A Practical Guide to Preheaders

When it comes to improving your email marketing program performance, we would all love to have that one silver bullet solution to solve all challenges—a single key to unlock the full potential of an email marketing program. The truth is it’s the small details that add up to a big impact on a program’s success. One of those often overlooked details is the email preheader, a simple yet effective tool to help your messages stand out in the inbox and drive email engagement.

So what is it?
An email preheader is the string of text which follows the subject line when an email is previewed. It is the reader’s introduction to the message, typically summarizing the email content. Effective preheaders grab reader’s attention and draw them into the message, which is particularly important if email images are disabled, and if the message is viewed on a mobile device.

What does it look like?
Support for preheader text varies, including when it is supported, placement, and the average number of characters displayed. Here is an example of preheader text as viewed on a mobile device and desktop display for a Gmail account.

Mobile View:


Desktop View: 



What can it do? 

  • Complement the subject line—The preheader is the first copy a subscriber sees after the “from name” and subject line, so preheader text should complement, not repeat the subject line. The subject line can be used to tease the reader about the email’s content while the pre-header sets subscriber expectations for what they will see once the email is opened.
  • Highlight message content—A preheader should further communicate any key message content you wish to call out. This is important for readers who may not take the time to scroll down and read the entire message. Make sure the preheader is useful, specific and urgent. Avoid repetition and front-load keywords to ensure they are visible even with variances in text display and truncation.
  • Drive Email Engagement—The preheader should grab subscribers’ attention and compel them to open the email message. How much of an impact can an optimized pre-header have on your email program performance? According to Litmus.com, it can increase open rates up to 45%. And Wedding Wire saw a 30% increase in click-through rate by testing optimized preview text with first name personalization. Including a call-to-action link within the preheader is a highly effective tactic to drive response.

What’s your type?
There are three types of preheaders: default, defined, and hidden. How do you decide which type is best for your email messages?

  1. Default preheaders are pulled from the first lines of body text. If your email headline or first few lines of message text in the body copy play off the subject line, adding specific preview text may not be necessary. But be aware of placement for links such as “View in browser,” “Share this message,” or “Unsubscribe.” While they are important, they can be positioned after more compelling call-to-action prompts.
  2. Defined preheaders are inserted via code after the <body> tag in HTML. This option provides more control over what is communicated in your preheader by allowing you to deliberately determine the message.
  3. Hidden pre-headers are created by using HTML/CSS code which instructs the text to only display in the message preview and not the message body. It’s important to note that the “display: none” code doesn’t work everywhere (yes, I’m talking about you Gmail). Also, the code hacks used to hide content can cause deliverability issues if used too often, and if a sender does not have a good reputation.

What’s your plan?
Test, Test, Test! Now that you know the principles of preheaders, it’s time to optimize your preheader messages to grab subscribers’ attention in the inbox and drive email engagement!

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