How Alexa Reads Your Emails & Impacts Email Marketing


Alexa, Amazon's voice assistant, got an update this week that now allows it to read, reply, archive, or delete your emails. Here's everything you email geeks need to know.

How do you set it up?

*Note: It currently *only* works with Outlook and Gmail accounts. You need to install or update the latest version of the Alexa app on iOS or Android.

Once installed/updated, here's a video that walks you through how you can link your email account:

Or follow these step-by-step instructions:

How does it work?

Once your email account is linked, you can say "Alexa, read my email" or "Alexa, check my email."

Alexa then reads how many unread messages you have in the last 24 hours and how many are marked important (if applicable). It reads your most recent unread message's sender name and subject line. For example:

For Kevin, from the last 24 hours, you have 25 unread emails, 5 marked important. The first important email is from EmailTees, Official apparel for email geeks.

See it in action:

*Note: If you have multiple email accounts linked, Alexa will aggregate the information as one inbox. There is no option to switch between accounts or read email from a specific account—Alexa will read chronologically from all connected accounts.

Alexa then provides 5 actions you can take:

Users also have the ability to add a "Sent by Alexa" signature to every email it sends via Alexa:

Alexa Signature

For security, users can also set a 4-digit Voice Code that Alexa requires before reading email. See the video:

Are there any limitations?

Alexa *does not* currently have the ability to mark or report an email as spam, unsubscribe from an email, or compose new emails (you can only send replies from existing emails in your inbox).

Ok, so what exactly does Alexa read?

By default, Alexa reads the HTML version of an email (if a user is accepting HTML emails).

However, it appears that Alexa only reads text in the HTML document and ignores any HTML attributes, including alt, role, and aria, which differs from standard screen reader behavior.

This means Alexa ignores reading all images, even if alt text is set, and you cannot customize what text content to ignore using aria. Here's a video of Alexa ignoring images and hidden text with aria (using this code):

If a user is only receiving plain text emails, Alexa will read the plain text version.

👍 Alexa reads out loud any emojis used in the subject line or in the body. Here's an example (using this code):

I haven't pinpointed exactly what causes this behavior yet, but *sometimes* Alexa directs the user to "Please visit your email client to read this message." Interestingly, I have only noticed this with emails that have tables present in the HTML. Here's an example (using this code):

Additionally, I haven't seen this happen for all emails or pinpointed this behavior yet either, but *sometimes* Alexa will actually read the email analytics tracking pixel in the HTML body. Score this potential behavior as an argument to put your tracking pixel at the bottom of your HTML body.

How does it handle email opens tracking?

In my tests using Litmus Email Analytics, it does not appear that Alexa read emails are tracked in any discernible way. Perhaps it gets recorded as a "web version" view, but this isn't clear to me yet and requires further testing. (I could use your help!)

According to CNBC, an Amazon spokesperson explained how these messages are downloaded and stored:

By linking your account, some of your contacts and email messages are stored in the cloud to provide the service. This information is encrypted and stored securely in Amazon's servers. Amazon does not read an individual's email, except in very specific cases such as if that individuals asks us to do so or when we need to for security or compliance purposes, such as investigating a bug or abuse.

How does Alexa impact email marketing?

Accessibility, accessibility, accessibility.

Use proper semantic elements in your email, especially for text. Don't just rely on text inside of table cells. Use headings (h) and paragraphs (p) appropriately.

Stop using images for important content. Images should only be used an enhancement and not contain any critical information, as Alexa ignores them and senders do not have an audio way to present image content to subscribers. If you've been avoiding dealing with rendering by using images for your email designs...time's up.

🙂 Ensure your emojis make sense when read aloud. Since Alexa reads emoji names, you want to optimize emoji usage in sentence context. Especially for subject lines and preview text as the first content of your email.

Certainly, voice-activated email is still in its infancy and will have low adoption compared to standard email clients and apps. But, this is yet another environment we as email marketers & designers should account and optimize for to create inclusive subscriber experiences.

Alexa and the rise of voice-activated email is yet another strong reason to build semantic, accessible emails.

What are your thoughts?

How will you change your emails to make them more voice-friendly? Do you think voice-activated email will gain mass adoption? Let me know @KevinMandeville.

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