Using visual goal setting and a postcard to future-self to increase retention

Visual goal-setting and postcard
Experiment Type
Field Experiment
Increase program enrollment, Increase program retention
Reduce expenses
Focus Areas
Marketing & messaging
Behavioral Concepts
Present bias Planning fallacy
Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC)
Partner Type

What Happened

It worked. This intervention led both to participants attending more financial coaching sessions during the first three months and better retention rates on average relative to the comparison.

Lessons Learned

This experiment suggests that retention is built during a participant’s early engagement. If a participant engages with coaching and derives social, emotional, or financial value during the first sessions, they are more likely to sustain their engagement over time.


Financial coaching represents a promising strategy to help individuals change their behavior in service of long-term goals. Participants who attend more sessions are more likely to find a job, keep their job after 180 days, and establish a credit history. The problem is, however, that not everyone that starts coaching sticks with the program, and many drop out before achieving the full benefits of their engagement.

Finding ways to improve retention and engagement among financial coaching participants would increase the impact of the programs. Over the past 18 months, we have partnered with Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC) to tackle just this problem. Working with their network of Financial Opportunity Centers (FOCs), we explored behaviorally informed strategies to improve the retention of financial coaching programs.

Key Insights

Before we began designing interventions, we conducted in-depth, qualitative research at 29 FOCs across five different states. During these trips, we had one-on-one interviews with financial coaching participants about their experiences with the program. We also spoke with financial coaches about where in the process they see clients struggle and what kind of strategies they use to engage them. In addition to the qualitative work, we also analyzed administrative data provided by LISC to look for trends in retention. From this work, we identified a number of barriers that might prevent a financial coaching participant from fully engaging with the program. We think two barriers are especially important:

  • Financial coaching offers value that materializes in the future, but many participants are focused on short-term problems. This mismatch means that some participants may not fully connect with the long-term goals they set as part of the coaching process.

  • Some participants put off working with a financial coach until a certain point in the future, such as when they secure employment. This means that some participants may drop off more quickly during the early sessions.


Based on these insights, we developed a visual goal-setting exercise where participants were presented with a set of eight photos and then asked to select one that represented what they wanted their financial future to feel like. This prompted a conversation about why they identified with the picture that they selected.

By structuring a long-term goal-setting exercise around visuals, participants were able to connect with their goals in a more meaningful and emotional way.

Furthermore, we purposefully selected eight photos that were conceptual, allowing participants to give them their own meaning.

Half of the financial coaching participants were asked only to pick a photograph. The other half were asked to use their answers from the visual goal setting exercise to fill out a postcard to themselves in the future. They were unaware of the fact that they would receive the postcard the next time they missed a meeting. Reminders such as the postcard can play an important role in making our previous intentions more salient by bringing us back to the moment when we set those intentions. The postcard not only serves as a reminder of the motivation participants felt during the session, but it also makes the coach’s contact information readily available.


We found that both the visual goal-setting exercise and the postcard significantly increased participants’ willingness to attend sessions. Participants who went through the visual goal-setting exercise with their coaches attended 6% more sessions within the first three months than the comparison group. Participants who also used the postcard attended 16% more and 10% more than just the visual goal setting.

We also found that the interventions significantly increased retention. About 9% of the comparison group met were retained. About 12% of the participants who went through the visual goal setting exercise and about 13% of the participants who also used the postcard were retained after 3 months.

Interestingly, while participants that wrote the postcard did have marginally better engagement compared to those who only went through the visual goal setting exercise, it was not because it worked as a reminder. Instead, we think that simply being forced to take the time to reflect and summarize the conversation may make the visual goal-setting exercise more meaningful.

6 months after we finished collecting data, we were able to go back and see if the effect of the intervention persisted over time. We found that there were more clients attending sessions even after six months. However, we also saw no differences in session attendance between any group for clients who were retained at the 3-month mark.

Indeed, when we look at attrition rates, we see that the only moment when the interventions make a significant difference is early in a participant’s engagement.

We found that some of this effect just resulted in displaced attrition – someone dropped out of the program at month 4 instead of month 2. However, the evidence also suggests that a significantly higher number of participants deeply engage and continue attending coaching sessions well into the future.

Taken together, this experiment suggests that retention is built during a participant’s early engagement. If a participant engages with coaching and derives social, emotional, or financial value during the first sessions, they are more likely to sustain their engagement over time.