We need to have a talk with marketing.

So, I’m sitting at CSUN 2012. It’s after the keynote, but before the first sessions of the conference – and some of the very key points of difference between the marketing and accessibility world are making themselves very clear. Most of the conferences I’ve attended in the past were marketing-oriented – and even where the subject of the conversations are similar, the overall impulse behind the issues is radically different.

The simple fact is that marketing is fundamentally business-oriented. It’s about moving your or your client’s business towards what counts as success for that business. Usually, that means greater profit: higher sales, better ROI, lower expenses.

The world of accessibility is oriented towards the success of the individual who uses your business. Instead of focusing on the profitability of business, accessibility pursues optimizing the experience of the user. This approach certainly can and should lead to improved ROI or higher sales — but it’s not how it’s advertised, and it’s not the goal.

The issues and needs may have a lot in common, but having a different core motivation makes for a radical difference in approach.

Great intentions, road to hell paved with

In marketing I have long observed a tendency to compromise the end-user’s experience for the opportunity to increase business opportunities. However great the intentions of a business owner, they can easily be swept away by the perceived opportunity to increase their business.

With a definite lack of available statistics which can reliably expose the real economic impact of users with disabilities on the web, this is a difficult argument. Is it a lack of empathy? Is it partially because the physical environment of a store forces the business owner to directly confront the visitor with disabilities whom they have disenfranchised, an experience which doesn’t exist online?

The disembodied user effect is well known in social media. The willingness to treat people online as objects rather than as people is damaging in many environments, and the arena of disabilities is almost certainly among them.

What can the accessibility world do to make this real for business owners? Improving empathy may be one path. Producing real, concrete statistics demonstrating the impact a lack of accessibility has on a web-based business may give additional working fodder.

But educating businesses may not be the best path. Educating marketers — possibly the class of service most heavily employed by businesses with a web presence — could have a truly inspiring impact. Where do business owners turn first when they’re looking to develop their web presence? Marketing. In the business world, a web site is fundamentally a marketing tool — so perhaps that’s where education and research needs to go.

Bringing the world of marketing to a point where it views a simple accessibility failure like inserting keywords into an alt attribute as a threat to the web site’s users, rather than as an opportunity for search engine optimization could have far-reaching impact.

An aspect of the problem for many web sites has to do with long-term business development. A business may hire an accessibility expert to review their web sites, make suggestions, or re-work their web site, but when they hire a marketing firm for long-term web site development, they can lose their accessibility very quickly if that marketing company doesn’t also have a firm grasp on accessibility.

Marketing is a necessary service for most businesses. Accessibility needs to be understood as an equally necessary partner to any marketing efforts.