The POWER of Sticky Notes in Evaluation

by Zena Edwards

Washington State University Extension


I recently completed an 18-month Western Evaluation Capacity Training with thirty of my Extension from across the western United States.  Issues with response rates to evaluations and surveys seemed to be a recurring theme during our culminating presentation session.

For the past few years I have been studying and reading about Robert Cialdini’s Six Persuasion Principles.  In the book “Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive” Cialdini and his co-authors describe several low-cost, low-effort ways that can used increase the likelihood that program participants will respond to our evaluation requests.  The one that fascinates me the most is the innovative use of a common, inexpensive technology already available in every Extension staff person’s tool kit:  The humble sticky note.

In 2005 Garner published research on how using the simple technology of a sticky note can dramatically increase response rates for paper surveys.  He conducted four studies to investigate the effect of attaching a sticky note to survey packets on the likelihood of completing surveys.

The first study compared response rates between: a) using a typical printed cover letter sent with the 5-page survey, b) the identical letter with the hand written message “Please take a few minutes to complete this for us. Thank you!” on the upper right hand corner and c) the printed cover letter with the handwritten message on a yellow 3 x 3 sticky note affixed to the upper right hand corner.  The printed cover letter had a response rate of 36%; this increased to 48% when a handwritten note was added. But using the sticky note more than doubled the response to 75%!

The second study was designed to ask the question “Is the sticky note in itself enough to increase response rates?” When the results were tallied, there was a 69% return rate for cover letters with the handwritten request on a sticky note. There was no significant difference between a blank sticky note (43%) and the typical cover letter.

The third study found that more participants responded when receiving the cover letter with sticky note affixed and written message (64%) compared to just the letter (42%).  They also returned surveys sooner and more of them answered the open-ended questions and with more completeness and detail.  Interestingly, the response to the sticky note message could be subconscious; none of the respondents that returned follow-up surveys mentioned the sticky note message as a reason for their response.

In the fourth study, individuals received either a shorter 5-page questionnaire or a 24-page survey on the same topic with 150 items asking more open-ended and detailed questions.  For the shorter survey, there was a significant difference between no sticky note (33% response rate), but no difference between a standard sticky note request (70%) and a personalized sticky note request using the individuals first name (77%).

For the long survey, people were more likely to respond if they received a personalized sticky note (67%) compared to the standard sticky note request (40%). There was only a 14% response rate when no sticky note request was attached to the cover letter.

What can we take away from this research?  Technology is an essential and important tool, but cannot replace “high touch” if we want to improve response rates. The small cost of some added effort can dramatically increase our evaluation response rates. Some things to consider if you want to take advantage of this low cost technology available at your finger tips:

  • Just adding a sticky note to evaluations can slightly increase response rates, although not significantly.Sticky Note Message
  • Adding a request to complete the survey on a sticky note increases response rates further.
  • Writing the same message directly on the evaluation is not likely to improve response rates
  • Adding a sticky note request on a program evaluation can increase response rates, increase quality and quantity of response to open-ended questions and decrease response time.
  • A personalized sticky note message can increase response to more onerous surveys or evaluation requests.
  • The extra effort of personalization may not be needed for typical surveys or requests.
  • Conducting an on-line survey?  Consider mailing or distributing a post-card with a pre-printed sticky note using a handwriting font.
  • Consider using an electronic sticky note when sending email evaluation requests.


This article, The POWER of Sticky Notes in Evaluation, was originally published Tuesday, March 26, 2013, on the Evaluation Community of Practice blog, a part of eXtension.   This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.