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.

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.

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!