In the age of smartphones, text messaging and general digital overload, getting people to open your emails has never been more problematic. While that's true for personal emails to friends, it's obviously even more the case for marketers. Unlike the mail piece that can entice with color, images, font size and format, email's fate rests almost entirely on that measly subject line ... those 10 to 50 characters that vie for the prospect's attention.
Therefore, it's not surprising that marketers are now resorting to new symbols like stars (★) and hearts (♡) in order to get the public's attention. Our fundraising friends at Blackbaud recently wrote about this phenomenon. The author, Robyn Mendez, reported that her colleagues believed the usage of such symbols increased the chance that the email message would get trapped by the prospect's spam filter, but also that she "frequently received subject lines with symbols and in recent months I was receiving them more frequently from a wider variety of commercial emailers. Interestingly enough, there were no emails with symbols from other non-profits or events."
Mendez continues, "This got me thinking ... if major commercial emailers are including symbols in their subject lines, then is the practice of including symbols in subject lines really all that taboo?"
In fact, Experian tackled this very subject nearly a year ago. In a study based on Experian CheetahMail, they witnessed "mixed-to-positive results when using symbols in subject lines, with 56 percent of brands we analyzed having a higher unique open rate."
In order of popularity, the symbols they saw in subject lines ranked like this:
♥ ★ ☼ ♫ ☀ ✿ ☆ ♡ ⇒ ☺ ❤ ✈ ✞ → ☂
Experian says that "Trying a different symbol may add a 'wow' factor to subject lines. Airplanes (✈) had a 10.7 percent lift in unique open rates, while umbrellas (☂) generated a 50 percent lift."
Of course, while I was reading Mendez's piece, my work email box got pinged a few times and one email stood out more than others ... you guessed it, the one with two stars! (See the mediaplayer to the right.)
Then I looked at my Gmail and hunted for such unusual symbols. Frankly, I came up with very few examples. There was Drugstore.com with their clever use of sun symbols to promote its "Sun Care" department, but not much else. And while that email somewhat got my attention, the old-fashioned $ symbol in a nearby email from Rolling Stone grabbed my eyeballs more: "Come Back for Only $1".
In other words, let's make sure we see the forest through the trees here … or not put the cart before the horse. These new symbols may be worth exploring (see some tips below before you willy-nilly toss them into a subject line), but the "core symbols" should still be your go-to symbols in terms of frequency.
In our gigantic database of email and direct mail samples (Who's Mailing What!), members can use filters and search terms to find nearly every kind of email that's sent out (sign up for a free demo if you're interested). Indeed, we track everything involving subject lines, including the usage of symbols. Looking at the emails from 1/1/2012 to 3/31/2013 reveals the following "Real Top 10" of symbols used in emails, followed by the percentage of emails in which they appear:
- ! 33.6 percent
- - 23.9 percent
- % 20.4 percent
- : 19.9 percent
- $ 10.7 percent
- & 9.0 percent
- + 8.1 percent
- ? 3.5 percent
- / 2.5 percent
- ; 2.3 percent
Okay, I can already hear you saying, "B O R I N G!!!!!" Well, sometimes effective direct mail and email messaging is just that.
Experian also notes that employing newish symbols requires testing. "If you test using symbols in your subject lines and see great results at first that taper off, perhaps the 'newness' has worn off. Try testing new symbols or testing symbols against no symbols."
Of course, some symbols appear as themselves in certain email clients while others become gobblygook, which is a big turn-off to prospects. Make sure you test your favorite new symbols in different email clients and on different devices to make sure your thumbs up doesn't end up a big thumbs down in open rate!
Ethan Boldt is the chief content officer of Direct Marketing IQ, the home of direct marketing research and Who's Mailing What!, the most complete library of direct mail and email in the world. To watch a quick video about Who's Mailing What!, go to www.whosmailingwhat.com/video. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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