Symbols in Subject Lines… ♥ Them or ✄ Them?

Recently some members of the Blackbaud marketing team stirred up some internal controversy by sending out an email that contained stars in the subject line (highlighted below.)  While I didn’t make this choice, the email happened to be promoting my NPExperts Session on Social Fundraising so this put me on the front lines for internal complaints.

The main push back was that including symbols like stars or hearts  in the subject line increases the likelihood that a message would land in the recipient’s spam folder and goes against “best practices.”

Then two days later I received a note from Travelocity with the exact same stars in the subject line. I immediately sorted my Outlook by subject and found that I 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.

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?

Symbols in Subject Lines

After spending some quality time with Google, my conclusion is that when used strategically including symbols in your subject lines can help your message stand out in a crowded inbox and potentially increase open rates. Experian reported in that subject lines with symbols had a higher unique open rate in 56% of brands they analyzed.

Symbol Fun Facts from the Experian Study:

  • The most popular symbols are (in order): ♥ ★ ☼ ♫ ☀ ✿ ☆ ♡ ⇒ ☺ ❤ ✈ ✞ → ☂
  • The black heart (♥) is the most popular symbol, but provided only a modest open rate lift of 2.2%
  • Of the 5 most popular symbols, the black sun with rays had the highest lift in open rates (14.9%)
  • Trying a different symbol may add a ‘wow’ factor to subject lines.   Airplanes (✈) had a 10.7% lift in unique open rates, while umbrellas (☂) generated a 50% lift

★ Tips to Effective use of Symbols in Subject Lines ★

  1. Select the right symbol. Your symbols should make sense with the content of your email message and the branding of your event/organization. For most event fundraisers, symbols like stars or balloons can communicate a fun, social spirit that fall naturally in alignment with how you want to position your events.  In the examples above you see that it’s completely logical to see an airplane associated with vacation or travel provider.
  2. Not all symbols are created equal. Some symbols appear in some email clients and not in others.  In fact, Outlook 2003 doesn’t support any symbols.  Test your preferred symbol in several email clients and on several devices to make sure your star still looks like a star for the majority of your readers.  The Campaign Monitor did some cool testing on this.   Tools like Email on Acid (which is already built into Luminate Online) can make this sort of testing much faster and much easier!
  3. Test the waters with A/B Testing. This style of testing requires you to send out two identical messages with 1 aspect of the email that has changed. In this case, the difference between the two campaigns should be the presence (or not) of symbols in your subject line. Compare how the response rates were impacted by the subject line adjustment.  Email Marketers TMG saw their enewsletter open rate nearly double when they started playing around with symbols leading the subject.
  4. Use the technique sparingly. If you do see increases in open rates based on your A/B testing, don’t immediately start adding stars and hearts to every email that leaves your event.  Overuse of this technique could spoil the novelty and prevent the uptick in future messages.

Inquiring minds want to know… Has your event or organization used symbols in your subject lines?  How did that impact your open/response rates?