it wherever you can edit the images. We use Infusionsoft and they actually call it alt text, but it may be called the image description or the title.

If you don’t already have a separate testing email account (you really should!) or if that testing account automatically displays images from your organization, I suggest setting up a new Gmail account and use it for testing. Then you can see what your emails look like without the images enabled.

Note on websites: You also need to make sure you are including a descriptive title and alternate text for images on your website as well.  Those who are visually impaired have this text read out to them so having your image named 1300023.jpeg will not help at all. Filling in the title and alt text for your images and graphics is also helpful for SEO since Google bots do read that bit of code. Again, where you add this information will depend on your platform, but it will most likely be in the image settings area too.

Let us know how you have used the alt text in the comments below!

© 2007-2017, Nonprofit Marketing Guide. All Rights Reserved.

Author: Kristina Leroux, Community Engagement Manager

I am the Community Engagement Manager at Nonprofit Marketing Guide.com.

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  • Not to mention how helpful this is for blind people.

    • Not just helpful, absolutely necessary. If your communication is one big picture like the sunglass sale, you’re losing a huge part of your audience by not properly labeling and alt-tagging. With 20% of the population over 60 and 3% of the total population being low vision, that’s a huge audience to miss!

  • Tobi Johnson

    One of my consulting clients is sight impaired, so it’s absolutely critical that I include alt text in my Power Point presentations and other training materials. Otherwise, his reader doesn’t pick them up…and he misses out on most of my visual metaphors! So, when I’m tagging, I think about what info would be most helpful to him specifically. Having a real person to visualize keeps me focused. I also include a fair amount of text in the PPT speaker notes, just to help contextualize things. And, if I use PPT smart art graphics, I cut and paste ALL of the text from the graphic’s text pane into the alt text description, making it much easier (and faster) than crafting additional descriptive text.

    Also, if you’re working with federal grant dollars, you are generally required to create “508 compliant” documents (see https://www.section508.gov), which includes alt tagging. SO, it’s good to know. Thanks for the post!

  • Claire Axelrad

    This is the best description of how to use alt text I’ve seen! I’ve always thought of it as something to help with search. But this is actually a more compelling reason to take the time to do this. Thanks so much for this valuable service. I will use this to explain the importance to my clients.

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  • I was focusing on the marketing side of alt text, so I appreciate all these are great comments on how they help the sight impaired as well.

  • We just redesigned our print and email newsletter and our (very amazing) designer brought this issue to our attention for the e-version, which is photo heavy. I’m on board and have been trying to brainstorm creative alt-text – love your ideas – but I haven’t found a good way to explain why it’s important to others. Thanks for great summary – this is going to the rest of our team right now!

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  • This really is a very good topic to talk about. Generally when I find stuff like this I stumble it. This article probably won’t do well with that crowd. I will probably be sure to submit something else though.
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