How a personalized Post-It note increased survey responses by 113%

Intervention · Protección de los consumidores


When asked to do something for someone else, most people don’t scrutinize whether a request is worthy of their attention or action, and instead default to social norms of politeness by offering help. This is especially true if the request is perceived as a favor. Researchers, wanting to increase participation rates on surveys, looked at the impact of personalized Post-it notes in signaling importance, directing attention, and adding weight to a request. The addition of a Post-it note with a handwritten request on it positively correlated with higher completion rates. This proved less effective when the task outweighed the participants’ willingness to help. However, changing the Post-it note from a generic request to a personalized favor saw the response rate of the more difficult task jump by over 67%.

Rating 4/5 (Significant results, easy to implement and replicate, subtle method of influence potentially damaging in some applications).

How persuasive is a Post-it note in survey return rate
Personalized Post-it 77% surveys returned
Generic Handwritten Post-it  76% surveys returned
Generic Handwritten message on cover letter  48% surveys returned
Blank Post-It 43% surveys returned
Long survey - Personalized Post-it 67% surveys returned

Long survey - Generic Handwritten Post-it 40% surveys returned
No Post-It note (control) 36% surveys returned

Key Concepts

Social Norms: Collectively held beliefs about what kind of behavior is appropriate in a given situation. These societal expectations may differ between cultures or groups.

Reciprocity: The expectation that our actions are met with similar actions by another. In the case of positive behaviors, like giving a gift, these may be rewarded with an equal positive behavior, receiving a gift in return. Conversely, the same may be true of negative behaviors. For example, a fast food worker spitting in a rude, belligerent customer’s cup to get revenge.

Framing effect: The context in which a piece of information is presented can change our interpretation of it, and affect decision-making in relation to it.

The Problem

Why comply?

Several studies posit that most people will comply with almost any request - even one that isn’t explained or justified. This is especially true when the request is framed as a favor and isn’t very mentally or physically taxing.. Social norms, like politeness, create a mental shortcut; we do what’s socially expected without a second thought. 

Post-its pack a punch

As a field always in need of willing participants, researchers are often looking to increase the rates of compliance and participation. However, due to limited resources, there are few tangible rewards researchers can use to incentivize such behavior. To get higher participation, researchers may look to tap into this polite autopilot by activating social norms. More specifically, Randy Garner hypothesized that the return rate of a survey could be increased by affixing a yellow, handwritten Post-It note to the cover letter. As yellow is quickly registered by the eye and is associated with a sense of novelty, the survey packet should stand out among the usual mailbox items. Additionally, the handwritten nature of the Post-it may elicit a feeling of social obligation to reciprocate the effort the requester put in to writing it.


The survey

The study was conducted in four parts, with each part assessing different conditions of attaching the Post-it to the survey. In each study, a survey was sent to a randomly selected university staff member or graduate student. The content of the survey asked them about their perceptions of campus climate.

Study 1 - The medium is the message

150 randomly selected university staff were assigned to one of three groups, each receiving a brief, five-page survey. The first group received a survey with a handwritten request on a Post-it, saying “Please take a few minutes to complete this for us. Thank you!”. The second group received a survey with the same handwritten message on the cover letter. Additionally, a control group received the survey with no message or Post-it. 

Study 2 - Drawing blanks

To assess whether the Post-it’s impact was influenced by the message on it, the second study tested a blank Post-it against a Post-it with a written request. 105 participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups. The first group received the survey with the same handwritten Post-it request as the first study. The second group received a survey with a blank Post-it. Finally, the control group received the survey with no Post-it or message. 

Study 3 - Note or no note

A similar survey to the first two studies was sent to 100 participants, but this time the survey requested open-ended responses, resulting in a heftier, six-page packet. The experimental  group (n=50) received the thick survey with a handwritten Post-it on the cover, whereas the control group received the survey with no Post-it note. 

Study 4 - The difficult task

While the previous studies centered on low effort surveys, the fourth study posed a more time-consuming, high-effort request. Of 180 participants, half received a short survey. The other half received a long, 24-page survey, which asked 150 questions that required detailed, open-ended responses. Within these two groups, participants received a survey with either  a personalized, signed request on a Post-it  or no Post-It or message at all.

EAST Framework

This intervention leverages the EAST framework, which encourages influencing behaviors by making actions  Easy, Attractive, Social, and Timely. This intervention draws attention to the survey by affixing a bright Post-it, thus attracting participants to respond. Social norms such as reciprocity of effort, offering help when it’s requested, and politeness were also leveraged to increase the likelihood of survey compliance. 

Results and Application

The Post-it effect

Affixing a handwritten Post-it request to the survey vastly increased completion rates. This was true of all four studies, although personalization was much more effective than the generic Post-it when it came to the fourth study’s lengthy survey as personalization increased the return rate by over 67%. This suggests that for more challenging tasks, requesters can’t rely on politeness; more effort needs to be shown upfront to nudge reciprocity. 

Faster and more detailed responses

Besides increasing the rate of overall returned surveys, participants in the Post-it condition also returned the survey a lot sooner than those in the control group.When participants were asked about the Post-it, unless they were in the long-survey group, most said they noticed it, but it wasn’t a significant factor in their completion of the survey. This indicates that the Post-it works on a subtle level to influence behavior. When the task was more demanding, the personalized Post-it factored more heavily into the decision to complete the task.

Education Teachers and tutors may use Post-its to flag areas for improvement on student papers and encourage more studious behaviors by attaching personalized notes. 
Business Savvy marketers can benefit from color-highlighting text and other areas where they wish to direct attention, as well as leverage the effect of personalization in communications. 
Voting Behavior Political candidates could increase the persuasive power of their campaigns by including handwritten (at least in appearance), signed Post-it notes on pamphlets and handouts.


  • Participants were not aware that they were taking part in a study. 
  • Participants from marginalized groups may feel more pressure to respond to requests from peers or university administration than other participants.
  • The intervention acknowledges that the techniques used to guide behavior without conscious consideration from participants could be damaging in the wrong hands.  

Does the intervention demonstrably improve the lives of those affected by it?
Provides a tool to encourage responses for researchers struggling to get statistically significant results out of surveys.
Does the intervention respect the privacy (including the privacy of identity) of those it affects?
Participants were randomly selected staff and students from several universities in an undisclosed location. 
Does the intervention have a plan to monitor the safety, effectiveness, and validity of the intervention?
Room For Improvement
Something as seemingly insignificant as a Post-it can have a powerful influence over behavior, which could be troubling in the hands of less scrupulous influence brokers. 

Does the intervention abide by a reasonable degree of consent?
Room For Improvement
Participants were not aware that they were taking part in a study.
Does the intervention respect the ability of those it affects to make their own decisions?
Survey participation was optional.
Does the intervention increase the number of choices available to those it affects?
Not Applicable
This intervention does not affect the number of choices available to researchers or participants.

Does the intervention acknowledge the perspectives, interests, and preferences of everyone it affects, including traditionally marginalized groups?
Insufficient Information
It’s unclear whether marginalized groups may have been included or felt a different degree of pressure to respond, react to requests, or reciprocate effort.
Are the participants diverse?
Insufficient Information
Surveyed university staff remained anonymous. They were not distinguished by rank, tenure, or other personally identifiable characteristics.
Does the intervention help ensure a just, equitable distribution of welfare?
Not Applicable
Not relevant to this intervention. 

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Garner, R. (2005). Post-it® note persuasion: A sticky influence. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 15(3), 230-237.

Notes illustration

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