Symbols in Subject Lines: How to Get Your Email Noticed

Greg Zakowicz, Senior Commerce Marketing Analyst

Greg Zakowicz, Senior Commerce Marketing Analyst

Author Bio

Greg Zakowicz is a senior commerce marketing analyst at Oracle + Bronto. With more than 10 years of experience in email, mobile and social media marketing, Zakowicz knows the retail industry and its challenges, staying on top of the latest trends by leveraging deep insight into the marketing spectrum. His subject matter expertise stems from his experience in providing commerce marketers — including numerous Internet Retailer Top 1000 clients — with in-depth analysis of their marketing programs, recommendations for improvement, best practice support and implementation guidance and execution.

Zakowicz is a frequent webinar speaker and presenter at ecommerce events, such as Fashion Digital New York, SIA Snow Show and ROI Revolution Summit. He has been published by top retail and marketing publications, including Power Retail and Inside Retail, and is a regular contributor to Bronto’s Commerce Marketing blog. You can follow him on Twitter at @WhatsGregDoing.

One of the greatest priorities for marketers is to get your message seen. Often, that means pulling out all the stops to make sure you get your subscribers’ attention. In sports, the best coaches find hidden talent to help propel their teams. In email marketing, that means finding underused tactics. One of these oft-hidden tactics is the use of symbols in subject lines. Symbols can be that rookie player that hits a home run in the first at-bat. So let’s check out their potential by reviewing some examples.

Heart in subject line
Star subject line
Finger Point subject line

It should come as no surprise that I am increasingly being bombarded by clients asking questions around using them. Let’s discuss the use of symbols in your subject lines.

Why would you ever use symbols? As savvy email marketers, you all know that standing out from the inbox crowd is every email marketer’s goal. The use of symbols is one way to do this; however, using symbols needs to be done in a responsible manner. Here are some things to consider when deciding to use symbols in your next email campaign.

Just like choosing the right foosball partner, be sure to choose a symbol that supports your message.

It’s no surprise that using a heart symbol around Valentine’s Day makes more sense than using a wheelchair symbol, right? Or that using a flower makes more sense for an online flower shop than a smiley face would. So make a list of characters that would fit not only your brand but also the occasion.

As with cornhole, placement is key!

If you are going to begin using symbols in your subject lines, be sure to place them in the forefront of the subject line. Symbols are only effective if people see them. Think carefully about when to substitute words or when to use them simply to accent to your subject line.

Jenga requires attention to detail. Do your symbols?

Using symbols with lots of detail can seem like a great idea, but when viewed in a smaller size, they can be hard to distinguish. This can result in your email subject line crashing to the ground like a Jenga tower tumbling over. For best results, stick with something noticeable with a basic level of detail.

Call the bullpen – email clients & phones:

Many email clients, such as Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo support Unicode symbols. However, not all clients and phones are made the same. Just like email clients, your emails will look different on different phones. Check out the examples provided below.

iPhone Inbox ViewAndriod Inbox View
BlackBerry Inbox View

The iPhone supported all three symbols. I don’t want to point fingers, but neither the Android nor the BlackBerry rendered the finger point. Does your audience use mostly BlackBerrys? If so, you can expect to see the grayed out square from the example above as a substitute for some of your symbols. Be sure to test your subject lines in a variety of web-based and mobile clients!

Decide when you are going to use symbols in your email subject lines. Using symbols in every message can lose its desired effectiveness. Much like email fatigue, you don’t want your subscribers to become accustomed to seeing symbols in every single message. They will begin to look right past them. Refer back to your list of special occasions when the use of symbols would provide the most benefit. These could include trying to boost sales in a historically slower month, stand out in the inbox during peak holiday seasons or simply to push a really important message to your subscribers.

Symbols = Spam, right?

Not necessarily. There is no steadfast evidence that using symbols in the subject line increases the likelihood of sending a message to the spam folder. In fact, of all the messages I have received with symbols in them, none went to my spam folder. I have yet to hear of any significant issues with regard to using symbols and messages ending up in spam. This brings me to my next point.

Practice? Are you talking about practice?

If you are going to begin using symbols in your subject lines, I strongly encourage you to use split testing. Be sure to analyze your open rates, click rates and delivery rates to better determine whether symbols improve or impair your message metrics. If you are finding that your open rate or delivery rate dramatically decreases, stop using the symbols until you can determine the actual cause of the decrease.

Let’s recap what we learned today:

  • Choose a symbol that supports your message.
  • Front-end your symbols in the subject line to ensure they will be seen.
  • Avoid using a detailed symbol like ☣ as it may not be legible in the subject line.
  • Not all phones and email clients are created equal. Be sure to test how symbols look on different phones and clients.
  • Don’t overuse symbols – they will likely lose their effectiveness over time.
  • Symbols don’t mean your message will wind up marked as spam.
  • Test, test and test.

You can find a list of Unicode symbols on Wikipedia.

Now that you have the playbook, go ahead and get in the game and start making your messages stand out from the inbox crowd.

Have you used symbols in your subject lines? How have they worked? I’d ♥ to hear your thoughts!

11 Responses to “Symbols in Subject Lines: How to Get Your Email Noticed”

  1. Avatar

    Best use of header tags ever.

    Like in corn hole, placement is key!

    Practice? Are you talking about practice? – Not a game. Not a game. Not a game … we talking ’bout PRACTiCE.

    The blog post was wonderful too. Will be featuring it in the Waldow Social Weekly tomorrow. Sign Up! … come on. You know you want to.

    Hi to Joe/Chaz/Carolyn/Kristen/Frank/Caroline/Brandon/Lucas, etc.

    • Avatar
      Greg Zakowicz

      Thanks for the kudos DJ! I was hoping the references would not be lost on people, and I am glad you got them.

      I also appreciate you sharing this on the Waldow Social Weekly. I’ll be sure to reinforce your “hello” to the Bronto crew.

      Continued success!

  2. Avatar

    Great review of what’s available in the world of subject line symbols and how they render on different OS (yeesh, Blackberry – although, I suppose you have bigger fish to fry).

    I think the important thing to remember is to DO THIS NOW!

    Quick, before your competitors, heck, before your complements, partners and businesses in totally different industries do.

    Like all marketing tactics that are more goofy/cute than fundamentally useful, you have to strike when the iron’s hot. In a few months, (who are we kidding? a few weeks), everyone will be doing it.

    Suddenly you’re back to the drawing board once more. How do you break through the clutter and get opened, lost in a sea of undifferentiated marketing solicitations?


    • Avatar
      Greg Zakowicz

      HI DS, You are right. By the time people become used to something the marketers have already moved on to the next new thing. The use of symbols is picking up and I am curious to see how many companies will be using them leading up to, and through, the holiday season. We may be looking at lots of inbox images this year!

      And yes, BlackBerry. I’ll leave that one alone 🙂

      Thanks for reading DS. Have you used symbols at all in your marketing efforts?

  3. Avatar

    I noticed Delta using an airplane symbol in their weekly fare sale subject line a few weeks ago – sometime mid-May. It gave me the motivation to open, more to check how they got the symbol to render than anything else, but still got me to view their email!

    • Avatar
      Greg Zakowicz

      Thanks for reading Eric. I tracked down the email you are referring to and it rendered in both my Gmail and iPhone. The iPhone was much more detailed and looked like a real plane. Pretty neat.

      Seeing as the symbol made you open the email it seemed to have worked its magic, even if you opened for another reason. However, here in lies the problem. This email was simply a regularly scheduled weekly special message. I would have saved the use of the plane for a sale that is out of the ordinary. Imagine if your eyes went to this email because of the symbol and it read, “Our lowest fares of the year.” That might convince you to open and the plane symbol could have been awarded the assist (tired of the sports theme yet?). Next time you see this symbol you might think, “ah, just another weekly promo.”

      I think this was a missed opportunity. What do you think?

    • Avatar

      I noticed Delta using them too…
      I had this in the title of one of the email I received from them – ✈

      I opened the email, which is odd for me as I never read junk mail 🙂

  4. Avatar

    I’ve been wanting to try these for a while now, but as @Greg mentioned above, I want to wait for the right special email rather than work it into our normal rotation.

    My question is about the practical application though. When creating your subject line, do you type the (&)(#)… and trust that most browsers convert it to the symbol you want:

    & #9728; This is my test subject line

    My big fear is the image not rendering and the random-looking numbers and symbols appearing. Is there a better way to do it, or is that correct?

    • Avatar
      Greg Zakowicz

      Hi Andy,

      Thanks for reading. Within Bronto you can insert either the HTML code or simply copy and paste the symbol. If I were creating the message I would copy and paste the actual symbol into the subject line. Remember, be sure to test the symbol to a variety of clients to check rendering issues.

      I hope this was helpful. Be sure to let us know how your campaign using symbols goes!

  5. Avatar
    Paul Rogers

    Thank you for the tips!
    My company hasn’t still turned to mass email sending though, but this technique can be applied not only with regard to email.
    As for me personally, I would definitely open and read the email about Valentine’s Day and be rather suspicious about free shipping which looks like advertisement.
    I appreciate the work you did over this article, it’s very helpful to not only beginners, but also to experienced marketers.

    Best regards,

    • Avatar
      Greg Zakowicz

      Thanks for the comments Paul. If you begin sending as a company and utilize symbols be sure to let us know how it worked. Keep your eye out, I am sure you will see a plethora of symbols the closer we get to the year’s end.



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