Specials characters and symbols in email subject lines – does it work?

Did you notice a raft of hearts in your inbox around Valentine’s Day? If so, this may also be a good sign that something “special” works in email subject lines. Namely special characters, like the ♥ (♥). So – are such symbols generally safe to use in emails and email subject lines?

Bad news

Bad news first: no. Not all of the many sexy Unicode symbols will render consistently in every possible mail user agent your subscribers use for viewing their emails. Also not only with regards to the email header fields like subject line sender name. This restriction also equally applies for UTF-8 character encoding and using HTML entities in the email body. (Campaign Monitor checked HTML-entity-support in emails in 2010, and the advice “you can use many, but you should test!” is still valid today.)

Good news

However, the good news is, some special characters in fact do work very well. They even work in the header fields and therefore in the subject line. Tim Watson pointed out on smartinsights.com some weeks ago that one of those well-supported symbols is ♥ (♥). It renders nicely across Gmail, Hotmail, Outlook and every other client. It generates a good degree of attention in the inbox clutter, which should arouse interest: standing out usually means more opens. In addition, there are many possible occasions for using it – just check the many upcoming special months, weeks, or holidays on e.g. brownielocks.com. Just make sure to you can encode your heart-filled subject line in UTF-8 quoted printable or Base64:

Old Navy used the heart-symbol in its subject lines (Thunderbird)

Also I'm walking stood out with special characters (Gmail)

The email header-fields in quoted-printable (Q) respectively Base64 (B) looked like this:

  • Subject: =?UTF-8?Q?=E2=99=A5=E2=99=A5=E2=99=A5_Renee=2C_verliebe_Dich!
  • Subject: =?UTF-8?B?TmV3IFRyZW5kcyBXZSDimaUgKyBTYXZlIFVwIHRvIDIwJQ==?=
  • Subject: $30 Off Ends Today! Show The =?UTF-8?Q?=E2=99=A5?=!

You should prefer using quoted-printable as there is no need to encode binary data in subjectlines. Some spamfilters like SpamAssassin, which warns senders against using strange characters, might classify Base64 as a means to obfuscate something …

Add, 2012-02-24 / 2012-05-06:
Johanna Miller from email service provider Responsys also jumped in on this topic. As did Greg Zakowicz from Bronto, who witnessed some problems on on Android and BlackBerry devices.

(I collected more articles here. For inspiration, I suggest you to have a look at two unicode blocks: miscellaneous symbols and dingbats. Use the Litmus subject line checker to test, if they work. A little bonus tip: Subscribe to my newsletter below and receive the unpublished Symbol Cheat Sheet as a welcome gift.)

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13 Responses to Specials characters and symbols in email subject lines – does it work?

  1. I nave been trying to use the heart symbol in my subject line and all I get is the hex code. I have tried using the hex code and the symbol and it still shows the hex code upon delivery. Are there any suggestions?

    • Hm if you copy/paste the heart symbol into your subject line, what exactly does the subject line header in the delivered email look like? Is it encoded correctly as quoted printable or utf-8? Otherwise you’d have to set up your sending software correctly.

  2. Pingback: Schon getestet? Unicode-Symbole im Absender - Email Marketing Blog

  3. I have the same issues here, the heart at the beginning rendered as a question mark on Apple devices then I fixed using using this =?UTF-8?B?4p2k?= but now I have a square on BlackBerry.

    Here the question I asked on SO:

  4. Pingback: ¿Es buena idea usar caracteres especiales en el asunto de campañas de email?

  5. Char-elz Poynton

    This is a flaky, bad idea. Apart from introducing uncertainties in what renders in the recepients’ mail clients, many spam filters penalize UTF-8 coding because it is commonly used in Chinese spam.

    So, my suggestion is, don’t use it. Yet. Maybe 5 years.

  6. This is very helpful, thank you! I see the code: E2=99=A5?= is the heart symbol. Where are you pulling that data? All I am finding is the html hex entity or unicode hex which doesn’t populate correctly the way this formula does. How do I convert the symbols into this formula? Thank you in advance for your response!

  7. …This is awesome, I can see my open rates increasing with this technique. But still, I am looking for a good list of emoticons that I can send through Aweber and that works nicely in gmail, I have noticed that 90% of my list uses gmail. Any tips?

  8. …yeah, i need a filter, if icon in subject, reject mail as spam 😛 oh how useless!

  9. The real question for me is, is there a way to block emails that use any such symbols? 90% of the spam I get has those in the subject; I’ve never gotten a legit email from anyone using that.

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