Personalization: Post-Its and Beyond


Have you ever received a printed invitation to, say, a charity fundraiser, and found that someone you know on the organizing committee had hand-written a short note encouraging you to attend? (Or sat in a room with other people actually scribbling such notes, periodically asking questions like, “Who knows Elmer and Dolly Pennington?”) It turns out that this activity has some good research underpinnings, and may point the way to boost success rates in a variety of marketing endeavors.

Direct marketers and market researchers have long employed a variety of personalization techniques to boost response rates, including the handwritten note. Back in 1989, a paper by Maheux, Legault, and Lambert looked at the problem of increasing physician responses to mailed surveys. Even twenty years ago, doctors were apparently too busy to respond to surveys at a high rate. But, the study showed, merely handwriting a “thank you” note at the bottom of the cover letter boosted the response rate by 41%.

In Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, Robert Cialdini describes an interesting twist on the handwritten note. A survey was mailed with three cover letter configurations:
1) A printed letter.
2) A printed letter with a handwritten message.
3) A printed letter with a handwritten message on a Post-It note.

The response rate was a mere 36% for the plain printed cover letter. Adding the handwritten note improved the response rate by one third to 48%. The Post-It more than doubled the response to 75%. A second test to examine the possibility that some magic in the Post-It note itself was responsible for the higher response rate included cover letters with a blank sticky note attached. That approach generated only a slightly higher response rate of 42%.

It seems that what is causing the boost is a “reciprocity” effect. The recipient recognizes that the sender apparently put some personal effort into the mailing, and is more likely to reciprocate with some effort of his own. Indeed, the recipients who received the handwritten Post-It note were not only more likely to respond, but they also responded more promptly and answered the questions more thoroughly. And, as suggested by the 1989 Maheux study, adding a “Thank you!” and initials to the note further lifted the response rate in yet another Post-It test.

Savvy Direct Marketers

Direct marketers are, as usual, well ahead of the academics in behavioral research. The Post-It note study was published in 2005, but I recall receiving very clever direct mail pieces more than a decade ago that employed a mass version of the same strategy. A sticky note with the pre-printed (but real-looking) handwritten message,”Check this out!” and cryptically signed, “H.” was attached to a document of some kind, usually what looked like a newspaper clipping but which, of course, was really an advertisement. The first one of these that I saw had me scratching my head to figure out where it came from. Henry? Harold? Of course a minute of study revealed the trick, but I found it quite ingenious. And, it seems, the marketers who crafted the piece were well aware of the power of a personalized sticky note to boost response rates.

Beyond The Post-It

Does this mean that you should run out and buy a carton of Post-It notes and start scribbling away? If you send any direct mail requests, you could probably do worse. However, other kinds of personalization may work as well or better. While the studies showed that writing a note on the mailing piece itself was less effective, one approach I’d like to test is a note on personal stationery. An informal “From the Desk of…” note penned by the CEO would, in my opinion, invite a high degree of reciprocity in business mailings. Similarly, if the honorary chairperson of a major fundraiser includes a handwritten note on her engraved notecard, it would almost certainly be more effective than the usual scribbled, “Hope you can make it!” on the cover letter.

What to Personalize

Here are just a few kinds of mail communications that could be improved by enhanced personalization:

1. Event invitations – both non-profit and for-profit.
2. Surveys and questionnaires.
3. Donation requests.
4. Requests to schedule an appointment.

Even communications that don’t require an action by the recipient, like a “thank you for your donation” note, can be enhanced by stronger personalization.

Of course, the effects of personalization and apparent effort on the part of the sender have to be weighed against the desired action. It’s easier to get significantly more people to fill out a five-minute survey than to cough up $1,000 to be a patron at a black-tie fund raising dinner. Nevertheless, making even difficult requests in a more personal manner can’t hurt.

  1. Denise Lee Yohn says

    interesting stuff — although i would add that the personalization needs to be authentic in order to be effective.

    i too recall receiving a mass version of the personal post it which you describe above — i admit i did spend more time looking at the piece trying to figure out who “H.” was, but once i realized the scam, i immediately threw it away and vowed never to open another piece i received from the company.

  2. Kimi Wei says

    I wonder what made people in Cialdini’s study conclude that a post-it note was more personal than a handwritten note on a cover letter.

    I’m thinking, maybe people don’t read cover letters.

  3. Roger Dooley says

    I think maybe to post-it stood out a bit more – a bit of color, or even 3-D. I agree that in some ways a hand-written note on the cover letter might seem MORE personal.


  4. Jim Gilbert says

    There is a negative side to that kind of personalization. Years ago at the behest of a CEO I was working for, I was asked to do one of those post it note mailers that say, “Jim, this really works” and only signed with one initial (usually a “J” for some reason). It came in a blank typewritten envelope, with a live stamp (a bulk mail equivalent of a real stamp). The post it note was on an ad designed to look ripped out of a newspaper.

    Long story short, It never failed, despite the sleazy nature. It became a the control mailing that no test could beat. Too bad, I really hated mailing it.


  5. Roger Dooley says

    Jim, that’s the exact kind of piece I was thinking of in my post. I’m not surprised that it became the control against which other mailings were tested – I’m a suspicious DM guy, and the first one I received had me fooled, at least for a while.


  6. Steve Yakoban says

    Did 3M create one of Martin Lindstrom’s marketing rituals here and neuro-indoctrinate the post it as the choice for “effective personalization”?

  7. Tim Aughenbaugh says

    Handwriting is powerful precisely due to the ‘reciprical’ factor mentioned. It naturally speaks to the good will still found in most people. They respond because they believe someone took the extra effort to communicate with them personally.

    However, to engender reciprocity and work most effectively, the effort first needs to be sincere. Some extra effort to truly make the communication personal needs to be made. Without that, you get the result mentioned in this post and comments – recipients are initially intrigued, then feel somewhat deflated or even manipulated when they discover that ‘personal handwritten comments’ have in fact been automated for marketing purposes. (see the ‘sleazy’ nature observed above)

    This is not ‘mass marketing’. It is ‘personal marketing’. It can be made easier, but it cannot be fully automated and retain its personal power.

    Is it a little extra effort to handwrite a note for an individual? Yes. Is the relationship, referral, word of mouth, or sale worth it? Most often, absolutely.

    Based on results I have personally seen, I would highly recommend handwritten notes as one of the easiest things to build relationships and sales. Don’t believe me? Stop what you are doing right now, take out a pen, and write a customer or prospect a handwritten note. I guarantee it will have a positive effect (plus you will feel really good as you do it).

    Getting going can be as simple as purchasing some notecards today, or even better, by ordering some personalized stationery. If that doesn’t make you feel tech savvy enough, take a look at something like Notegram which helps take some of the pain out the process of sending real handwritten notes (shameless plug). A recorded webinar there can give you a few more minutes on the Power of Handwritten Notes from other surveys and studies.

  8. Jerry Hollingsworth says

    This doesn’t just work in marketing either. I have used this internally with clients to engage management in line training programs and issue resolution. The personalized nature of the brief note – even a Post-it – pays huge dividends!

  9. Roger Dooley says

    That’s an excellent point, Jerry. Many “marketing” techniques can be helpful in management and even personal endeavors.


  10. Cathy Goodwin says

    As a long-time admirer of Robert Cialdini, I was delighted to see this research. The study just compared response rates but doesn’t tell us why it worked. A blank sticky might actually hurt response because it looks like a mistake.

    We’re seeking the online equivalent with “doodles,” graphics designed to look like handwriting. The idea is to personalize a potentially cold medium.

    Of course, if everybody does this, recipients will recognize it’s a ploy to grab attention. But it’s 100 times better than those printed cards designed to mimic handwriting. I got a few holiday cards that obviously came from that company. I can’t see how that’s more personal than an email.

    So let’s hope somebody doesn’t get the bright idea to preprint the sticky notes!

  11. Roger Dooley says

    Direct marketers discovered the power of pre-printed sticky notes (that look like handwritten notes) years ago. 🙁


  12. Michael says

    Does anyone know of a software that can help print these post it messages? thanks Michael

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