Special Characters: A Trend or Just Trendy?

  |  July 31, 2012   |  Comments

The novelty may be starting to wear off, but many brands are still consistently using special characters in their email subject lines.

Mention using special characters in subject lines and you may see a marketer's eyes go ↻. QR codes may also provide the same result. Both have led to some polarizing discussions. When it comes to special characters, the questions usually include: Will they display for everyone? Are they overused? Are they effective?

Will Special Characters Display for Everyone?

Probably. Most web browsers can display the characters, but some may use a specific character set to display text that does not include special characters. In these cases, a question mark or a box will be shown rather than the special character. Mobile devices may display a variation of the character. For example, a black heart on your computer may be a red heart on your iPhone. Thorough testing should give you an indication of the risk of a character not displaying properly. A set of Unicode Dingbat special characters to try can be found here.

Are They Overused?

I began trending special character usage a few months ago and usage in July is down for the first time since the big adoption explosion in March 2012. This doesn't mark when they were first used. I've seen the occasional special character over the years but I think a few hearts used for Valentine's Day campaigns broke the dam for the flood of special characters in March. This was definitely the "trendy" phase. Shamrock with your St. Patrick's Day promotion, anyone? It was actually a club (♣) but close enough.

Percent of total month's emails received.

New is fun. Marketers were sharing links to sites containing lists of font sets that made the stale task of writing a subject line a bit more exciting. So, were they overused? There are a few ways to define usage. Of the 550+ special characters that I monitor, only about 30 have been used. The same special characters are repeated quite often: ♥s, ★s, ☼s…I suspect the ☃ will arrive in due time. It should be noted that I do not track travel sites so the fleets of ✈ are not part of my data.


Within a subject line, only one special character is used on average, but the maximum number tripled from two in March and April to six in May and June. That's a lot of stars!

Speaking of stars, the ★ is the second most commonly used special character. Labor Day and the Fourth of July promotions spiked usage over previous months. The ♥ has consistently led the pack.

Are They Effective?

They certainly can be! The real question is will they continue to be as effective? Subject lines are tricky little creatures and shifting to a different subject line structure often leads to an increase in opens. That approach may eventually bore subscribers and then opens will begin to fall. Different segments may react differently. There's no silver bullet. (Note: there is no silver bullet special character either!)

Spammers also want their emails to stand out in your spam folder. While I'm a tad impressed that they were so quick to adopt the trend, this could potentially impact delivery of legitimate emails if messages containing special characters begin to be seen as a spammer's tactic.


From what I've seen, special characters can boost open rates more than 15 percent. Whether that momentum will continue long term is worth testing, but based on historical trendy subject line approaches, the answer is probably not.

Several of the brands that I monitor consistently used special characters for consecutive months. I doubt they would repeat this subject line approach if it was not continuing to perform.

I believe special character usage will continue, though we will see them less frequently. Based on the decline seen in July data, the novelty may be starting to wear off. Special characters could be becoming less special.

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Jim Davidson

As an expert in email, mobile, and social strategies, Jim Davidson brings over 13 years of experience in online marketing, managing email and cross-channel programs for top retail clients. From strategic vision to implementation, Jim has led clients to successfully meet aggressive revenue and performance goals. As Bronto's manager of marketing research, he regularly publishes industry-focused white papers, research reports, and contributes to the Bronto Blog. Jim's articles frequently appear in leading retail, e-commerce, and marketing publications.

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