using emojis in subject lines

The 2020 Definitive Guide to Using Emojis in Subject Lines

Few things in email marketing are as dull and boring yet incredibly important as subject lines. Just a single line of plain text to summarize and entice people into opening your email. 

It’s no wonder then that over the past few years we’ve seen a steady increase in email marketers adding emojis to their subject lines. 

But does including an emoji in your subject line help or hinder your email campaign? Do they make your email stand out among the others vying for attention? Or do they just annoy your subscribers? 

When one third of your email list base their decision to open and read your email entirely on its subject line, and two thirds report emails as spam solely on subject lines, the stakes are high. 

So, to give you the ability to make an informed decision, let’s take a look at what the data says about using emojis for email subject lines and all the considerations you should be aware of. 

The effects of including an emoji in your subject line

Adding emojis usually increases open rates

increases open rates emoji

One of the most comprehensive studies on the effect of emojis on subject lines comes from Return Path. By looking at the effect of the most popular emojis on open rates for various holidays, they found that adding an emoji usually sees an improvement. 

Take New Year’s for example.

The overall average open rate for a New Year’s promotional campaign is 18%. But subject lines that included the Champagne bottle (🍾) or the confetti ball (🎊) saw an average open rate of 22%. 

Subject lines that included 🎇, 🎆 or 🎉 also saw an open rate of between 19% and 21%. 

However, New Year’s email subject lines that included the clinking glasses (🥂) had an average open rate of only 9%.

There’s similar results for Mother’s Day. Subject lines including nail polish (💅) achieved an average open rate of 24% whereas those with the woman (👩🏻) emoji saw only a 7% open rate. This is compared to an overall average of 20%. 

In addition to Return Path’s study, Experian reported that just over half of brands (56%) that used an emoji in their subject line achieved higher open rates. This means that for 44% of brands, including an emoji either resulted in no difference or a decrease in open rates.

Emojis usually also increases complaint rates

increases complaint rates

Going back to New Year’s, the two emojis that improved open rates to 22% also resulted in an increased complaint rate (the rate at which subscribers complained to their inbox providers about receiving the email).

In this case, the Champagne bottle (🍾) subject lines had an average complaint rate of 0.22% and subject lines with the confetti ball (🎊) 0.49%. This is compared to an overall average of 0.11% for New Year’s emails. 

The story is similar for most of the other holidays analyzed. Suggesting that using emojis in your subject line tends to increase your complaint rate. 

Making sense of the results

including emojis in subject lines

So the data out there suggests that including having an emoji in your subject line usually, but not always, improves your open rate. But sometimes it will harm your open rate and other times it’ll have little effect. 

Then there’s the more clear trend of an increased complaint rate.

The most probable explanation for what’s going on is that emojis are simply doing exactly what email marketers intend them to do: grab people’s attention. 

This explains why most of the time you’ll see an increased open rate by using emojis. However if you include an irrelevant emoji, chances are people will still take notice of it, but you’ve turned them off clicking on your email. 

It also explains why emojis increase complaint rates. If your email has been flying under the radar of subscribers who for whatever reason don’t think they should be receiving your email, slapping an emoji on your subject line is a surefire way of finally getting noticed. 

So does all this mean you should or shouldn’t include emojis in your subject line? 

confused emoji

It means that you should carefully consider when to use emojis.

By following the best practices for subject line emojis in this guide, you should achieve better opens. Even if it comes at the expense of a few more complaints, but if you maintain proper email list hygiene, that shouldn’t be a problem. 

If you instead start just throwing in emojis for the sake of it, your open rate will likely take a hit, your complaints grow and your email list shrink as people unsubscribe.

Best practices for using emojis in subject lines 

So what are the best practices when it comes to including an emoji in the subject line? To give your emails the best chance at benefiting from adding emojis, there’s definitely a few practices you’ll want to follow.

A little goes a long way

best practices for emojis in subject lines image

Just like how you shouldn’t write your subject line in all caps or include excessive punctuation, you also shouldn’t include too many emojis. 

Including too many will just make your email come across as spammy. There’s no reason to have two smiley faces when a single one does the job. The subject lines below are good examples of what to avoid doing.

examples of spammy emoji subject lines

You might be able to get away with two emojis but don’t push your luck with three or more. If you want to play it safe, keep it to only one. 

Keep it relevant

on target emoji

There’s over three thousand different emojis available for you to choose from. So there’s no excuse to keep using the same smiley face with every campaign. 

Remember the Mother’s Day stats from above? 

The much more relevant nail polish (💅) achieved an open rate of 24% whereas when the far less relevant woman (👩🏻) saw only a 7% open rate. Using an irrelevant emoji or even one that just doesn’t resonate with your audience will hinder your engagement rates. 

Consider your audience

Whether emojis help or harm your email marketing depends largely on who is opening your email. You probably already have an idea of how your audience will respond to emojis, but important differences to consider include:

Young vs. old

young and old emojis

As you might suspect, younger audiences respond better to emojis than older audiences. A study of 1,000 Americans found that 68% of millennials view using emojis positively, compared to just 37% of those over 65. 

This doesn’t mean that you can’t use emojis if your audience tends to be on the older end of the scale. However the older your audience is, the more you should consider if using an emoji is appropriate.

Instead of using them with every campaign, reserve them for special events. And when you do use them, be more conservative with your choice of emoji and keep it to only one per subject line. 

B2B vs. B2C

b2b vs b2c emoji

Emojis change the tone of your email. While different emojis can change the tone in different ways, every emoji will make your subject line less formal and more playful. 

This can be great for B2C emails, especially if your brand embraces informality. 

B2B emails on the other hand often require a more professional tone as they’re more a form of business communication. This makes using emojis more risky and something that can even come across as inappropriate. Especially when a survey of workers found that a third thought a simple smiley face was unacceptable in business emails

Women vs. men

woman and man emojis

There’s some research that shows that women tend to react more positively to emojis than men. Even though the difference was substantial (4% compared to 13% viewed them negatively), overall both men and women are far more likely to respond positively than negatively.

Test, test, test

a/b testing tube

No matter how well you know your audience, you still won’t know exactly how they’ll respond until you add emojis to your subject lines. 

Your safest option is then to A/B test your subject lines by testing one version with an emoji and the other without. After doing this a few times, you should start to see what effect including an emoji has on your open and click through rates. 

If you haven’t done any testing before, we have a guide on A/B testing subject lines that you should  check out. 

How to put an emoji in a subject line

By now, you might be wondering how you can actually insert an emoji into the subject line field. After all, most people only use emojis on their phones. 

To insert an emoji on your computer you have a couple of options:

  • Copy and paste the emoji from a site like Emojipedia
  • On Macs, click in the subject line field and then press CONTROL + COMMAND + SPACE to bring up the selector. 
  • On PCs, click in the subject line field and then press the Windows key + either the period (.) or semicolon (;) key.

Considerations when including emoji

Emojis render differently on different devices and email clients

different mobile devices

The same emoji will not look the same across every device. Each operating system has its own design language. For example, take a look at how the smiley face renders across various platforms:

smiley face across different mobile devices

The differences are subtle, but for some emojis the differences are much more pronounced. The t-shirt for instance completely changes color.

how t-shirt renders across different mobile devices

So one subject line you definitely don’t want to send your email with is “Flash Sale on Blue T-Shirts 👕”

To avoid having to open your email on half a dozen different mobile devices, you can easily see how an emoji will appear on different operating systems by searching for it on Emojipedia. This site also lets you copy the emoji to your clipboard making it easy to paste into your subject line field. 

Brand new emojis may not render at all

no emoji render on some operating sysyems

Every year a new set of emojis are released. For example, last year we got a stethoscope (🩺), flamingo (🦩) and person kneeling (🧎) emojis, among over 200 others.  

When new emojis are released, the task of supporting them falls on operating system providers. So that people can view the new emojis, software updates are required, and for brand new emojis, this can take time. 

You might even find that you view the emojis above because your device hasn’t yet received an update to render them. 

Within a year or two most mobile devices will be able to display the new emojis. That said, to ensure your subscribers don’t end up seeing square boxes in their place, avoid using any newly released emojis in your subject line. 

For more on emoji rendering in subject lines, check out our support doc here

Final thoughts

Subject lines exist to let people know what an email is about. 

When used well, emojis can provide more information about the email more concisely while also grabbing people’s attention. 

However, when abused to purely grab attention and get clicked, chances are they’ll end up hurting your email marketing. 

And as with everything in digital marketing, approach any change in how to write your subject lines methodically and run A/B tests so you gain a clear idea of whether results are improving or not.


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