I turned off email images for a month …

… and here’s what I saw:

I think I’ve been pretty spoiled when it comes to reading emails, as I have a Mac, an iPhone, and an iPad, and emails pretty much look great on all three. The default setting for all three is to download images for emails, so if the sender has included an image, I will see it when I read the email.

One-third of people don’t see email images, either by default or by choice

About 30% of email clients, as a default, do not download images. If you don’t change the default settings and look at an email with images in these programs, all you’ll see are text and ALT tags, the alternative text that shows if an image isn’t displayed.

There are two common reasons why you might turn email images off, even if it’s on by default in your email client. One is to keep your email private from spammers. If you do not click on any links, the only way a sender can know that you’ve seen their email is if you load the images. The second reason is for speed. If you do not download the images with an email, it will load more quickly in your email program. With the move to mobile, many people may turn off image rendering on their phones to save time … and to save money on limited data plans.

Email client market share and image handling features

ALT text makes emails legible even without images

Ideally, an email designer should give every image an ALT tag that provides the same information as the image. That way, if someone can’t see the image, they will still know what it was. I was curious to see how many emails I received in a given month didn’t include ALT text, so for the month of February, I changed my settings to stop automatically downloading images in email.

There was a shockingly high number of emails that looked terrible without images, many with just a few ALT tags here and there, and many with no ALT text at all. The emails that failed to provide a good experience without images fell broadly into four different groups: no ALT tags, repetitive ALT tags, undescriptive ALT tags, and over-engineered emails. Below are a few examples of each. (You can click on the images to see them larger.)

Example 1: No ALT Tags

This group of emails provided absolutely no information about the email if you didn’t download the images. Take a look at the Starbucks email. Without images, all I got was the menu and a whole lotta black. The designer should have put ALT text in the boxes, or, better yet, separate the images and include the copy as plain text in the body of the email.

Same with the email from M&Ms. All I got was that it was the last day to create a personalized gift for my Valentine, but nothing about the special 20% offer, nor what the items were. They didn’t even put an ALT tag on the logo so I could see who it was from without looking at the “From:” line in the email.

Starbucks email with no alt tags
M&Ms ad without alt tags

Example 2: Undescriptive ALT Tags

The next group of emails included ALT tags, but there was so much more in the image than the ALT text offered that it was practically useless. This Amazon email had one big image with all the information, a button I never saw, and a second offer for “Kindle Unlimited” with no description at all. Only when I turned on images did I know what this email was about.
Amazon email with undescriptive alt tags
Talk about “a picture is worth a thousand words.” The next email came from a company that makes themed cookies, but the email had no description at all of the image, just the logo and tagline followed by the copyright line. C’mon, this would have been really fun descriptive ALT text to write!
Eleni's email with undescriptive alt tag

Example 3: Repetitive ALT tags

I got a bunch of emails where the same ALT text was repeated, again and again. OK I got it! You have the URL “Fonts.com”! Can you tell me anything else, like that it’s a limited-time only flash sale and that I should buy now? It’s not hard to write the name of the font in the box instead of just the URL. If you’re going to go to the trouble of adding ALT tags, at least make them useful.
Font email with repetitive alt tags
Same problem with this email promoting a run called “Pretty Muddy.” After about the third time I read the same ALT text, I figured I wasn’t going to learn much more unless I downloaded the images. Things like the date, the location, a special offer, and the call to get a free shirt were all invisible until I did so.
Race email with repetitive alt tags

Example 4: Over-engineered emails

One final thing I noticed when I turned off email images was how much work designers were doing to put things in precise places in the emails, while ignoring basic things like including descriptive ALT text so readers know what you’re offering. In this email from Constant Contact, the designer had all these tiny boxes designed to space everything just so, but didn’t include any image ALT tags for the logo and photos.
Over-engineered Constant Contact email
And, this email from TripAdvisor, which you wouldn’t know was from TripAdvisor because there’s no ALT tag on that logo either, was so over-engineered to place things in precise locations that all I saw when I read this was boxes, boxes, and more boxes.
Over-engineered TripAdvisor email

A quick caveat

When writing the ALT text, be descriptive but concise. If the ALT text is too long and is wider than the image box, it will not appear. So, be sure you use text that’s clear but not wordy, especially for mobile readers who will be seeing smaller image containers.

Think of your readers

As soon as February was over, I was very happy to change my email setting back to download images. The experience was a great reminder that the people reading an email or visiting a website might have a very different experience from me, depending on their setup. It doesn’t really take much to include ALT text in your emails, and in order to be responsive and look good on mobile, your emails shouldn’t be over-engineered, anyway. So, take the time you spend nitpicking the placement of email content, and instead put it into creating better ALT text. You’ll probably get a better result. Hopefully we can learn from these emails and make sure that we use the power of the ALT tag to make the emails work for everyone.

A quick video showing how including ALT text can help you reach the third of viewers that don’t download images: