How to write great preheader text

How to Write Great Preheader Text

Shane Herring
Shane Herring

Course Developer at Atomic Education

Last Updated: May 19, 2021

In the modern marketing world, it’s a battle to get your email noticed in a recipient’s inbox.

You might think your email will stand out just because it’s from you. If you’re doing the ‘right’ thing, you could be right but savvy email marketing maybe doing some extra things that you’re not.

A personal ‘From’ address, a snazzy subject line do get the attention of the recipient but one more thing gets your email opened.

It’s called preheader text. If someone likes you, likes your subject line, and likes your preheader text…bingo. Your email will get opened.

Read on to learn how to write great preheader text.

What is preheader text?

Preheader text is the short summary text that, when it’s used, follows the subject line. You’ll see it in your inbox. If there’s no preheader text, the email client will usually take text from the message body.

Preheader text can give you more information about what the message contains before you open it. Here’s an from my Gmail inbox.

Where to find preheader text - How to write great preheader text.

With that, let’s get on and show you how to write great preheader text.

Why do you need preheader text?

Think of the preheader as connecting the subject line with your email content.

If an email doesn’t have any preheader text, it’s likely that your reader’s email client will grab the first few words of the email body.

Now this can look confusing and unprofessional.

An example of an email with and without preheader text - How to write great preheader text.

Image source: TJC

That’s not the only reason.

Subject lines shouldn’t be more than 40 characters long. With this limitation, using preheader text can give you more room to entice your reader into opening your email.

If the subject line catches your reader’s attention, then they’ll probably read the preheader text. If the preheader does its job, then they’re going to open the email.

I know the first question you have.

How many characters should preheader text be?

While technically your preheader can be up to 250 characters long. Don’t do that. Why?

Because more people are reading their email on smaller devices and most mobile email clients display between 30 and 55 characters in the preheader text area.

However, if your preheader is too short, the email client will show text from the message body. This can include that “View in browser” text you often see.

Even if you don’t need more than 55 characters, it can be a good idea to write a long email preheader of 80 to 100 characters. This takes into account desktop email clients. Just make the first 5 to 8 words the most important text.

Taking this approach reduces the chances that email body text will be displayed in the preheader text area.

Tip: Write your preheader using 80 to 100 characters. This will stop email clients displaying content text. Write the most important part of the preheader content within the first 50 characters.

Tip: If you’re like me, you’ll struggle to come up with 100 characters of meaningful text just to have your preheader display correctly. Another option is to create white space after your preheader text so that email clients don’t pull ugly text from the message body. All you need to do is add a chain of zero-width non-joiners (‌) and non-breaking spaces ( ) after the preview text that you want to be displayed. The repetition of ‘‌ ’ then fills any remaining preview text space.

Add a call to action

Just like your email has a call to action, adding a call to action to your email preheader could get more people to open.

A preheader call to action follows all the same rules as a normal call to action:

Sometimes going for the jugular works so just tell them what to do.

Add simple CTAs like:

Don’t repeat the subject line

One of the worse ways to use your preheader is to repeat exactly what’s in the subject line.

Your subject line and preheader text shouldn’t say the same thing. The preheader is a chance to build on your subject line by…

Your subject line is probably no more than 40 characters long. Use preheader text and you’ve got another 100 characters to play with!

To make them even better, email clients on smaller devices can make the preheader almost as prominent as the subject line.

Treat your email preheader as a second chance at a first impression.

Make your subject line and preheader text work together

When you’re crafting your preheader, it’s important not to lose sight of the subject line.

The subject line should be the headline act. It’s the ulitmate tool for getting people to open your emails. The preheader is the support act. It’s job is to make the subject line more effective. To increase the level of interest and build on the curiosity. It should be enticing people closer to opening your email.

Creatively and strategically using your subject line and preheader together can create a stronger message for your reader.

Think “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Here’s an example of an email sent about the collaboration with Sesame Street and the mental health organisation, Headspace.

Subject: Sesame Street and Headspace
Preheader: Get mindful with monsters

The preheader does not replace the subject line. It adds to it creating a stronger message.

When your subject line and preheader work together, you can build curiosity.

Speaking of which…

Use the preheader to build curiosity (don’t just summarise)

How can you make someone else curious?

Science to the rescue.

In 1994, George Loewenstein, a behavioural economist and Carnegie Mellon professor, published a paper titled The Psychology of Curiosity.

In his paper, Loewenstein named 5 ways that you can make someone curious. I’m using 3 of them right now (will you be able to figure out which ones, after I show them to you?).

Here are the 5 ways to make people curious:

  1. Ask questions
  2. Start stories but leave them unfinished
  3. Be unexpected
  4. Imply that you have information that they don’t
  5. Imply that THEY have information that they’ve just forgotten

The great thing about this list – you can literally use it as a checklist. How many of the 5 does your email preheader use? Or your subject line, for that matter?

An example will help. Which headline is the most intriguing?

  1. How to earn half a million dollars a year
  2. How can you earn half a million dollars a year?
  3. Do you have the courage to earn half a million dollars a year?

First one uses method 4. Second one adds method 1 by asking a question. They’re both boring (and a little scammy).

The third one asks if you have courage.

It still asks a question. It still implies knowledge. But it breaks your expectations, and that’s why it became the headline for one of Eugene Schwartz’s classic ads.

When you write your preheader, go through each of the 5 points. How can you add more of them – to build curiosity?

Be warned! Don’t try and use all five at once or your subject and preheader will come across as clickbait. Only use, at most, 3 at a time.

Writing a preheader

Creating a great preheader requires a great  subject line. The subject line should be short, catch your readers’ attention, and stand on its own for those who can’t see the preheader.

For an effective subject line and preheader combo, you need to understand what your main idea is and what your call-to-action will be.

Your preheader should give extra detail that supports the subject line. The two combined should give information, create s sense of urgency, and tell the reader what to do next.

Here an example:
Subject line – Save up to 30% on select school supplies
Preheader – Coupon expires Saturday

And another:
Subject line – Proposed city dog park plan now open for public comment
Preheader – We need your feedback!

Build Anticipation

The single most important thing that your preheader needs to do is build anticipation for the content of your email.

Some experts call this “creating curiosity” or “making an irresistible offer” or “promising something remarkable.”

Whatever you call it, the preheader needs to build a sense of excitement for what the recipient will find if they open the email.

In some emails, this will mean asking a provocative question…

Example – Kajabi
Subject: The tipping point (have you reached it?)
Preheader: The doors to Kajabi are open to you, at no cost, but… you haven’t walked through yet. Ready to finish what you started?

In others, it will mean telling a shocking story…

Example – Carrot
Subject: Tom does 127+ deals every single year…
Preheader: Seeking financial security, Tom Cafarella became an accountant… and hated it…

In others, it will mean making a mind-blowing promise…

Example – HOMAGE
Subject: Go-To Tees: 2 for $44!
Preheader: All-new shades for fall and one-day-only bundle sale + 2 for $90 hoodies.

In fact, those are three great criteria to keep in mind when you’re crafting a preheader — does it:

  1. ask an interesting question,
  2. tell a provocative story, or
  3. make a mind-blowing promise?

You can also sprinkle in a bit of urgency or scarcity where it’s appropriate. But more often than not, your preheader should be using one of those three strategies to build anticipation.

Personalise it (When Appropriate)

Personalising your preheader can be a great way to increase engagement for your email campaigns.

However, this probably isn’t something you’re going to do in every email.

Instead, it’s something you’ll do every now and again, when the opportunity presents itself, in order to increase engagement and build a stronger relationship with your audience.

So what does preheader personalisation look like?

Well, it doesn’t just mean including the person’s name — in fact, that can sometimes be offputting because it feels fake and gimmicky to the recipient.

Here’s an example.

Subject: Barbara, don’t miss out
Preheader: Barbara, only 24 hours to use your coupon.
Message: Hi Barbara.

Creepy? Needy? Probably both.

Using your reader’s first name is fine but personalisation is also about referring to their specific interests, demographics, behaviours, or recent actions.

Here are a few examples…

An abandoned cart email

Subject: Hey! It looks like you forgot something
Preheader: Come back now for 20% off

A post purchase email

Subject: Since you have such great taste…
Preheader: here’s are some more products we thought you’d love

After someone purchased a shirt.

Subject: Do you like it shirty?
Preheader: We bet you do! Here’re 6 summer shirts you need to know about

To personalise emails in these ways requires a strong segmentation strategy.

Wrap up

Preheaders are underrated and neglected by many people using email marketing.

But they shouldn’t be.

Well-crafted preheaders can increase the open rate, improve the relationship you have with your readers, and even result in increased revenue.

Now, you know the science behind crafting great preheaders.

The only thing left to do is to try it for yourself: apply what you’ve learned here, test it, and see what works best for your business.

Good luck!

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