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Principles of Influence Part 2: The Law of Reciprocity

Note: This is the second in a series of six blog posts in the coming weeks and months based on principles found in Dr. Robert Cialdini’s seminal psychology book entitled Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. It is essential reading for any marketer.

The law of reciprocity says that if you do something for someone, they feel indebted to you. It is a human impulse that is universal and exists in every culture across the globe. Allow me to illustrate the point: If you shop at Costco, see if this sounds familiar. You’re making a beeline for that six-month supply of toilet paper or some cheap chardonnay and suddenly you encounter a senior citizen in a lunch lady get-up. She gives you a free sample of something, and perhaps a coupon, and the next thing you know you have a brick of processed food in your cart that you had no intention of buying when you walked in the place. Why does this marketing tactic work? Because, in addition to getting to try something new for free, we feel like we owe the giver something, whether we are conscious of it or not. Whether we are expressly aware of it or not, we are on some level rooting for this nice person who just gave us something yummy to succeed because, amid the warehoused stacks of soda pop and dog food, a human connection has been made.

In his seminal work entitled The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Dr. Stephen R. Covey describes the concept of an emotional bank account. Through our interpersonal relationships, we make deposits – sometimes small, sometimes big. It might be commenting favorably on someone’s social media wall, listening when a friend is in need, or helping someone change a flat tire. Over time, we build equity in the form of goodwill. That balance of goodwill is what allows us to make the occasional withdrawal in, say, the form of a disagreement, yet still have our relationship remain sound. When a couple no longer has any equity between them, and slips into a deficit position, if they are unable to rebuild goodwill, then divorce is inevitable.

This idea of making deposits into an emotional bank account is at the heart of the law of reciprocity. It basically says, “scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours” or, if you prefer Latin, quid pro quo (this for that). Strange as it seems, an initial deposit, as evidenced by our Costco story, can deliver immediate returns. In marketing and advertising, in addition to a free sample, it might take the form of a free trial, bonus item, an extra item included in the order designed to surprise and delight or something else that has perceived value for the recipient. For years, inventor and pitchman supreme Ron Popeil, would run through an exhaustive number of price drops – “Folks, it’s not $99.95, it’s not $79.95, it’s not…” Then, when he finally arrived at the actual dirt-cheap price, he would inform his audience that he could only afford to offer the product at that price if “you promise to tell a friend.” As corny as that might sound, it must work because it has been an integral part of his pitch for many years. Ron knew what we all know but took explicit action: word of mouth is the best form of advertising.

There is something inherently delicious about a marketer explicitly asking tit for tat and it’s a tactic that is underused. Perhaps some would argue that in this cynical age that consumers would balk at it, but it is worth consideration. For example, advertisers commonly give away 30, 60, and 90-day satisfaction guarantees without definitively asking for the behavior they want. In weight loss, fitness, and beauty there is certainly an opportunity to tie the promised benefit and the guarantee to compliance on the part of the purchaser. For example, stating, “All we ask is that you make a real commitment to following the program for 60 days. Then, if you don’t see the results you want, return it for a full refund.” Might such an approach have the potential to both increase consumer satisfaction (by virtue of their personal outcomes), and reduce returns?

For years, email marketers have been perhaps the foremost experts at leveraging reciprocity in a virtual world. They will commonly give away free information – say a video or the chapter of a book – in exchange for an email and permission to remarket. The content will fail if it is only self-serving; it must have genuine value. Then the marketer will make another offer of another video or chapter. With each stage of the process they build goodwill and perceived value, plus the incremental trust which allows them to capture more and more information about their prospect – address, age, income, etc. Only after they have created a relationship with the engaged party do they ask for the order. This is reciprocity in action.

As the direct marketing industry has evolved from a consumer transaction mentality to one focused on building relationships, brand affinity, and repeat purchase, reciprocity is a concept that deserves center stage. Content can no longer just be about trying to close the sale – it has to provide real benefit and engender good feelings about the company making an appeal. Such an approach requires commitment, patience, and a longer view. It demands a shift in thinking away from the immediate gratification that direct marketers became conditioned to expect when they could generate sales from a single touchpoint. The world – now Omni-Channel – has changed, but the desire to be treated with respect and fairness which lies at the heart of reciprocity’s power has not. So, allow me to close by making this humble request: if you found this blog of value, I would be most grateful if you would like and share it. Catch my drift?

Rick Petry

Rick Petry

Author: Rick Petry is the CMO/EVP Client Services of DirectAvenue and a seasoned direct marketing professional and thought leader with experience spanning three decades. He has had a hand in campaigns generating over $1 billion in sales and is conversant in all facets of performance-based marketing including off-line and on-line media planning and buying, research, analytics, creative, production, and back-end management, Rick is the author of over 200 articles on direct marketing best practices, and is a past Chairman of the Board of the Electronic Retailing Association (ERA) and a recipient of ERA’s Volunteer of the Year award, as well as the Direct Response Marketing Alliance’ Member of the Year award as voted by his peers.