This article was updated on February 16th, 2021.
When I first penned this post over six years ago, I intended to share my research for a book on influence marketing.
At the time, marketer’s early focus on influence marketing was incorrectly informed by social scoring platforms, which sought to rank people who gamified their social channels to attract large follower counts and reactions.
My practical experiences showed that focus to be misplaced and I hoped that this article, based on the principle of reciprocity as inspired by Dr. Robert Cialdini would help.
Fast forward six years and, not surprisingly, this principle is as essential in today’s practice of influence marketing as ever before, albeit through new channels.
Within the psychology of relationships is 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 gift?
When done right, the principle of reciprocity is a powerful tool in the acquisition of new customers or 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 concept of reciprocity, we learned the power of the unexpected gift from this case study.
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
When implemented correctly, this concept can be a commanding aid in driving advocacy, referrals, and ultimately 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.
Today – more than ever – 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 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.
An Epsilon study found that 80% of consumers are more likely to purchase from a brand that offers personalized experiences (vs. simply promoting/selling products).
The study highlighted that brands that develop relationships with their customers experience a significant increase in their bottom line.
What marketers need to understand about our tendency to want to give back is that it’s often most potent when the recipient feels that the gesture is sincere in its attempt to thank or serve, to give honestly rather than to receive.
The Principle of Reciprocity, Community Building, and Influence Marketing
Another area where we’ve seen this principle work to good effect is in managing brand communities.
A common practice in our work today is building and managing communities that strengthen a business’s bond with its prospects and customers.
Six years ago, we understood that the principle of reciprocity would be hard to execute when you attempt to build bonds with your clients on platforms where you don’t own the data or the client relationship.
Within an owned and branded community, you can offer value-added content, experiences, education, or entertainment to support the audience’s personal needs. In return, the community will respond with positive brand sentiment, advocacy, and purchases.
Furthermore, a brand community using the principle of reciprocity provides fertile ground for fostering influencers and managing them to advocate for your business.
We’ve seen this principle work particularly well in a B2B community we built and manage for ECHO Incorporated. This branded community exists to do one thing: Improve small business owners’ business success in the green industry.
By facilitating peer-to-peer mentorship, networking opportunities, and live events, ECHOMeansBusiness.com fosters a sense of community in an authentic way that has earned the corporation direct and indirect dividends, despite not using the platform to sell or promote any of its products.
The Principle of Reciprocity, Corporate Gifting, and Advocacy
We all know that feeling when someone gives us a gift: What do I give them in return?
Well, you can look to GiftMyClient.com – an innovative corporate gifting service – for another example of the principle of reciprocity in action in the business world.
Where traditional gifting services send standard holiday gifts or branded swag in hopes of remaining top of mind with clients, Gift My Client uses the principle of reciprocity to increase the likelihood that its gift recipients will give back.
This B2B service sends on-demand or automated gifts to its users’ clients, prospects or employees that include a request to visit a personalized landing page where the recipient is allowed to make a referral, complete a survey, or offer a testimonial.
A gift is always nice, but a gifting platform designed to take advantage of the principle of reciprocity to drive immediate return on investment is a winning solution.
In this case study, the corporate gifting service uses the principle of reciprocity to create advocates, develop social proof, thank clients, and entice prospects.
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. You can make the recipient feel special and unique by providing a gift or benefit 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
The key here is the “gift of value.” A relationship is a two-way street. Any outreach that is slanted towards the seller will drive short-term business benefit or causes it to be ignored altogether.
In the book Youtility, author Jay Baer points out that only two letters differentiate 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 provide a customer with 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 goodwill to return the favor.
4. Be the first to give
Thanking customers or rewarding them for 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 with another gift, recognition, or value-added information. Then, provide options 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 posting 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.