In the Digital Age, Written Notes Prove More Effective Than Ever

originalWhile paper-based communications may seem increasingly obsolete in the digital age, 3M still sells an estimated $1 billion worth of Post-It notes each year. And this is more than a novelty. Research shows that when you ask someone to do something by writing it on a Post-It note, they’re more likely to follow through. That data comes from a research study written up this week on Harvard Business Review’s website.

These sticky little squares are “surprisingly persuasive,” writes psychologist Kevin Hogan in HBR. (It should be noted that there are other sticky-note makers out there aside from 3M, which invented the technology over 30 years ago.)

Interestingly, the original research was conducted a decade ago; but the findings still hold true today, according to Randy Garner, a professor of behavioral science at Sam Houston State University.

“Perhaps one explanation,” Garner reflected, “is that in our seemingly overly technologically bound and electronically enhanced world we live in today, people may find unique interest in the possible influence of the low-tech impact of a small 3 x 3 piece of semi-sticky paper.”

For his study, Garner conducted five experiments where he attempted to convince people to take a survey.

In one round, 150 college professors were sent surveys about conditions at their university. Fifty professors received a survey with a Post-It affixed to the top reading: “Please take a few minutes to complete this for us. Thank You!” Another 50 got a survey with the same message, but this was handwritten on a cover letter. The remaining third just received a cover letter and survey.

The results clearly showed the Post-It method to be more effective. Two-thirds (67%) of the sticky note group completed and returned the survey, while less than half (48%) of the handwritten group and 36% of the control group took the survey. Other experiments replicated the result: Over and over again, people were more likely to do a task when asked via Post-It note. If the work was especially complicated or time-consuming, the study showed, it helped to personalize the Post-It even further — by adding your name, for example.

“Clearly, the Post-It note itself was essential,” Garner wrote in the paper.

This week, on a “Today” show segment about Garner’s research, Matt Lauer said that when charities send him solicitations with personalized Post-Its, they get his attention.

And even beyond their power of persuasion, Post-Its seem to have stuck around simply because people still like them. Maybe in today’s digital age, when nothing online can be touched, crumbled, folded or affixed, there’s just something we can’t ignore about a note you can stick to your bathroom mirror or forehead.

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Emery Reddy