The remarkable influence of Post-it notes

Experiments have shown if you need someone to complete a more complex task, a personal request on a Post-it note can lead to a significantly better response.Campbell Such, Bidvest

Imagine you’re driving and suddenly there’s fog up to your windows. You can see for miles – you just can't see the road. Well, that’s the situation a colleague of mine found himself in.

It’s what a thick ground fog (called Tule fog – pronounced too-lee), in California's Central Valley north of LA, can do to you. Tule fog normally forms in a layer five to 10 metres deep, which makes for very dangerous driving because it severely restricts visibility – in this extraordinary case it was only up to the windows. Tule fog is particularly prevalent in winter when the freezing cold ground condenses the moist air above it after it has rained.

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And like the Tule fog has a big influence on the ability of motorists to get to their destination, a sticky note can have a big influence on the responses you get to a request to do something. And on top of that, just like the Tule fog obscures the road from the motorists; the influence of the sticky note is unnoticed by the recipients

So what’s the best way to use a sticky note to improve the response rate you get to your requests?

All you have to do is attach a Post-It note to the cover of the document

A personalised Post-It note with a few handwritten words, asking someone to do something such as completing a task. Research performed by Randy Garner, a professor of behavioural science at Sam Houston State University, showed this can double the chances they will do what you’ve asked. The surprising finding was reported by Dr Kevin Hogan on the Harvard Business Review website in 2015.

Bidvest CIO Campbell Such

As with all tools of influence, they should only be used ethically.

That’s a big increase, how did they find that out?

Garner’s research covered five different experiments. The objective was to try to get other professors at the university to fill out a survey. In each experiment, there were 150 recipients divided into three groups of 50. Here’s what the experiments looked like:

Experiment 1

  • Group 1 – He sent each recipient a survey with a hand written sticky note attached, asking them to fill out the survey and it send back.
  • Group 2 – He sent each recipient the same survey, except this time there was no sticky note and the message was handwritten on the cover letter
  • Group 3 - He sent each recipient the same survey, except this one had a cover letter with no sticky note and no handwritten message.

The result was that more than double the number of professors from Group 1 (with the sticky note) returned the survey over the group with just the standard cover letter. Here’s what the results looked like:

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Surprising, isn’t it?

The second experiment was with another group of different professors.

In this case, the objective was to see if the influence was due to the message or the note or both. Garner sent each recipient a survey with:

  • Group 1 – A personalised sticky note message.
  • Group 2 – A blank sticky note attached.
  • Group 3 – No sticky note.

The result was similar to the first experiment.

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The conclusion that Hogan drew from the second experiment, is that it’s not just the sticky note itself, but the fact that it’s personalised, and that this conveys a feeling of connection. A feeling that the person sending the survey is “personally asking me in a special way (not just writing it on the survey) to help him or her out”.

Two further experiments found that the sticky note also:

  • Sped up the time to return the survey (four days with the note vs five-and-a-half days days without)
  • Resulted in noticeably more comments and more fully answered open-ended questions.

And the fifth experiment found that if you need someone to complete a more complex task, then a request personalising the note with the person’s first name at the top and Garner’s initials at the bottom made for a significantly better response.

So why does it work?

Hogan’s views are that it works because there are a number of powerful behavioural triggers all present in the sticky note:

  • It stands out from the background so it gets attention and is difficult to ignore;
  • It’s individualised to that person (their name and your signature);
  • It makes them feel like you’re not asking just anyone for a favour, instead, you’re specifically asking them – and that makes them feel important.

What about email – doesn’t most of our communication happen via email these days?

True, it is pretty hard to send an email with a Post-It note. You need to reserve these for the times you’re dealing with a request on paper. So perhaps not as much use as 10 years ago when the research was done. Although maybe it’s a great reason to use paper when you really want someone to do something for you. Handwrite a Post-it note, pop it on the doc, and post it in the mail. Given the few times people get mail (not email) these days perhaps it could get an even better response.

Given their power to influence, is there any time you shouldn’t use them? It’s hard to see where you wouldn’t, except, as with all tools of influence, they should only be used ethically. So never use them for unethical purposes.

To sum up

Attaching a Post-it note handwritten with the recipient’s first name, a brief request to complete the task and your initials at the bottom is a potent way to get twice as many responses and to get them faster and more richly completed. Why wouldn’t you do this every time? And maybe it’s also a marvellous reason to use good old fashioned paper occasionally instead of sending an email.

So the next time you need a colleague to do something for you, perhaps the Post-it note could be like a signpost showing the way through the Tule fog. Adding a simple personal touch could make all the difference to get far more of your requests completed more quickly.

Campbell Such is GM IT for Bidvest, a wholesale food distribution business and a top 50 company in NZ. He has a varied career in New Zealand and internationally, working in technology, management and roles in marketing and sales. Reach him at and through his blog.

The author at a recent CIO roundtable discussion in Auckland (Photo by Jason Creaghan)

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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