The Case For (And Against) Using Emojis in Subject Lines

by Etienne Garbugli no comments.

✉️ Sign up for Updates







This might come as a surprise, but we ❤️ emojis at Highlights.

We use them in blog posts, on social media, in subject lines, and I’ve actually configured an app to be able to use them more frequently in conversations:

Emojis in Subject Lines – TextExpander Shortkeys
TextExpander – Emoji Shortkeys

Considering the stickerization (word I just made up!) of social media platforms from Snapchat to Telegram and Facebook, it seems safe to assume that emojis are here to stay.

But… should you use emojis in subject lines? Do they actually help or hurt your emails’s open rates?

The Case For Using Emojis in Subject Lines

According to email subject line tester Send Check It, 2.5% of subject lines contain emojis today. This is about half of what Econsultancy had noted in its own research in 2017.

It’s a bit surprising, considering that…

Emojis Capture Attention

When I was working in usability and design, a colleague once showed me a great trick to assess the visual (or compositional) flow of a design; how the eye navigates through a page.

It’s easy. You just flip the design around and note where your eyes go:

Emojis in Subject Lines – Inbox Flow
Crowded Inbox With Subject Lines With Emojis

What parts of the above layout caught your eye? Emojis right? ?

The colors of most emojis stand out in a sea of white, grey, and black lines.

Emojis Increase Open Rates

Here’s the kicker: emojis do increase open rates.

I’ve seen it in various experiments we ran at LANDR Audio, and it’s notably been proven by Experian that emojis can increase open rates by up to 56%.

Without this increase, we probably wouldn’t be talking about using emojis in subject lines in the first place. ?

Emojis Can Help Communicate Complex Ideas, Simply

The brain processes visual information 60,000 times faster than text, and over 90% of the information that we process is visual.

It takes us no time to recognize what these are:

  1. ?
  2. ?
  3. ?

Or to understand slightly more complex concepts like:

  1. ?
  2. ?
  3. ?

This probably explains why MailChimp shared in 2015 that 31% of email campaigns with emojis use several emojis. Emojis can be a great way to cut down on words and explanations.

Emojis in Subject Lines – Emoji Groupings by Usage
MailChimp – Most Commonly Used Emojis by Concept Associations

Emojis Are Great for Mobile

For the above ☝️ reason, emojis can help shorten subject lines.

In 2018, 61% of emails were opened on mobile. This means that subject lines exceeding certain character counts can get cut by mobile devices.

Emojis can be really helpful to make sure that your subject lines fit the ideal character count of 41 to 55 characters (Source: Marketo).

Although it’s not always the case, shorter subject lines tend to perform best.


Interested in improving your emails’ performance?

We just launched a SaaS Email Masterclass ? to help increase trial conversions with email.

The Case Against Using Emojis in Subject Lines

Emojis are pretty great, right?. They capture attention, increase open rates, shorten subject lines, and help express complex concepts simply; what’s not to ❤️? (14th emoji used in this post if you’re counting…).

Emojis Don’t Display the Same Way in All Email Clients

There’s a good reason why emoji libraries like Emojipedia and GetEmoji list different emoji versions:

Emojis in Subject Lines – Cross-Device Display
Emoji Display Across Platforms

It’s because sometimes your nice little ? will look like ?…

Joke aside, sometimes if you’re not being careful, or if you’re using a new emoji in the process of being rolled out across platforms (check out the new emojis for 2019!), you might get a black and white frame like ? instead of a great new emoji…

Actual emoji. ☝️

Not All Emojis Increase Opens

Econsultancy conducted a larger study on the use of emojis in email subject lines in which they sent multiple variations of the same subject lines to 50,000 people.

What they found is that 60% of the time emojis increased the open rate (over the same subject line with no emoji), and 40% of the time it had a negative impact.

Some emojis, like some words, are more likely to hurt the open rate than others. For example:

Emojis in Subject Lines – Worst Symbols & Emojis
Econsultancy – Worst-Performing Symbols & Emojis

Of course, context and content among many other things affect open rates, so this study is not the be-all, end-all.

Emojis Don’t Fit All Brands And Contexts

Imagine if your bank sent you an email with a ? emoji…

… or if the IRS followed up on your income statement with the Money With Wings ? emoji…

… or if a security app included a ? emoji in their subject lines, it wouldn’t work right?

Emojis are not for every brand. They’re also not for every context.

Opens for the sake of opens don’t create good long-term customer relationships.

This is one of the reasons why it’s important to use empathy when optimizing marketing emails to avoid optimizing the way a robot would.

Emojis Are Not Perceived The Same By All Cultures

As with any kind of language, emojis can be perceived differently in different cultures.

Bernadine Racoma of Day Translations points out a few problematic scenarios:

She says that the thumbs up emoji (?) is perceived as an obscene gesture in Nigeria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran, that the horn emoji means that a person was cheated on in some countries, and that the waving hand emoji (?) is perceived by Chinese people as a way to break off a friendship.

This is something to consider as your business expands globally.

Emojis in Subject Lines – Drift Welcome Email
Drift – Welcome Email Subject Line

(I guess this subject line wouldn’t work everywhere ☝️)

When to Use Emojis in Subject Lines

The reality is that, like everything else in marketing, when more people use a certain tactic to gain visibility or attention, it becomes less effective.

For this reason, and because it’s really easy for marketers to overdo it, I expect that the performance of emojis in subject lines will decrease:

For the time being, performance seems stable. There also seems to be limited negative impact (other than negative tweets on Twitter) to using emojis to improve email open rates.

That said, I strongly urge marketers to consider context, use emojis sparingly, make sure they add something – don’t just emojis for the sake of using emojis, get them from reliable sources like Emojipedia, GetEmoji, or your email marketing platform, and test subject lines both in terms of performance and display.

Also… don’t be this ? business:

Etienne Garbugli
Étienne is a three-time startup founder (Flagback, HireVoice and Highlights), and the author of Lean B2B: Build Products Businesses Want. At Highlights, Étienne is responsible for customer success.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.