A match made in heaven: Why your subject line deserves an awesome preheader


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Before you open an email, you’ll first see the preheader in your inbox. The preheader, also known as preview text, is that short line of text displayed after the subject line in the recipient’s inbox. Taken as a whole, the From name, the Subject line, and the preheader provide the recipient a glimpse into the email’s content before opening.

When done really well, a preheader can boost open rates by as much as 30 percent. If your open rates aren’t where you want them to be, maybe it’s time to take a closer look at your preheaders.

Like other aspects of email marketing, every character of every word counts. Some argue that even if the recipient doesn’t open your email, the preheader still works as a form of subliminal messaging. Whatever you say in this little space can build an association with your brand. But more importantly, preheader content can help the recipient determine the email’s relevance, influencing their decision to open, delete, or report as spam.

Finding fault with the default

If you don’t bother to customize your preheader text, the default is to display the first few words of the email body. That sounds logical but in practice, it can lead to disjointed copy that often includes some combination of, “View in browser…company logo…Dear John.” And I mean that literally. The preheader will actually display ‘company logo’ — those exact words. Even worse is when a preheader displays, “Insert preheader text here…”

Not only is that a missed opportunity, it looks unprofessional and reflects poorly on your brand. The following examples from LinkedIn show two good preheaders alternating with two that are pretty bad, demonstrating how forgetting about the preheader can create an inconsistent — and confusing — experience for the recipient.

It might seem easy to create some preheader copy but resist the temptation to just repeat the subject line or the header and first sentence of your email body. You can do so much better than that.

How to make your preheader stand out

First consider how much space you have to work with. On a desktop screen, Gmail, for example, will display 100-120 characters in the preheader – possibly more on some larger screens. But don’t forget that the longer your subject line, the shorter your preheader. And the number of characters, for both, is significantly reduced on mobile.

Try to keep your subject line under 70 characters, to avoid having it cut off in an inopportune place. But for your preheader, it’s a good idea to use most, if not all, of the characters available to you, if for no other reason than to avoid the appearance of the dreaded ‘company logo’. The exception is if you’re using an ESP or template editor that has a dedicated preheader field which, in most cases, will automatically leave unused space blank. This avoids the issue of body copy spilling into the preheader.

Here’s an example from Booking.com, where they’ve provided no preheader copy and their ESP automatically left the unused space blank. The result is a really weird experience, leaving the recipient feeling like something is definitely missing.

On the other hand, you can also use that blank space to your advantage, using a short preheader to stand out in the inbox. Check out how this great example from Knix pops against everything around it, in spite of the fact that the emails before and after also have pretty good preheaders.

If you do use all your preheader characters, keep mobile users in mind by keeping the most important content within the first 30-50 characters, so users on smaller screens will still see the best part. (Don’t forget to include checking the preheader in your device testing.)

So what should you say in your preheader? Of course, you want to get the reader’s attention, but do so in a way that doesn’t over-promise or come off as spammy. I recently received an email with a preheader that started off with, “You have seven hours to open this email…” It was a great way to create a sense of urgency without the spam connotations of, “$ale ends $oon!!!” Or, “Limited time offer!!!”

Facebook also makes great use of the preheader in their ‘Message from a Friend’ notifications. They include a snippet of the message in the preheader, encouraging the recipient to open the email, but once they do, they have to click through to Facebook to see the full message.

Think of it this way — you’ve got about five to seven words to convince the recipient to open the email. If it’s an email with a special offer for the customer’s birthday (good idea, by the way), then your subject line will probably already include, “Happy Birthday,” so make your preheader message unique, with something enticing like, “Cake. And presents. Your special day just got better.”

It’s just as easy to personalize preheader copy as it is to personalize subject line or body copy. Use the recipient’s name or personalize based on other data. If you’re promoting a sale, for instance, you can use location and weather data to great effect — “It’s getting cold, Chicago. Have you stocked up on fall sweaters?”

To really think outside the (email) box, consider adding an emoji to the preheader. If it’s appropriate to your brand and your message, an emoji will add color and personality, making your email stand out in a sea of text.

The key is to make the preheader integral to your email content creation process, just as important as your subject line or your CTA. Putting time and effort into crafting preheader copy that reflects your brand and that resonates with your customers will make your emails pop in the inbox, enticing recipients to open — which is the first step toward engagement and conversion.

Matt Harris
MattHarris is the co-founder and CEO of Dyspatch. He has extensive email and product expertise, acquired working with Fortune 500 clients and contracting for Government and private software companies. After graduating with a degree in Computer Science from the University of Victoria, he cut his startup chops in the inaugural cohort of FounderFuel, a Montreal startup accelerator. A self-proclaimed hacker, email nerd, and avid rock climber, Matt co-founded sendwithus in 2013 in Victoria, Canada, and later moved to San Francisco, CA, to participate in the Y Combinator program.


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