a red truck parked on the side of a street


  • Parking ticket the Wednesday before Valentine’s Day inspired experimental action on a lifelong dream
  • 1200 San Francisco residents woke up on 2.14.2014 and received Parking-Ticket styled valentines wishes
  • The Valentines encouraged people to share their feedback via a survey at a single landing page
  • Had set goal of 50 survey completions and exceptionally positive comment sentiment – the results were surprising.
  • A bunch of disclaimers can be found at the end of this post

The Setup

Many friends and colleagues who know me have had to sit through one of my rants about a longtime dream of mine to canvas a city with fake parking tickets. But not just any fake parking tickets—fake parking tickets that turned out to be something cool instead.

Well, dreams do come true. The Wednesday before Valentine’s Day, the world showed me a sign that I guess you could say was the last straw.

I walked out to my car that Wednesday to find yet another parking ticket on my windshield. My heart sunk at the sight of that familiar stark white paper with its blue grid and bold red and black SFMTA logo staring me right in the face. Like a shamed puppy caught doing something naughty, I hung my head and sulked forward.

I hoped that somehow, some way, I would pick up the ticket and read it, only to realize that it was not a ticket after all!

It was a ticket. And not just any ticket—it was a classic. Street cleaning violation. My experience had met my expectation.

But what if it hadn’t been a ticket?

Some combination of the disappointment I felt, my curiosity around the relationship between expectation and reality, and the fact that Valentine’s Day was right around the corner stirred up the perfect storm, and I set out on a mission to make my dream come true (and hopefully do some good in the meantime).

The Experiment

The day before Valentine’s Day I quickly developed a new spin on a classic San Francisco parking ticket style, and with a bit of hacky Photoshop skill, produced the almost final product below (added some hand-written touches for the VID#):


My very own ticket, photoshop, and some minor adjustments later. (click for larger image)

As you can see, the valentine ticket maintained a mostly true-to-San Francisco parking ticket form, with a series of simple calls to action at the bottom. Except the CTA called for no payment.

The final CTA was to visit www.thisisnotaticket.com: a simple landing page I whipped up with Unbounce (great product for simple landing page creation from scratch) for Valentine recipients and anyone else who happened to catch wind of the faux violations.

Here, I collected anonymous survey information on which tickets had been found and how people felt about the whole thing. The survey was a simple 3 questions, 2 multiple choice and one free response. These questions indicated how someone arrived at the site (allowing them to identify their ticket number) and how they reacted to the experiment. By giving each individual ticket a unique number, I could also track the areas of distribution and match responses to neighborhoods.

I had relatively low expectations on the number of people who would find the website (and even lower expectations on those that would respond to the survey), given its location in small print at the bottom of their ticket and assumptions I had about car flyering in general. I had mostly arbitrarily set my sights on 50 survey respondents as a successful response (50 0f 1,200 would make for just over a 4.16% conversion rate, which seemed like a good bar to strive towards).

After a trip to the printer, I worked with a few amazing volunteers to hand number each ticket and ready stacks of 50, which were then turned over to a fearless volunteer crew. This handful of folks (myself included) distributed 1,200 tickets around several San Francisco neighborhoods (you can see the distribution below) late into the night on the eve of Valentine’s Day.

chart, bar chart

Valentines were distributed across neighborhoods all over San Francisco, though admittedly several neighborhoods were not reached.

Valentine’s Day arrived and as the day progressed, the number of people finding their way to www.thisisnotaticket.com did too. Understanding that many people that park in San Francisco don’t drive every day, I gave the experiment a few days to run. I then aggregated the results.

The Results

chart, funnel chart

Below are the survey results data for the 2 multiple choice questions:

chart, pie chart

Survey Question 1: “How did you arrive here?”


chart, pie chart

Survey Question 2: “What best describes your reaction to this?”

The free response Question 3 received 75 comments for a response rate of 51%.

As I mentioned, I was not expecting more than 50 surveys submitted, so a dozen or so responses from the free response part of this would be great. In the spirit of dismissing preconceived assumptions, I am happy to admit I was extremely wrong. Overall, I was absolutely floored by the responses, which were overwhelmingly favorable.

To assess the open ended feedback in Question 3, I ran the comments through a quick sentiment analysis job using CrowdFlower to remove any bias that may have come from assessing sentiment myself. Each comment was judged for sentiment on a 5 point scale by three separate individuals.

chart, pie chart

Survey Question 3: Please share any other thoughts you’d like below.

Perhaps the most interesting and overall the most enjoyable was reading the specific comments and stories that people shared. I have tried to recap a few highlights good and bad below.

The Negative:

Who are you??? I hope you go back to every street where you placed those tickets and pick up any you see on the street. That’s the least you can do. Perhaps, it’s not so random and you actually have a cleanup process as part of your plan. If not, shame on you! But, hey, it will bring a few smiles to some I’m sure.

Useless. Not worth the bile upon first seeing this on my windshield


You rock, Parking Ticket Cupid!

Not really a valentines day kind of gal but this may have made me a believer.

Great way to start my day – I even managed a laugh and smile before my morning coffee.

On the Reaction:

Thank you – I had a rough morning. When I read this note, it actually made me teary eyed!! Thank you – so simple… to the point… and exactly what a Valentine should be! I hope whomever put this together, has an AMAZING day!

This made me smile all day–I am a teacher and I passed on a photo of this to all my colleagues and showed it to all my students, all of whom loved it. Very clever and charming, very surprising, and both sweet and funny. I was totally discouraged when I saw the ticket, because I was sure I had been careful with my parking, and as I was driving away I thought I should check the reason for the ticket since I knew it wasn’t street-cleaning or construction, and then I thought it was hilarious and generous and creative. Whoever you people are, you made my day!

My girlfriend and I bought our car on Tuesday, so this first “SF parking ticket.” She went outside this morning to move it from the 2 hr area in front of the house, three minutes over the 2 hour window. We thought we were three minutes too late, but it turns out we were right on time. Happy Valentine’s Day!

The Takeaways

While its hard to derive any hard numeric conclusions from this experiment, the results definitely can spark some interesting questions (which hopefully lead to interesting hypotheses, interesting experiments, and more learning).

What role does expectation play in determining satisfaction and happiness or providing a memorable experience? Under promise, over deliver is a phrase that gets tossed around and certainly comes to mind. After this experiment, its clearer than ever before that setting expectations is a key lever in how experiences are perceived.

Its also fair to point out that survey respondents likely represent a biased sample—after all, if you were annoyed or angry with something like this, would you really take time to log on to a site and share? A few people did, but its likely that many of the detractors stayed silent. That said, it’s also possible that many of those that did not make it to the site still had a positive reaction. This is a number we will likely never know.

It is worth noting that the overall conversion rates of this experiment (where primary conversions were survey completions and positive survey sentiment) were pretty outstanding, especially when considering the Valentine recipients who became survey respondents had to accomplish several steps:

1) See ticket

2) Read ticket

3) Take notice of website listed

4) Visit ticket site

5) Complete 3 question survey

6) Share with someone else

Is there merit in further exploring non-traditional communication channels like car flyering? Perhaps. Is there merit in finding more fun ways to share some love with the city you call home? Definitely.

One thing I can take from this is an increased sense of comfort in exploring the boundaries of expectation when giving out something tangible. Whether its a car flyer, swag at a conference, or even a thank you card, its worth noting that the recipient may have a certain expectation. Its up to us to figure out what to do with it.

Explore on, friends.

Finally, The Disclaimers

1) While I work at Optimizely, this was not an ‘official company marketing activity’ or experimental marketing campaign. The development and execution of the project was not funded by Optimizely.

2) The ticket says that 3,000 tickets were printed and distributed, but the I had to cut the number to 1,500 due to the time required to print, cut, and prepare, Of those 1,500, 1,200 were distributed.

3) This is not in anyway intended to be an endorsement for fake parking tickets—issue at your own risk.

4) I just want to call out that while this has been a long time dream of mine, the kudos for executing first belongs to this guy

5) For those who are dissatisfied in any way (or if you have any other feedback you’d like to share), please feel free to let me know in comments below or by emailing thisisnotaticket@gmail.com.

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