A new way to get subject line standout

Using symbols to engage your email subscribers

Getting the email subject line to standout in the inbox is a continual challenge. Here I'll show you how you can experiment with a technique you don't see discussed much in email marketing. It's about the potential of symbols, such as snowmen and hearts, to achieve this. I say "potential" deliberately - do you think it's a useful technique - would you use it and when?

Email clients have been improving their support for world languages and this has meant also support for the many symbols that are defined in the world character set, known as Unicode.

I decided to try a few symbols and see just how well email clients did in correctly showing them. The subject line I tested with was this:

Subject line symbols, snowman, smilie and a heart

The webmail clients for Gmail, Yahoo and Hotmail all had good support.




Outlook 2003 to 2010 support Unicode symbols, this is how the Outlook 2010 inbox looks:

iPhone and iPad had no problems either, however the standard Android 2.2 email client whilst showing the heart symbol (♥) did not show the snowman (☃) or smilie (☺).

Further email clients that correctly showed these symbols include, Blackberry, AOL Mail, Apple Mail, Lotus Notes 6.5 and above, Thunderbird 2.0 and above.

To find out what symbols you might use then take a look at the miscellaneous characters in the Unicode character set. Select the symbol carefully. As my test shows, some symbols are too squashed to have impact. You will need to test the symbols you pick across email clients to ensure they work. Use the inbox render testing tool in your email solution or this Litmus subject line checker. You also need to think of (test) the delivery implications.

To use this technique your broadcast email solution will need to support use of utf-8 and 'base64' encoding for your email subject line.

The actual symbol picked will impact the overall campaign success. Pick a symbol that supports your message, such as a hot beverage (☕) for a coffee shop will produce a better result than a simple star, bullet or arrow.

The technique has some promise and is worth consideration for real campaign tests. I would strongly advise running split tests on a portion of your list to see how it works for your customers. Older and minor email clients may well still struggle with Unicode, so whilst a large portion of your customers may give a better result, there could also be an adverse result from part of your customer base.

Do add a comment if you've tried this technique and have results to share. I will be watching my inbox for any novel symbol use!

Share your thoughts

  • Hugo commented on October 27, 2014

    Use symbols in emails http://simbolos-signos.tumblr.com/

  • curious commented on October 18, 2013

    unfortunately , only the heart symbol appears in all email providers for me. Other symbols didnt fully show up in Outlook and Aol. does anyone know a way around this?

  • joseph commented on August 27, 2013

    how to add this symbols to my outlook subject line, i mean as template to use in every mail i send

  • you cannot test the symbols in Litmus for mobile.

  • Just found out about this resource which is a summary of symbols that render well in email clients http://fsymbols.com/all/

  • There’s a great list of symbols for use in email marketing subject lines on wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miscellaneous_Symbols

  • Some really good examples of symbols in subject lines, along with some stats to show the impact on campaign metrics here http://blog.returnpath.com/blog/guy-hanson/symbolically-speaking—hard-facts-on-a-soft-approach

    Stats show symbols are not a problem for deliverability. In some cases the symbols improve read/open rate performance and others not. So like with any tactic, it can work for some and not others. Note however that read/open rates are not strong success predictors for conversion. Meaning you need to look deeper than just those metrics.

  • Cbaril commented on June 15, 2012

    Can you create a custom symbol like a favicon for everyone to see?

    • Wouldn’t that be great? Shame but its not possible, you can only pick from the unicode character set and so pre-defined symbols.

  • Liz Gould from Cheetahmail tells me they are seeing typically 15% open rate increases using symbols.

  • Greg commented on February 14, 2012

    The heart symbol doesn’t seem to be working for me in GMail – at least, not in the view where you are actually reading the email. It’s a question mark. This is in Google Chrome.

    Now, the subject line is being stored in an SQL Server database, and then extracted by and email program and sent … perhaps it is not making it through the chain somewhere …

  • With Valentines just around the corner there are several campaigns using heart symbols.

    Here is an example from Dell http://www.smartinsights.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/dellheart.png and this blog posts summary of standout valentines lists two http://blog.verticalresponse.com/verticalresponse_blog/2012/02/emails-we-love-just-in-time-for-valentines-day.html

    Of course we don’t know whether these were tested to prove it improved results.

  • Andy commented on October 21, 2011

    Interesting read Tim. My first though was that it would probably have a better ‘stand out’ effect if used in the from name rather that the subject line.
    Would the use of symbols in the from name have any additional delivery issues in comparison to the subject line?

    • Certainly food for thought. Normally it’s best to keep the from name to something known and that connects to the customer.

      I don’t see it will have any delivery issues and it can be done, see screenshot linked from this tweet http://twitter.com/#!/tawatson/status/127386025424195585

      It might look a bit spammy and get a bad reaction. This is largely uncharted ground and needs some split testing to see how customers react. Thanks for the idea.

  • It’s an interesting thought and one that could work well in certain circumstances. I do wonder what deliverability will be like and what effect it might have on recipients thinking it is spam.Only testing will tell…

    I’ll be giving it a go and let you know what happens!

  • Mark Commons commented on October 18, 2011

    Interesting idea but I have to say that personally I would delete pretty much anything that came through with symbols in the subject without even reading it.
    Would also have thought that it would have reduced comprehension as you are mentally switching between reading text and symbols and trying to interpret what the symbol is, though for those markets who use particular symbols regularly I guess that it wouldn’t be a problem.
    As usual it all comes back to testing what works for your list…

    • Hello Mark, I guess this is the joy of marketing, everyone is different. I know the heart symbol has been used in a couple of campaigns and I read a comment from one person that they really liked it.

      Totally agree on testing, any new techniques should be subject to evidence that it helps. Thank you for taking the time to let me know what you thought.

  • Sarah Alder commented on October 18, 2011

    I think this could easily get tiresome and over used. Particularly in the run up to Christmas. Am I just an old cynic?

    • Hello Sarah, Thank you for the comment, I agree, overuse would be tiresome. Much as with over use of any technique. Such as using a first name. Using a first name sometimes may improve results, using it everytime gets boring. I’m a cynic often too! The symbol really has to add something to the message to make it work.

  • Interesting leftfield idea Tim! Could help get cut-through on a one-off campaign. It prompted me to think of the use of £, €, $ symbols for mentioning promotions and the Litmus tool is useful for testing those – didn’t know about that!

    It also made me think “delivery problems” – what do you think of that being a problem?

    • Hello Dave, yes, it also allows the £ and € symbols that are missing from the original email subject line characterset (7 bit ASCII). Many companies use GBP currently to solve the problem, whereas using this approach means a real £ symbol can be used.

      I don’t see any deliverability issues with the technique. I’ve checked spam messages and haven’t found any symbol use so there will not be any content filtering on this. The only risk is any adverse reaction causing a rise in spam complaints.

Get FREE marketing planning templates

Start your Digital Marketing Plan today with our free Basic membership.

  • FREE fast start guides to review your approach
  • FREE digital marketing plan templates
  • FREE alerts on the latest developments

Need help with your Email marketing?

Get more from your digital marketing with in-company or remote training and consultancy from Smart Insights

Get FREE marketing planning templates

Start your Digital Marketing Plan today with our free Basic membership.

  • FREE fast start guides to review your approach
  • FREE digital marketing plan templates
  • FREE alerts on the latest developments