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How to Use Email Preheaders to Increase Open Rates

Email preheader

Standing out in your subscribers’ inboxes is easier said than done, especially given that worldwide an average of 306.4 billion emails are sent and received each day—a figure expected to rise to 361.6 billion by 2024.

However, up-and-coming marketers shouldn’t be discouraged by crowded competition. In fact, 66% of businesses still rely on email as their primary form of customer communication because it is a consistent and stable marketing channel that returns a high ROI.

While a fruitful channel, achieving high email deliverability (i.e. staying off email blacklists) and high open rates are the true benchmarks of success, you should consider the seemingly small details that determine whether or not someone actually sees your email and opens it if you want to reach your campaign goals.

One of these details is your email preheader text.

In this guide, we’ll highlight how a well-written email preheader can boost your open rates and provide examples to help you write your own.

Table of contents

  • What is an email preheader? 
  • Why do email preheaders matter so much?
  • How to make sure that your email preheader is properly formatted

8 email preheader best practices to secure more opens and clicks

  1. Make a personal connection by including your recipient’s name
  2. Pique your reader’s interest with a brief question
  3. Use emojis to inject some personality into your message
  4. Highlight the value of your email with numbers
  5. Don’t waste your preheader text by repeating your email subject lines
  6. Open with a bold statement or promise
  7. Create a sense of urgency to tap into your followers’ FOMO

What is an email preheader?

An email preheader, also known as a second subject line, email preview text, and Johnson Box, is the snippet of text that appears immediately following the subject line of any given email. 

The email preheader is a short summary of what is contained within your email. This space is most often used in one of two ways: as a descriptive preview that displays the first few sentences of your email body, or as a call to action. The way that you use this preheader space will vary depending on your industry and the purpose of your email. 

For example, if you are in the SaaS industry and sending out a newsletter, it makes sense to simply preview the first 1-2 sentences of your email body in this space. This way, the reader can actually begin to read your body before even opening the email and may be compelled to click to continue reading to learn more. 

Alternatively, if you are in the e-commerce or retail space and sending out an email promoting a product, it makes sense to fill this space with a call to action to incentivize the reader to open your email to buy the specific item(s) you’re selling. 

By default, the preheader is populated based on the first line of text from your email body. If you want to change it to something else, you’ll need to do so manually (we’ll explain how in a later section). That said, you should always preview your default to ensure that nothing is broken and that your preheader will in fact pull in your HTML body. 

The email subject line length depends on the device it’s being read from. For example, desktop preheaders offer enough space to write one to two full sentences, making the desktop email subject line character limit approximately 120-130 characters. 

Email preheader examples

Meanwhile, email preheaders presented on mobile devices can incidentally be cut off at ~50 characters, much like a traditional email subject line length.

In the example below, the email from Amazon is using a CTA preheader, while the other two are pulling in an HTML email subject line from the body of the email. 

Email preheader Amazon

As subject lines and email previews are the only parts of your email that are visible before a reader clicks into it, they represent incredibly valuable real estate and shouldn’t be treated as an afterthought.

Why do email preheaders matter so much?

Because preheaders are so easy to overlook, they’re perhaps one of the most underrated tools when it comes to ensuring that your emails are opened. Customizing your preview snippets only takes a few seconds, and below we’ve highlighted why doing so is worth the effort.

Preheaders have a direct impact on your email open rates.

Plenty of people read emails based on their subject lines alone and an email letter header is essentially an extension of your headline.

Landing your email in someone’s inbox at the right time, with the right psychological incentive or pertinent information, can make all of the difference between your customers trashing or opening and engaging with your message. 

Given how much marketers rack their brains when it comes to optimizing subject lines, preheaders arguably deserve just as much attention.

Preheaders are great for grabbing the attention of subscribers on-the-go.

According to recent research, the majority of emails are opened via mobile devices. Meanwhile, serial smartphone users are checking their inboxes day-in and day-out.

Email preheaders are front-and-center on smartphones, which is where most of your customers are probably reading their messages already. Noting the fact that inboxes are incredibly crowded, creative preheader text can help your mobile messages stand out more.

Preheaders are your second chance to win a lost click-through.

Because preheaders are also known as second subject lines, if your subject line misses the mark, your preheader can act as a second chance to pique someone’s interest. In the same vein, ignoring your preview text by leaving it blank or defaulting to an awkward “[Image]” could have an adverse effect and turn off your readers by signaling your message as spam (we’ll show you how to avoid that in a later section). 

Instead of risking a potential technical mishap that has a negative effect on engagement, always make sure to double-check that your preheader is filled in with custom copy, or will default to your opening body text.

8 email preheader best practices to secure more opens and clicks

There is no one right way to craft an effective email preheader. Some businesses default their preheader text to the first few lines of their email content while others prefer to write a short, attention-grabbing snippet.

The good news is that if you choose the latter, you don’t need to be a copywriting genius to come up with compelling preview text. Below are eight best practices of writing a preheader that can be applied to just about any email marketing campaign.

1. Make a personal connection by including your recipient’s name

The importance of email personalization can’t be overstated. Whenever possible, you should strive to make your messages feel “for your eyes only” rather than part of a massive campaign blast. 

It’s well-documented that subject lines which include a recipient’s name result in higher click-through rates. This is exactly why we see so many “Hi [name]” or “Hey [name]” headlines in the email marketing world.

Apply the same logic to your preview text. If you don’t include your recipient’s name in your subject line, consider including it as part of your preheader. Doing so is a simple, straightforward way to make your reader feel like they’re being addressed directly.

Email preheader name

2. Pique your reader’s interest with a brief question

Questions represent a natural sort of call-and-response between you and your email recipients. In this case, getting that much-desired answer ultimately means clicking through.

Email preheader question

Given that email preheaders are relatively limited character-wise, consider using short, general questions, such as “Did you hear the news?” or “Are you ready?” alongside your subject line to grab your readers’ attention.

3. Use emojis to inject some personality into your message

If you’re using email marketing to sell products or drive sign-ups, emojis are a brilliant way to make your messages feel less stale and more exciting.

There’s actually a correlation between emojis and higher open rates to consider. Brands with a more lighthearted personality naturally have more freedom to use emojis versus a more “serious” business such as a law or medical practice.

Email preheader emoji

With that in mind, also be aware of the relationship between greater unsubscribe rates and the overuse of emojis. It’s safe to say that emojis should be used sparingly as part of your email preheader strategy.

4. Highlight the value of your email with numbers

The benefit of using numbers in your preheaders is two-fold. Not only do numbers help save precious character space (i.e. “seven” versus “7”), but they’re also quicker for our brains to process. 

For example, as soon as you see a “$” or “%,” you’re thinking about spending and saving. Perhaps that’s why numerical subject lines go hand in hand with above-average open and reply rates. Here are a few examples of how you can infuse numbers into your  preview text:

  • Dollar amounts (“$20 off…”)
  • Percentages (“Win back 50% of your day…”)
  • Measures of time (“The big launch is just 48 hours away…”)

All of the above are particularly useful for e-commerce email marketing where value and savings need to be communicated ASAP.

5. Don’t waste your preheader text by repeating your email subject lines

It’s important to double-check that your preheader and your subject line aren’t identical.

Let’s say your subject line is related to a special, time-sensitive sale and reads “24 Hour Sale! The clock is ticking…”. Rather than repeat that your sale is one day only, consider alternative angles for your preview header. For example, going back to best practice #2, you might ask a question:

24 Hour Sale! The clock is ticking…

Did you catch our last minute deals? There’s still time…

Think of your subject line and preheader text as a sort of one-two-punch. They should complement each other to make an impact rather than repeat themselves.

6. Open with a bold statement or promise

Just as your subject lines are expected to be bold, so should your email preheaders.

Bland copy doesn’t do much to help you stand out in modern readers’ inboxes. Highlighting benefits and value should be a top priority to make your messages feel “must-read.” Some examples of bold statements include:

  • “Our best offer yet…”
  • “You asked for it and we delivered…”
  • “We finally have the answer…”

The key to making these bold statements work is to not bait-and-switch your readers. For example, if you’re promoting your best resource or guide to your subscribers, make sure it is top-notch to avoid letting your customers down. 

The same applies to your offers and so on. Never overpromise and underdeliver—if you state that the resource you’re sharing is comprehensive and helpful, make it so. This will help you to boost your email effectiveness and build brand trust. 

7. Create a sense of urgency to tap into your followers’ FOMO

Urgency and scarcity are proven physiological triggers that marketers rely on to get people to take action.

The concept is simple: use your preheader text to imply that the reader will miss something if they fail to take action. This can be done quickly and succinctly by noting when an offer is ending or highlighting some sort of cut-off date.

Email preheader FOMO

This way when a reader sees your subject line and preheader, they’ll know exactly how much time they have to take action before they miss out. 

8. When in doubt, keep your email preheader brief

Keep in mind that some factors are beyond your control in terms of how much of your preheader is actually seen.

As referenced above, there’s going to be a different cutoff to your preheader length for someone looking at your message on an iPhone versus someone looking on Outlook, Gmail or other desktop and web email clients.

Because this factor is entirely out of your control, you should prioritize the first few words of your preview so that it’ll still make sense regardless of whether or not it gets cut off.

How to make sure that your email preheader is properly formatted

As noted earlier, your preview text will default to the opening line of your email body copy, also known as your HTML text, if you don’t edit it yourself. It’s important to note that included in your HTML body text are your ALT attributes or ALT tags for images or logos. These ALT tags are in place to display screen reader-friendly descriptions of your images if for whatever reason they do not display correctly, fail to load, or are broken.

If this happens, your preheader text, if it is set to default display your HTML body text, may appear jumbled as you can see in the example below: 

Email preheader text

Image source: TJC

To avoid this, you should ideally have an email builder that allows you to quickly customize your preview text without having to mess with any inline code. 

Using a tool like Mailigen, you can easily drag and drop blocks into your email editor and customize your preheader with a few simple clicks. 

Email preheader Mailigen

Here you can seamlessly edit your subject line, preview text and email creatives in one place. Built-in drag-and-drop previews also allow you to see what your campaigns will actually look like once they’ve delivered to your email list. The ability to easily customize and preview your email campaigns can significantly help you to avoid mistakes that impact your coveted open rates. 

Final thoughts

There are many moving pieces to any given marketing email. That said, your preheader is an element that you really shouldn’t ignore. 

Crafting your preview text can be done in no time, especially if you’re using an email campaign and design tool like Mailigen to make optimization easier. Either way, consider how the best practices above can help you craft more enticing messages to win more opens and clicks.

How to Use Email Preheaders to Increase Open Rates
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