What’s the deal with preheaders?

“Preview text”, “preheader (or pre-header) copy”, “second subject line” – whatever you want to call it, it’s an incredibly important (and underutilized) component of marketing emails.

To help you give your open rates a boost, I’m going to tell you what these mysterious creatures are, why you should care about them, and how to write them correctly.

What’s a preheader?

It’s the sentence (or two) that shows up right after your subject line in your customers’ inboxes to add a little more context and detail. It’s usually grayed out or a bit smaller to differentiate it.

Why is this thing important?

  1. It’s a continuation of your subject line that offers you more characters to say your piece.
  2. It’s prime real estate to grab your customers’ attention and convince them to open (and not to delete!).
  3. It makes you look like you know what you’re doing. Granted I’m pickier because I’m in the industry, but I have much more respect for brands who craft their emails well.

How does it work?

Email clients pull the first line of text from your message and display this as the preheader, so you’ll either need to make sure it’s at the very top of your message or use a platform like ours that lets you write it directly in the email builder. 
If you’re using another ESP or hand-coding your emails, make sure your code includes the preheader text at the top. Otherwise, the message will pull the first line of copy straight from your message content, which oftentimes just looks messy in the inbox (like these).
Design note: you can hide your preheader so it doesn’t actually display in the message itself. I definitely recommend this to free up real estate at the top of the message body.

Best Practice Tips

Best practice #1: Size does matter
Start by checking your email analytics to see which devices/clients your customers are using most, then make sure your preheader works for the least common denominator.
I say this because the number of characters that display varies widely between devices, apps, and email clients. Our friends at Litmus put together this handy-dandy chart so you can see what I mean:

You’ve got between 35 and 140 characters to use. Crazy, right? Welcome to my world. It’s a fun place.

Best practice #2: Get to the point!

There are some who will tell you to use a very large number of characters (like 100-150 every time). I fundamentally disagree with them, and here’s why:
  1. People simply aren’t going to read that much.
  2. You’re just giving away the farm for free. Whatever displays in the inbox is supposed to be bait for the good stuff, which is supposed to be inside the message.
Between your subject line and your preheader combined, I recommend sticking to 70-90 characters total. That’s a lot, and if you edit properly, you can make it work every time. You want your customers to be intrigued by what they see in their inbox, open your email, read it for a few seconds, and click through to your site. You don’t want them to get all the info from the subject line and preheader and say “meh, there’s nothing more I need to know” and delete it.
Think of it like this: you purposefully include white space in your designs, right? You’d never jam-pack every square inch of any marketing collateral with stuff. It needs to breathe so your customers don’t get fatigued. The inbox is the same.

Best practice #3: Front-load

People are skimmers by nature, so phrase your preheader with the best stuff first (the first 20-30ish characters). If your customers open email on a wide variety of devices, cater to the lowest common denominator so that when it cuts off, it still looks like a complete thought.
So say, for example, that you’ve got mostly mobile users. You’ll need between 40 and 90 characters for your preheader. While you certainly can use all 90, make sure the first 40 get your message across so that when it truncates, it still makes sense. 

How to use it with your subject line

The subject line should contain the best goodies and your preheader should contain the next best. They should work together to scream “OPEN ME! YOU’RE GOING TO LOVE WHAT’S INSIDE!”.
If you have a great sale, state the discount in your subject line and use the preheader to say what’s on sale, talk about your fast/free shipping, or just have some fun. Keep it different though – remember to not repeat yourself.


Here are a few of my favorite examples of those who do it well:

Each of these hovers around the 70-80-ish-character mark. These screenshots are taken from Gmail desktop, so as you can see, they leave some extra room at the tail end for my inbox to pull in the first words it finds in the email. While these extra words don’t look amazing, I actually think these are very well written. I don’t want them to be longer. They respect my time as a busy customer, get to the point, and don’t drone on.
Saying too little is better than saying too much and wanting a tl;dr, like I do with this one…
Even though the preheader above is technically shorter than it could be (because it’s still pulling navigation stuff at the end), it’s entirely too long. The copy editor in me wants to scrub out the fluffy language and just get to the point.

These three, however, are far too short. They could have used the space allotted in a more meaningful way, and because they don’t use punctuation, there’s no differentiation between the preheader and the stuff after it. 

The nutshell

The most important thing here is to check out your analytics, see what devices your subscribers are using, and cater to them. Test it out – try sending some emails with 30-40-character preheaders and some with 90. Just remember that no matter how many characters you use, you should honor your customers’ time and deliver your message as concisely as possible. 

Laurel Morse
Manager of Copywriting and Content Strategy

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