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The Principle of Reciprocity and Influence Marketing

Wave - ReciprocityWithin the study of the psychology of relationships is a principle called reciprocity, which speaks to the human need (and tendency) to want to give something back when something is received.  People feel a sense of obligation to do something for you when you’ve done something for them.

Reciprocity affects us every day.  Have you ever: Invited someone to your wedding because they invited you to theirs; bought a Christmas gift for someone because they bought one for you; donated money to an organization or subscribed to a magazine/newspaper because they offered a free gift?

When done right, the principle of reciprocity is a powerful tool in the acquisition of new customers as well as in the development of existing customers. It can facilitate stronger, deeper, and longer lasting relationships with customers and advocates alike.

A Surprise Mint!

Dr. Robert Cialdini included this principle in his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. He listed it among six that contribute to one’s ability to influence others.  When describing the principle of reciprocity, he shares a case study in which a waiter’s tips increased by 3% when diners are given a mint, and 14% when they’re given two mints. When the waiter left one mint with the bill but quickly returned to offer a second mint, the tips increased by 23%.

Aside from the basic concept of reciprocity, what we learn from this case study is the power of the unexpected gift. When customers are singled out and made to feel that they’re special, the likelihood that they’ll respond more favorably increases dramatically.

The Principle of Reciprocity and Influence Marketing

This concept, when implemented correctly, can be a commanding aid for businesses in driving referrals and revenue. It can also backfire when executed poorly. A business runs the risk of being seen as inauthentic if the gifts, rewards, or offers it gives its customers are construed as blatant attempts to solicit a specific response.

The principle of authenticity must go hand-in-hand with the principle of reciprocity. Now let’s be honest; deep down we all know that a business, no matter how altruistic it portrays itself to be, is really looking to make a sale (or in the case of non-profits, solicit a donation). We get that and it’s OK; customers don’t resent a business for doing what a business needs to do. However, customers do react negatively when a business’s outreach is clearly one-sided.

What marketers need to understand about our tendency to want to give back is that it’s often strongest when the recipient feels that the gesture is sincere in its attempt to thank or serve, and that there’s no expectation of a return gesture.

5 Reciprocity Tips For Businesses

Here are some tips (learned from experience) that will help influence customers and advocates to reciprocate positivity and perceive your outreach as genuine interest and gratitude instead of salesmanship. ­­

1. Make customers feel special and unique. The customer’s perception of your offer – even if it’s generic – should be that it is offered to him or her individually. This can be achieved by offering a gift or benefit that is related to the customer’s psychographic or demographic profile. Another option is to provide a self-selection process that allows the customer to take advantage of an offer that best suits him or her at that moment. Alternatively, some form of personalization, such as a handwritten note, that accompanies the generic offer can make all the difference.

2. Give customers a gift of value that benefits their lives outside their relationship with your business or the use of your product. The key here is “gift of value.” A relationship is a two-way street, and so any outreach that is obviously geared towards the purchase of more products, without a clear benefit to the end user’s personal situation, will drive short-term business benefit or causes it to be ignored altogether.

In the book Youtility, author Jay Baer points out the fact that there’s only two letters differentiating helping and selling, but those two letters are critical to a business’s success today.

3. Suggest ways that customers may reciprocate.   Here’s where we bleed over to the art of persuasion. As a young man working in a haberdashery, a mentor taught me to always provide a customer the option between two ties when selling a suit, instead of offering my thoughts on the best one. “By choosing which he likes better, instead of saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to one selection, you’ve increased the chances that he’ll offer you his credit card,” he said. Selection makes it easy for recipients of good will to return the favor.

4. Be the first to give. Thanking customers or rewarding them for a purchase may encourage them to reciprocate with another good act; however, the best way to guarantee such a response is to be the first to reach out.

5. Don’t let the circle end; keep the relationship going. When a customer responds in kind to an offer you’ve extended, continue that relationship by extending another gift, recognition, or value-added information. Then provide the options for that customer who had just made a purchase to recommend you to his or her friends.

Here’s an example: Johnson and Murphy, one of my favorite brands, sent me – unsolicited and unannounced – a gift card after I posted a series of pictures of me wearing their products. After using that gift card, I received an email asking me to rate/recommend the purchases I made, which, of course, I did.  Reciprocity.

Sensei Debates

Do customers accept and respond to these marketing practices or are they too cynical to respond? What would make the difference for you?

Sam Fiorella
Feed Your Community, Not Your Ego

Image Credit: Optik, licensed via Creative Commons

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Join the Conversation

Don Purdum
Don Purdum 5pts

Hi Sam,

As a online influencer and marketer I know how powerful reciprocity can be! Especially when you're working to connect with influential bloggers who sway over large audiences.

I think that many people get the concept, but they simply fail to follow through. Your last point is HUGE! 

"Don’t let the circle end; keep the relationship going."

Yet how many times has a business failed to follow-up, thank, and offer their new customer something as a form of appreciation.

I learned a long time ago in fundraising that if someone gave you a small gift, they he or she was just a one-time donor. But, if that person gave over and over again they were a partner. It really didn't matter what the amount was.

To translate that into business I believe that if someone buys from you that's all you have; someone who bought from you.

But, if you have someone who comes back twice, three times or more... now you have a customer and all profits in my opinion are found in repeat business many times.

I really appreciate your article Sam and I definitely learned something new from your article.

I hope you're having an awesome week!

~ Don Purdum

jack_mattr 5pts

Excellent. Your #3, suggesting ways to reciprocate and offering choices is a good idea. And it wasn't in your book, I don't think, was it?

samfiorella moderator 5pts

@jack_mattr Thanks Jack. No, these tactics were not highlighted in our book, which was more focused on identifying decision-makers in the purchase life cycle and how they make decisions. We're now expanding on tactics and some best practices within this blog. Stay tuned for more!! 

jack_mattr 5pts

@samfiorella @jack_mattr Thanks, Sam. I've been tracking both you and Danny since I read the book - really advanced stuff. If influencer marketing were photography, you guys would be the DSLR with the cool advanced settings.

Feels like we're all in "automatic" one-click mode - for now!


  1. […] The Principle of Reciprocity and Influence Marketing. 5 tips for businesses seeking to sway consumers and advocates.  […]

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