Q: Can I assign alternative text to appear when a graphic embedded in an Outlook email message won’t display?

A: Ever since HTML functionality was added to Microsoft Outlook in Outlook 98, people have been embedding graphics and media in email messages—sometimes without considering the tools recipients might be using to view those messages.

For many of the graphics that you can embed in an Outlook email message, you can assign alternative text to display when the image can’t be rendered (whether by technological limitations or by choice of the recipient). Most embedded graphics allow alternative text to be displayed in place of the graphic, including pictures, shapes, charts, Visio diagrams, SmartArt, and more. This alternative text displays when the recipient’s client can’t render the image. The alternative text also shows when you mouse over the image in most email clients that download and display the content.

To assign alternative text to an embedded Outlook email graphic when creating a message, right-click the item and select the Format or Properties menu item. For an embedded image, right-click the image and select Format Picture to open the window that Figure 1 shows.

135863 Figure 1

Figure 1: Assigning alternative text to an embedded image

(In the case of a Microsoft Excel table, the right-click menu option to add alternative text is Table Properties.) An annoyance with this window is the lack of an OK, Save, or Apply button. However, your changes are saved when you click Close. The alternative text is applied within an HTML message as part of the IMG tag. If you select View Source on the HTML message from the recipient’s client, the IMG tag shows the alternative text as follows:

Title: Tasker Oddie - Description: c:\Users\william\downloads\web.jpg
Former Governor of Nevada

Figure 2 shows this message rendered in a web mail client that doesn’t immediately download images.

135863 Figure 2

Figure 2: Alternative text source code

The alternative text is displayed instead of the picture. This is beneficial for recipients who might want some insight as to the content of the graphic. It’s also very valuable to disabled users who require the use of a screen reader. The alternative text advises the user of a graphic’s content when the user is unable to view the graphic. Alternative text can also be useful for rules or other filtering.

Anytime you apply graphics to email messages, you should be aware that options exist to make graphics more valuable to recipients. The alternative text property is a useful tool in this regard.

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.