We're seeing more and more special characters dropping into our inboxes lately - cute symbols like ❤ and ☀. Do they really make a difference? Are there any problems with using them? And how can they be used to best effect?
The sudden rise in the use of special characters in subject lines by legitimate marketers would seem to imply that rendering and deliverability issues caused by their use are a thing of the past. However there are indications that some corporate spam filters still regard them as suspect, something which B2B marketers will need to take in to consideration. But just because it's possible to do something, that doesn't always mean we should. True, early indications are that subject lines with special characters do get you a lift in key campaign metrics. But this may only be a novelty effect.
Many subject lines use special characters at the beginning and end simply to try and stand out in recipients' inboxes - like these examples:
Even if testing shows this to be effective at the moment, this advantage is likely to disappear over time as the trick becomes more prevalent.
In other words, the more you use special characters, the less special they'll seem. And once the novelty wears off, so may the increase in your open rate. To say that special characters help you deliver increased campaign ROI in absolute terms would, by definition, require testing over a much longer period - say 6 months or a year. And even if they do still make a difference, how do we harness that power so they continue to work for us time and again?
Getting strategic about special characters
The answer is to get strategic. Ask yourself: as a marketer, what am I trying to achieve with this email? And will the inclusion of special characters help meet these goals? Or am I just doing this because everyone else is? Let's not just do it for the sake of it, or because we want to cash in on the trend then move on. Let's build a strategy around special characters that really works - and understand what it is about them that really works - so they can be incorporated into a strategy with longevity.
The key to using special characters to make your subject lines stand out is to consider the meaning of your message - what you are trying to make stand out.
Using special characters to give a bland or unfocused subject line greater profile is unlikely to result in any long-term uplift - a special character can't rescue a dull message or an unpalatable offer. But using a special character to make a specific element of a potentially effective subject line stand out could be the key to enhancing the meaning of the message. Consider this, for example:
Focus on meaning and context
Our findings about special characters are another example of the truth that in email, you can't extrapolate hard-and-fast formulas about how to do content elements from data alone. You have to factor-in your intended meaning, your knowledge of the audience, your editorial intuition about what makes the most effective execution in that context.
A similar point applies to things like subject line length and the use of subject line separators (such as commas, pipes and ampersands). For instance - and despite some people's best efforts - there is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of whether commas work better than ampersands, or what the optimum character count is for a subject line. We've found variously that '+'signs, '|', and ';' can all lift open rate - but only when they add to the message, or enhance the flow of the sentence better than any other option would have in the context. But you can't just scatter +++s about randomly and expect the same results every time.
Different options work best in different situations - again it depends on the specific message you're trying to convey. Separators, for instance, can perform different syntactical roles in text and carry different connotations - a pipe can separate 2 entire elements of a message, but it can't conjoin 2 elements of a noun phrase like 'health & safety'. Similarly, you get different results depending on how you represent the idea of 'plus' whether you use a '+' symbol, an ampersand, or the word 'plus' itself.
Ignoring such language rules because you think using a particular separator always gets an uplift is likely to have an adverse effect on your message eventually, because you'll be hampering your readers' chances of rapidly processing its meaning. And so it is with special characters - you have to understand how you're using them, and in context.
Are your special characters syntactic, semantic or illustrative?
When planning how best to use special characters, it's helpful to bear in mind the 3 key functions they can perform. Each function contributes, in its own way, to the overall 'meaning' of the message:
- Syntactic - using a special character as a separator or punctuation, for example: Thanks for signing up! ★ Get £50 off ski breaks! ★ Download your free destination guide
- Lexical - using a special character to replace a word (rather like a pictogram), for example: Get 10% off your Valentine's ❀s with this email OR Thanks for signing up - you're a ★
- Illustrative - using a special character as a decorative or design element, for example: ❀★☀Summer's here - time for a picnic ❀★☀
Which option - or combination of options - you use will depend on your brand, your audience, your strategy and so on. Using love hearts and stars as pure illustration might work for a touchy-feely retail brand, but would sit oddly in a subject line from a B2B business software provider. But the latter brand, which projects values like efficiency and service, might be able to use special characters lexically - as a shorthand way of getting to the point more quickly that makes time-poor business subscribers feel the brand understands just how busy they are.
Do you ♥ these examples?
Long-term effectiveness, then, is about using special characters that best convey and enhance meaning in context. The ♥ is a great example of this. It's one of the most instantly recognizable symbols across all demographics, and renders clearly across all platforms, even when very small in size. In the right context, ♥ can be used to convey meaning in a succinct way, and also to accentuate meaning by giving subscribers that warm, fuzzy feeling that doesn't necessarily come across as immediately or directly with the word 'love'. Consider these examples:
To use a special character in a message like 'I ♥ Christmas' makes sense because it replaces the actual word with a popular symbol to deliver more of a visual and emotional impact. Similarly, ♥s dotted around a Valentine's message work because they link with the main theme and enhance it, communicating excitement and passion in a way that words alone would struggle to do. On the other hand, just scattering love-hearts around any old message cannot be expected to have the same effect.
Here's an example of a company pushing the boundaries in the use of special characters:
What do you think? It certainly stands out. It's quite a bold departure for a relatively conventional brand. Opinion in our office is divided. Some people think it taps into the weird rainy-sunny weather we've been having recently in a very direct and compelling way. So they find it meaningful and engaging. Others didn't understand the subject but were intrigued enough to want to open the email. This achieves the right result too, of course, but sounds more like the novelty factor in action.
The lesson from subject lines
The same principles that apply to subject-line length and separators also apply to special characters. We believe the primary objective of a subject line should surely be to convey meaning. It's true that non-specific subject lines can sometimes generate a temporary lift in open rates. But when it comes to clicks, purchases and long-term effectiveness, the inclusion of specific and meaningful information about the content of the message has the most impact. Our own research into the ideal subject line length found that, while open rates fell as subject line length increased, click rates and click-to-open rates increased. When examining why this was, we found it was due to the fact that more specifically worded subject lines acted as a filter, encouraging only those subscribers who were truly interested in the contents to open. Such openers were more likely to go on to interact with the mailing than those who had opened purely to find out what was in the mailing. So you got fewer openers - but much more qualified, high-value ones.
Think about the long term
Even emails that don't get opened can have a powerful Nudge Effect on subscribers - those who delete emails will give them a moment of strongly focused attention. The cumulative effect of those moments of attention turns email into an extremely valuable channel for the communication of brand values, product information and pricing to their subscribers. This opportunity can be overlooked by marketers who focus on single subject lines rather than take a more long-term view of their cumulative effect. Special characters that are used to convey and enhance meaning will be able to contribute towards the branding, product and pricing messages in a long-term strategy. Once again, meaningfulness wins out.
PASS NOTES: How to make best use of special characters
- See what you're getting. There are many Special Characters available, but not all will render accurately, and some may not be clear. Make sure you render test based on the platforms of your subscriber base. Litmus's Subject Line Checker is a quick and easy way to see how your subject line will look in different settings.
- Build special characters into testing. When developing a test strategy on your own database, include tests that will help you build a picture of why they are working, so you can apply these lessons to future subject lines.
- Consider the long-term benefits of subject lines and always use special characters to convey and enhance meaning.
- Continue to test over time as the situation may change in the future.
- Don't just use special characters for the sake of it. Only use them if you have a specific context or objective in mind.
- Don't focus your analysis exclusively on the open rate. As always, the impact on clicks and revenue can be very different to the impact on opens.