How animated symbols in Gmail subject lines increased my open rate

As announced in the “Email Gurus” board on LinkedIn, I put Gmail’s animated emoji symbols to the subject line test last Friday:

Here’s how I did it and what the results were. So much is revealed, they’re like…


2015-05-17_203841First, I built a segment of subscribers, who were – based on their past behavior in 2015 – very likely to open the email in the web version of Gmail, and not in Gmail for Android (mobile) or any other email client (Outlook, Yahoo! Mail…). That makes perfect sense because animated symbols only work in the web version of Gmail. The selection included 225 from about 1.700 total subscribers. One take-away was that 40 % of the Gmail users don’t use a address. So just creating a business rule “email address ends on” might fall short and miss out a lot of potential.

emoji_pasteNext, I copied the Dancer from the symbol table and pasted it into the subject line field. This worked like a charm, as a quick test send to my gmail inboxes revealed. It may not work that easily in other email softwares – ask your vendor.

emoji-voteTo verify the address selection, I placed a small poll at the top of my targeted newsletter. It asked, if the recipient could see the animated emoji. As I write these lines, 14 % of all openers voted, and every voter saw the symbol; no empty boxes, question marks, or other dangers mentioned in the LinkedIn thread. This suggests that it’s quite well possible to target Gmail Web users only, and send them animated subject lines without risking annoying display errors.


Now, let’s look at the test results in terms of email opens, which are a good measure for the effectiveness of subject lines. The figure below shows:

  • unique open rates (bar lengths)
  • within the segment
  • for all newsletters that I sent in 2015 (bars)
  • about 70 hours after each send out.


Each bar also contains the number of openers / the size of the segment at that point in time. For example, at the beginning of 2015 (lowest bar), the segment contained 167 subscribers. The other ones signed up later. Furthermore, just 15 of those 167 opened within 70 hours after I sent them the newsletter, resulting in a very low initial open rate of 9 %.

10 subscribers are “lost” in this chart, because they never opened within the first 70 hours. That’s why the top bar has 215 in the denominator, and not 225, which is the original segment size.

Also note the red line, which marks the median of all open rates, and the blue lines, which mark the distance between the open rate of the animated subject line and the maximum open rate of all other subject lines.

In case you wonder how the emoji subject line performed against the regular subject line…

  • 1B6 Weekly roundup: Animated Gmail Subject Lines, Emails for the Apple Watch, Videos & more
  • ♞ Weekly roundup: Animated Gmail Subject Lines, Emails for the Apple Watch, Videos & more

… here are the stats:


1B6Although my open rates show some variance over time, especially in the Gmail Web segment, these test results demonstrate clearly, how powerful animated symbols in Gmail subject lines can be:

  • When compared to the maximum historic open rate within the segment, the animated subject line increased the unique open rate after 70 hours by over 20 %.
  • When compared to the non-animated subject line using a ♞, the GIF increased the initial open rate by 17 %.
  • At the same time, it’s the best initial open rate ever in 2015, just slightly better than ‘2015-02-13’.
  • And it’s also the first time that the initial open rate within the rather sleepy Gmail Web segment exceeds the one of the other subscribers of the list.

That’s beyond my expectations. As an added bonus, the email created some nice feedback in terms of email replies, survey participants, and blog comments.

Of course, one must say that I have a “special” audience: email marketers, who are excited to see new marketing opportunities, and not retail customers, who might be annoyed by pushy messages. Still, I think this is something worth trying out – for example to reactivate a segment of semi-active subscribers, like in this example. That is, as long as Gmail makes it possible…


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7 Responses to How animated symbols in Gmail subject lines increased my open rate

  1. How are you detecting whether the user is opening in the desktop version of Gmail vs. mobile or the Gmail app?

  2. It doesnt work on mobile 🙁

    • Unfortunately not. That’s why I specifically targeted non-mobile users. It’s possible, but requires some work. One has to decide if it’s worth it.

  3. …You’re a fool. These days ONLY scammers use these childish and annoying animations in subject lines. Wake up!

    • Uhm.. why exactly am I a fool? Because I made a test? 😀 Anyways… I must admit that until now, I never witnessed any legitimate promotion email using them.

  4. …I have seen many emails from (a movie streaming provider that I am subscribed with) use these symbols and animations. That’s what got me curious about them.

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