Preheader Text: Good, Bad and Ugly Ways of Email Copywriting

email copywriting good bad and ugly preheader textDo you ever write a word and suddenly look at it and think to yourself, “That can’t be right?” It’s usually a word you’ve written dozens of times, but all of a sudden, it just looks wrong, like you have no idea how to spell.

That happened to me recently with my inbox. Just all of a sudden, the variety of ways marketers are using the snippet of preheader text hit me: There’s definitely the good, bad and ugly here, and likely in your inbox too, on any given day.

Email copywriting is not in any way limited to the words in the body of the email. Remember, no one will even get to the body of the email to read it if they don’t get past the From name, subject line, and preheader text first. Notice what those three things have in common? They are all words. Unlike on Facebook where a cute photo of a kitten might get your message noticed, the inbox is all about text. And the email copywriting of that text has to work hard to get noticed and opened.

How’s your preheader text working for you? Or is it working at all? Do you know how you come across in the inbox? Do you know how you stack up against your inbox competition? Not your industry competition, mind you…just your inbox competition: the emails competing with yours to get noticed.

Below is a screenshot of my inbox the other day. Take a closer look and you’ll see good, bad and ugly email copywriting examples that I hope will illustrate to you how a good bit of preheader text should work.

preheader text and subject lines


The good

  • Email Insider Summit: Why? It tells me the most information without my having to open the email. Note that it also goes against standard email marketing best practices by going over the character limit for subject lines. By doing so, however, they end up with all of their text in bold, making it stand out. They also are able to give me the most detail because the subject line and preheader text don’t repeat each other, nor is the preheader text wasted on administrative type stuff like, “To view this email as a ….”
  • Indiemark: Why? How do you resist a subject line that says “For Sharon’s Eyes Only”? Followed by preheader text that says “THE MINISTRY OF EMAIL MARKETING”? Of course this email stood out! And of course I opened it full of expectation. (Best of all, this email delivered on its promise of being entertaining, a promise made by the subject line and preheader text.)
  • VerticalResponse: Why? They pack a lot of information into that little bit of text! They’ve let me know I have a time limit, and they’ve told me what the special is for: email credits.

The bad

  • Why? Because it asks me to write a review but doesn’t remind me which product I bought that I might review, nor does it give me a compelling reason to do so. The preheader text only tells me I can view this email as a web page, which does nothing to make me want to open and engage with this email. It almost comes across like they don’t really want my review.
  • The Catholic Company: Why? Because I get the morning offering every day and every day it looks like this: same From name, same subject line, same preheader text saying “View this email with images. Gmail users, please star our….” A lot of days, I skip over it, I confess. I open this email maybe once a week. I’m not asking them to go to the trouble to change the subject line or preheader text each day to give me a glimpse of what’s inside (although that’d be nice!), but at least change the preheader text to something that reminds me why I subscribed and why I should open the email, like “Start your day off right by starting with prayer” or something like that.
  • Community Farmers Market: Why? Repetitive and not compelling. They have a sucky subject line (which never changes week to week except the date), and they haven’t realized that by using “Community Farmers Market” as their From name means they don’t need to use all of those three words in the subject line too because it only looks repetitive and ends up being a waste of valuable real estate. But at least the preheader text says “Harvest Dinner” so I know that’s mentioned in the newsletter (because I was anticipating the Harvest Dinner).

The ugly

  • eBay: Why? Well, shouldn’t a brand that big have mastered subject lines and preheader text by now? Maybe it’s ugly to me because I am so disappointed in their poor performance. First off, they used my username to “personalize” my email. Um, I don’t go by my username in real life so that just looks weird. Then they—like the farmers market—repeat themselves: The subject line says it’s my anniversary and the preheader text does. My reaction? So what! They should have told me something about why I should care that it’s my anniversary. Then to make it worse, they have “View this image in y…” as the rest of the preheader text. Total waste of space!

There are more emails than reviewed above, I realize, but my hope is to call out what’s good, bad and ugly so you’ll be motivated to look at your own combination of From, subject line and preheader text, to make sure you’re making the best use possible of a very tiny bit of real estate. Because email copywriting includes every word used!