The Complete Guide to Captioned Videos

Born profoundly deaf, I’ve depended on captioned videos since getting my first big clunky decoder in 1983. It was a box about the size of the older VHS and DVD players.

Back then, captioned shows and movies were hard to find. Few things excited me more than seeing the caption symbol on the cover of a movie or at the start of a TV show.

Thankfully, they’re easy to find when it comes to TV networks, streaming services, and movies.

But the same can’t be said for the many, many videos companies and individuals put out on YouTube, LinkedIn, Facebook, and elsewhere.

In recent years, captioning has gotten so much easier and more affordable. This guide will dive into why captioning matters, how it provides a huge ROI, 10 rules for creating great captioned videos, and how to caption your videos.

7 Reasons Why You Want to Caption Your Videos

World Health Organization reports that more than 5 percent of the world’s population is deaf or hard of hearing. [Source WHO]

And guess what.

The main users of captioned videos are NOT the deaf and hard of hearing! So, captioning your videos reaches far more than those who are deaf like me.

For some businesses, accessibility isn’t enough of a reason to add captions. But you know what? Accessibility can make you a profit as you can learn in this video.

Though it’s the right thing to do and good for business, they still want reasons that help them reach as many people as possible and yield ROI.

Here are some reasons you want to caption your videos. There’s more, but these are the ones that tend to change someone’s mind about captioning.

Here are the top reasons to caption videos

1. Reach far more than the deaf and HoH

Two separate surveys (OfCom and Verizon Media) have found that 80 percent of the people who use captions are not deaf or hard of hearing. The OfCom survey is older than I’d like it to be. So, I conducted two separate polls. Eerily, they had the same results: 86 percent who use captions aren’t deaf or HoH. It’s not surprising the number has climbed.

Many people who aren’t deaf or hard of hearing tell me they don’t watch videos with sound. Part of this is because more people are watching videos in public without their headphones. LinkedIn finds that 80 percent of video views occur with the sound off.

A study by Verizon Media and Publicis Media reveals that 69 percent of people view videos without sound in public places. What about when they’re in private places? Still, one in every four watch videos without sound.

Plus, everyone can experience temporary or situational hearing differences. A person with an ear infection or cold may not hear as well. People talking while wearing masks can also affect the sound.

Why do people watch videos without sound? Here’s what Verizon Media has found:

  • In a quiet space.
  • Didn’t have headphones.
  • Waiting in line.
  • Multitasking.

Video creators can expand their video’s reach by adding #Captioned in their post with the video. This helps caption viewers find captioned videos without scrolling through their feed and feeling disappointed in seeing non-captioned videos.

2. Clarify what the speaker says

Sometimes other noises get in the way or the person may have an accent like I do.

Friends and colleagues tell me they turn on the captions when watching videos because they catch more of what’s said. They say that some programs have actors or speakers who are hard to understand. Or there’s a lot of noise interfering with the voices.

3. Capture more viewers

Just like everyone has a different learning style that works, everyone has a different preference for how they like to watch videos.

  • Some prefer sound only.
  • Some prefer captions only.
  • Some prefer the text only. (The text that accompanies the video.)
  • Some like two or all three options.

You give people options for consuming content, thus giving you greater reach.

4. Helps viewer focus

In Why Gen Z Loves Closed Captions, Lance Ulanoff explains how Gen Z tends to multitask. Captions help them focus. This is especially true for people with ADHD and auditory or language processing disorders. Some people with no disabilities say they use captions for focus, too.

Gen Z also likes captions because they can text while they watch. For many folks, captions help them catch things they miss without going back.

5. Boosts overall brand awareness by almost 19%

Captions increase brand awareness by 18.8 percent according to research from AdColony and Millward Brown. Furthermore, a LinkedIn survey reports that marketers’ No. 2 priority is to build brand awareness, only 1 percent behind the No. 1 — no surprise! — the priority of driving more leads.

Several companies have been hit by not one, but two lawsuits. It hurts their reputation as customers boycott their brand. And adding captions costs very little compared to the cost of a lawsuit.

6. Avoid lawsuits and reputation damage

What do Hulu, Netflix, Harvard, MIT, and PornHub have in common? Yes, that PornHub. They’ve all been sued over the lack of captions. A man sued PornHub because some videos were not captioned. He’s probably one of those who reads Playboy for the articles.

Harvard and MIT lawyers said the videos had captions and pointed to automatic captions. This wasn’t good enough. They ended up settling and now provide high-quality captions.

Usablenet accessibility lawsuit report has found more than 20 percent of accessibility lawsuits are against companies that have been previously sued. And the rate of filing for ADA website lawsuits is one per hour. Contrary to what these companies may think, it’s NOT cheaper to deal with lawsuits over baking accessibility into the organization.

Caption users are a passionate lot. They will speak loudly and boycott brands. It can hurt the company’s reputation. So, the lack of captioning costs more than the price of a lawsuit.

7. Benefit from search engine optimization

This only applies to videos that contain a text file — such as .SRT — with the captions. You can caption one of two ways: open or closed. And in some cases, SEO does not matter. For example, posting a video on LinkedIn, Instagram, or Tik Tok.

Open captions

Open captions are also known as burned-in or permanent captions. They always show up on the video. You can’t turn them off and on. The captions turn into an image. The viewer can control the captions. If the captions aren’t readable, they’ll move on.

The advantage of open captions is the captions always work. You don’t have to upload a second file (the SRT text file). Not everyone has captions turned on, so they may not realize a video is captioned.

Closed captions

Closed captions only appear if you have the captions turned on. Unlike with open captions. anyone who doesn’t want captions can turn them off. Many video services allow you to change the font, color, and style of captions.

They also require a text-based file like the .SRT file to work. The text file has time codes to tell the video when to show each line of captions. Search engines can read this text file, which optimizes your video for search engines.

For a deeper dive into this topic, see What You Need to Know About Types of Captions.

Which one is better? Open or closed. Closed captions win because they give the viewer more control. Everyone has their preferences. Closed captions let them customize the captions. Some video platforms have more customization options than others.

I use open captions in a few instances like Instagram. I cannot edit the automatic closed captions on Instagram. So, I use open captions while following best practices.

There are many more reasons, such as helping second language learners. When a company says its target audience has no deaf people or second language learners, here are six reasons that do apply to them.

Statistics About Captions

  • Report from Preply has more statistics. Here are the highlights:
    • 50% of Americans watch content with subtitles most of the time.
    • 55% say it is harder to hear the dialogue in shows and movies than it used to be.
    • 72% watch captions because the audio is muddled.
    • 70% of Gen Z use captions.
  • 61% of 18- to 25-year-olds and 31% of 25- to 49-year-olds watch TV with subtitles. [YouGov]
  • 86% of 156 people polled who use captions are not deaf or HoH. [Source: Meryl poll]
  • 80% of the people who use captions are not deaf or HoH. [Sources: OfCom and Verizon Media]
  • 80% of members use subtitles or closed captions at least once a month. [Netflix]
  • A survey of U.S. consumers found that 92% view videos with the sound off on mobile and 83% watch with the sound off. Source: Verizon Media and Publicis Media]
  • 10% of broadcast viewers use subtitles regularly, increasing to 35% for some online content. [BBC]
  • 80% of viewers react negatively to videos autoplaying with sound. So now, many social media outlets now autoplay videos on silent. [Facebook]
  • Almost 80% of video views on LinkedIn occur with the sound off. [LinkedIn]
  • Video content designed for silent viewing is 70% more likely to be watched all the way through to the end. [LinkedIn]
  • 69% view videos without sound when they are in public places and 25% in private [Verizon Media and Publicis Media]
  • Video Captions Benefit Everyone [Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences] [PDF]
  • About 90% of all students who use closed captions find them at least moderately helpful for learning. [Educause]
  • Increases overall brand awareness by 19%. [AdTechDaily]
  • 40% using Instastories have the sound off. [AdWeek]
  • 80% more likely to watch the entire video with captions available [Verizon Media]
  • Increases engagement. [Instapage]
  • Avoid potential lawsuits and negative publicity. [The Hollywood Reporter]
  • Gen Z prefers captions: no stats, but here’s why.
  • Captions help reading according to a study [Kids Read Now]
  • Orgs filled petition with FCC about ASR captioning [Vitac]
  • Why Your Brain Loves Closed Captions [Salon]
  • “More than 100 empirical studies document that captioning a video improves comprehension of, attention to, and memory for the video.” [HHS Manuscript]

Caption 10 Guidelines to Create Great Captioned Videos

Great captions are boring! Simple leads to effortless captions. Adding captions is only half of the equation for great captions. The other half is quality. You can do a lot of things right and still make these common caption mistakes.

Why Good Captioned Videos Are Important shows you some of these Caption 10 guidelines and best practices in side-by-side videos. One video follows the rule. One breaks it. See what a difference great captions make.

10 guidelines for accessible captions: Readable, accurate, synchronized, length, position, sound, credits, voice changes, speaker identification, and motion with one or two sentences describing each one.

First, 100% of caption users will never agree on best practices. Hence, these best practices work for many.

For example, someone said yellow text is better for captions. It can be for a few, but yellow is also disliked by more. Off-white has the greatest amount of support. (Pure white can be too bright for some.)

I created these based on my experience and knowledge of accessibility. Then, I tweaked them after interviewing users, finding Described and Captioned Media Program’s Captioning Key, and doing surveys.

It can be a lot to read guidelines. I developed these to make it easy to check the quality of captions. If you do these things, your captions will most likely be accessible.

The best captions are customizable. Wish more platforms had more customization.

Bonus: Use closed captions to give viewers choices. (It’s not always possible to provide closed captions.)

Here’s a checklist to ensure your captions are good. You can use this to help you find a qualified captioning vendor.

  1. Captions are readable: Off-black background, off-white text, plain sans-serif font, and Goldilocks font size (neither too big nor too small). Avoid ALL CAPS. If you use closed captions, you’re golden!
  2. Captions are accurate including spelling and punctuation. Avoid bleeping bad words unless the sound is actually [bleep], dagnabbit!
  3. Captions sync with the audio.
  4. Captions are the right length. Use 1 to 2 lines at around 32 characters each. (I do about 36 to 38.) Breaking points matter too. DCMP’s Captioning Key has an excellent guide on this. For the love of all things … don’t do one or two words at a time so fast.
  5. Position captions on the bottom unless No. 7 applies. Then you can move them to the top temporarily to show text on the bottom.
  6. Caption *relevant* sounds including music and song lyrics. [Jaunty music] [phone rings] [door chimes] [dog barks]
  7. Captions don’t hide credits or on-screen text. Viewers want to see both.
  8. Caption voice changes. If a voice changes, it changes for a reason. This could be accents, making a voice higher or lower, becoming hoarse, or imitating something or someone else.
  9. Identify the speaker. If it’s not obvious who is speaking, put the name in brackets [Meryl] or use dashes:
    – Speaker 1
    – Speaker 2
  10. Use pop-in motion rather than moving captions that roll up like in live events. Skip the karaoke-style captions 😵‍💫

Make progress with accessibility by adding captions to your video production process. Just like editing is part of the writing process, captioning is part of the video creation process.

For details on the 10 best practices for high-quality, accessible captions, check out the 10 guidelines for great captions.

Caption Video FAQ

Here are the captioning videos frequently asked questions in a separate article.

List of Captioning Software

Here’s what’s available. If anything is missing, contact me so I can add it to the list.

Android

Audio or Video to Text

iOS

Software

Services

Web-based

Special Caption Topics

Use #Captioned When Posting Videos

Expand your video’s reach by adding #Captioned when you post your captioned videos. This hashtag is unique in that doesn’t tell you the topic of the video. Rather, it tells you the video has captions. This allows people to find videos that are captioned.

Yes, YouTube’s search tool has a “Captioned” as an option. However, if a video has open captions, it will not likely show up as a captioned video. And most social networks do not have a search tool to find captioned videos. Thus, #Captioned is the way to search for captioned videos.

Why not #Captions? Because it refers to a lot of things besides captioned videos.

What’s the Difference Between Subtitles and Captions?

Although some people say “subtitles” when they mean “captions,” they are and they are not the same thing. Confusing right?

English spoken outside of the U.S. typically refers to captions as subtitles, which is one reason why so many use captions and subtitles interchangeably.

The names don’t matter. However, to explain the important difference, subtitles refer to captioning a foreign language in the viewer’s language. An example of subtitles is a film with a dialog in Spanish that contains English subtitles.

Subtitles do not show sounds or voice changes. They don’t identify speakers when it’s not obvious. And they don’t show the words when the speaker speaks the same language as the viewer.

Subtitles only show the translation of what the speaker says. Nothing more.

Here’s a unique situation that’s the reverse of what usually happens with subtitles.

So, viewers still need captions in subtitled programs to cover the gaps.

Fortunately, many TV programs and movies are good about it.

Still, captions and subtitles run into problems:

  • Captions overlap the subtitles.
  • Subtitles are not always readable.
  • Subtitles cannot always work alone.

Three things that make great subtitles and captions:

  1. Are easy to read
  2. Play well with each other
  3. Leave no gaps (Captions should cover anything subtitles don’t)

When you apply these three things, your viewers will be happy!

Open Vs. Closed Captions

There’s no right or wrong answer here as long as the captions are readable, accurate, synchronized, and all the other factors in the Caption 10 Guidelines.

You want to know about both to help you decide which is better for your video. They have a little war going on like the Coke and Pepsi wars. Some folks are passionate about one over the other.

So, the two types of captions are open and closed.

  • Open is burned-in. It’s permanent.
  • Closed only appears if you have captions turned on.

Before we dig in, a couple of points. One is that the apps that add captions to a video vary in their features. Some give you more options than others. Some give you more control than others. So, this will cover general differences.

Open Captions

Let’s start with open captions.

One plus is that these always show up on the video.

You won’t have to worry about whether the captions work. Sometimes, a social network or website has a glitch that won’t let you upload the caption file. This isn’t a problem with open captions.

Depending on the app you use, it may give you more control over the placement and look of captions.

Another plus is that you don’t have to take the extra step of uploading the text file along with the video. I once had a caption file disappear weeks after I originally uploaded it. (It worked for at least two weeks.)

Viewers can see the captions no matter what. But for some people, this is a drawback. Not everyone wants captions. You can’t turn off open captions.

It’s also not optimized for search engines. Search engines can’t read burned-in captions like they can read a text file.

The other downside is that open captions may not be readable. Remember, some people may view your captions on a mobile device.

The No. 1 rule for great captions is readability. So, check your captions on various screen sizes as well as when the video is small and full-screen.

Closed Captions

Text-based captions known as closed captions don’t run into this problem.

The default is a white font with a black background. They get bigger and smaller when you resize the screen.

Closed captions require a second file. It’s a text file with a time code. The time code tells the captions when to appear on the video.

Closed captions also have one huge advantage.

Search. Engine. Optimization.

Because the captions appear in a text file, the search engine can read the captions. That’s music to marketing’s ears.

Of course, SEO is not always important. For me, captions showing up is No. 1. LinkedIn has lost my caption SRT file at least twice. (And it worked for at least one or two days.) This is unacceptable. So, I started posting videos with open captions.

The other upside of closed captions is that some networks or services allow you to pick the font, style, and color. Not all of them do.

LinkedIn doesn’t. But Netflix, Hulu, Facebook, and all the major video networks do.

Closed captions have a standard look and tend to show up at the bottom of the screen. Since you know where the captions show, you can make sure any credits and text don’t overlap them.

Closed captions are adaptable like responsive websites. These websites automatically resize for the screen or device they’re viewed on. Closed captions resize and move based on the screen or device. If you’re working with the player controls, the captions will shift up. If you flip your phone sideways, the captions will adapt and get larger.

The disadvantage of closed captions is that sometimes people may not realize the video is captioned because they don’t have captions turned on. To view captions on mobile requires going into the mobile device’s Settings > Accessibility and turning on the captions.

Not everyone knows how to do this. Hopefully, the mobile operating systems will receive an update so that people can see the CC button even if their Accessibility settings aren’t set for closed captions.

Here’s a clip that uses both open and closed captions. Can you figure out which is which? Take a look.

Did you figure it out?

So, back to the Cola Wars. Which do you prefer? Open or closed captions and why? Please let me know in the comments below.

What You Need to Know About Captioning Live Events

Read this before you hire a company or freelancer to caption your live event.

Some reported a captioning service went downhill after another company acquired them.

I didn’t think anything of it other than not to hire them.

Then, a colleague shared her experience at a conference. The captions didn’t work. The company blamed the equipment. She stopped the conference, which forced them to fix it.

Ai Media bought the captioning service that went downhill. I have not heard one positive story about this company. Ai uses different methods for captioning. One of which is respeaking, which greatly lengthens the captioning process. Here’s a quick demo of how respeaking live captions work. The company labels it as “live” or “human-generated” captions.

Here’s the full process as Samantha Evans explains:

  1. Human listening to the conversation
  2. Human respeaking the words
  3. Machine-generated captions being generated
  4. Human editing those machine-generated captions
  5. Delivering the captions back to the “live” audience

Can you imagine the delay in this process?!

I’d pick autocraptions over this! This will have errors and the delay will be too long.

Ai calls these “human-generated captions” and “live captions.” This confuses people.

Also, be aware of C-Print and Typewell for captioning. Their purpose is better served elsewhere. Mirabai Knight explains it better than I can.

“C-Print and Typewell are non-verbatim text expansion systems typed on a regular QWERTY keyboard, and their speed is much lower than steno. Steno captioners can type up to 260 words per minute or more. Text expansion systems don’t often get faster than 160 or so, so they tend to paraphrase and summarize quite a lot in order to keep up.”

As you search for a captioning service, ask questions. Find out exactly how the captioning company does its captions. Transcripts are NOT a substitute for captions.

Quality captions matter. Here’s a list of recommended live captioning providers in a separate article.

More special video captioning topics are in a separate article.

Resources

Here are resources on captioning that you might find useful.

Want More Content Like This? To get an occasional email delivered to your inbox that will boost your accessibility and disability awareness efforts, subscribe to the newsletter.

Originally published on April 9, 2019

Updated on April 2, 2024

24 thoughts on “The Complete Guide to Captioned Videos”

  1. Nice!

    Don’t know if it’s universal, but when I caption,
    I pay attention keeping phrasing, and pause,
    and how they affect where I put line breaks.

    Kinda related to your length discussion.

    Don’t know how if it helps others, it helps me.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Bill! I’m thinking about revising the length to mention this as I discovered this in the middle of the series. If there are two lines, I try not to end the first line on a preposition, conjunction, or other short words that feels like hanging. Also, avoid ending the captions (whether one or two lines) with said items.

      Another item I’ve learned is to try to keep two lines close in length. One may be a little longer than the other. Depends on logical breaks. The challenge with these is there are no hard and fast rules. But worth mentioning.

      Reply
  2. But I also make sure I take my medicine first, and review my captions before submitting.

    I pay attention *to keeping phrases together, and add line breaks for pauses*…

    Reply
    • Ha! No worries, Bill. That’s another thing I learned from the series … to watch my videos with captions on mobile. I’ve seen it turn 1-2 liners into 3-4 liners! And the split (where it cut-off the lines) was terrible!

      Reply
  3. Meryl- this is wonderful. I’ve shared with my co-workers because it will help them understand the benefits of captions and the importance of quality. On the question of length and where to break captions, refer to The Caption Key from the Described and Captioned Media Program [https://www.captioningkey.org/quality_captioning.html] Everything you ever wanted to know about wrapping prepositions, when to spell out numbers, etc. They show good examples of each case.

    Reply
  4. Hello, thank you for taking the time to explain this topic.
    But in a accessibility point of view I was wondering why it is recommended to have subtitles via an SRT or VTT file instead of having them directly in the video (e.g. like Adobe Premiere could do). I don’t find out the difference between these two ways of adding subtitles in a video. For translating OK I understand why, but for accessibility what it does?

    Reply
    • Farouk, great question. I don’t recommend one method over the other as many variables come to play. The advantage of using closed-captions via SRT is that it gives the user control over the captions: turning them off and on, resizing them, etc. But they’ve caused problems for me on LinkedIn (disappearing captions), so I’ve been using the open captions method.

      Reply
  5. Hi Meryl, a very thorough and in depth work trough for many issues, some I have been troubled with but not the greatest one I am experiencing.
    I am subscribed to many of the Asian channels, for my wife and I have certainly grown fond of some of the genre’s of TV shows they provide. I am an avid Chinese History buff and whenever a new series is out with historical connotation, I have to rely on my 75% language skill, (Verbal). However they also use a mix of dialects and old words, which make it a little harder.
    There is text in the released video, whether Youtube or other release and they encourage language conversion, heck I even signed up direct to one last week to see if I could get direct access to the vitals of the sub-titles, (no luck).
    I have tried all manners of ways to access the sub titles, so I can run them in outside translators, then with my knowledge of the language, I feel confident that I can do as well as the current translations or possibly better. I use my wife as a sounding board as well, while I am still studying.
    The base problem is getting this encoded/embedded chinese sub-title out in a format that I can read into my translator one line at a time and then translate first then interpret second.
    Can you guide me in this task?

    Reply
  6. Awesome information Meryl!

    Question – I’m currently trying to optimize videos for a company and they only use onscreen text. No video content. Can I still add closed captioning of the text? I feel like search engines can’t fully understand the videos without it.

    Reply
    • Howdy, Ann. That’s an intriguing question! Generally, if the text appears on screen, it should not be captioned unless it’s hard to read. Jeopardy! never captions the answers shown on the screen — only the questions.

      Reply
  7. Great to see a guide to captions that actually gives recommendations AND is written by someone who would arguably need them the most – I will definitely be saving this and keeping it in mind.

    On a bit of a tangent, do you have any particular advice, tips, and/or guidelines regarding how to format audio transcripts? Unfortunately (and annoyingly) there are virtually no good ones on the Internet, as far as I can tell.

    Reply
    • One of the biggest problems with audio transcripts is the lack of paragraphs. They often contain long blocks of text. Like online content, they should be short paragraphs (3 to 5 sentences). They should clearly identify the speaker. Those are the two biggest tips.

      Reply
      • Thanks! After thinking about it, I have some more questions:

        Q1: I presume that the guidelines given in this article for sounds and voices apply (more or less) to audio transcripts as well?

        Q2: Say that I’m making an audio transcript of a Minecraft SMP (Survival Multiplayer) Let’s Play video, with no facecam. In these types of videos, the dialogue is more or less spontaneous. Is it still necessary to capture as much detail as possible? In other words, would I still have to try to capture all the um’s, ah’s, self-corrections etc.; or would I only need to capture the um’s and ah’s that contribute to the story/enjoyment of the content, such as a person hesitating because they’re scared or want to hide something from someone else? (I’m going for the latter.)

        Q3: In a YouTube video by Vox titled “Putin’s war on Ukraine, explained”, there are several points in the video (e.g. https://youtu.be/MVu8QbxafJE?t=22) where a “new” person (i.e. the point is the person’s first appearance in the video) is shown speaking and onscreen text is given to show who the person is. In this case, would it still be necessary to identify the speaker in the captions? (I’m presuming the answer is “no”.)

        Sorry for asking so many questions! Also, to answer a question that you asked somewhere else on this website, the Contents dropdown definitely helps a lot, given the length of some of these articles – however, it is a bit tedious scrolling all the way back to the top to get to the Contents. Is it possible to add a “Top” button somewhere? (I don’t use GeneratePress so I’m not sure if it’s possible or not.)

        Reply
        • Q1. More or less, yes.

          Q2. ums and uhs can be skipped unless it’s part of a character — it demonstrates nervousness or reveals something about the person.

          Q3. No need to identify the speaker unless you don’t see the speaker.

          Bonus: GREAT catch on “Back to top.” I’ve enabled it! Thank you for thinking about this. Obviously, I don’t read my own stuff often to realize the tediousness of getting back up top! At least, my footer doesn’t scroll endlessly! HA!

          Reply

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