We humans have brainwashed ourselves into giving when we receive. We give you this content, you give us business. See?
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Reciprocity Principle: People are more likely to say yes to those they owe something to.

Why? It’s hard-wired into our core being. There are long-standing social norms stemming from human groups sharing food and skills. Nobody would share if they didn’t feel that the “gift” would not be reciprocated further down the line, society would fall apart. The archaeologist Richard Leakey described it as an “honoured network of obligation”. Cultural anthropologists see the “web of indebtedness” as a uniquely human trait designed as an adaptive mechanism for survival. The good old Babylonians codified it in Hammurabi’s Code nearly 4000 years ago with 282 variations of An Eye For An Eye (complete with adjustments based on social status and the introduction of innocent until proven guilty). 

This organising of our society around the idea of reciprocity makes it psychologically and culturally tricky to disconnect ourselves from the other side of the reciprocal bargain. In other words, the act of receiving creates an obligation to repay the debt.

It’s so powerful in fact that a 2016 study discovered one-third of subjects tested were willing to give up their personal passwords in exchange for a small, worthless gift (particularly just before asking to hand over the details).

Try yourself – go into Costco and walk away from one of the sample-giving staff without feeling terrible for ignoring their pitch to buy the product you just ate and preferring meaningless excuses.

If in any doubt, read this about how to subtly bribe doctors with cheap pizzas:

In this cross-sectional study of 279 669 physicians, physicians who received a single meal promoting the drug of interest, with a mean value of less than $20, had significantly higher rates of prescribing rosuvastatin as compared with other statins; nebivolol as compared with other β-blockers; olmesartan as compared with other angiotensin-converting-enzyme inhibitors and angiotensin-receptor blockers; and desvenlafaxine as compared with other selective serotonin and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors.

I doubt any one of the professionals in the study would admit that a slice of pizza would consciously affect their behaviour, but clearly unconsciously it did.

Some oft-quoted examples of reciprocity:

  • Flowers pushed into your hand on the street or at a meal
  • Hearing the words “It’s a gift for you!” as you’re handed a copy of a religious book, shortly followed by “Would you like to make a donation?”
  • An invitation to choose your free gift before placing an order
  • Invitation only offers – trade-only days, sneak show previews, meet and greets, VIP access
  • Waiters increasing tips by adding a single mint v multiple mints

Some people might actually experience physical discomfort when faced with an unwanted debt – the conflict playing out in our heads as we struggle to return the Hare Krishna book or know we face the indignation of handing over the smallest note in our wallet. This is termed reciprocity anxiety.

The unscrupulous marketer, conman and criminal recognise this and have learned only too well how to exploit reciprocity to their advantage. Your job is to make sure that when entering the territory of reciprocity, you make the most of it.

How reciprocity is received by your list and offer should be carefully tested. It’s one of the oldest, and hence hackneyed, techniques in the book, so proceed with caution and think carefully about presentation. Reciprocity comes in many forms and can be triggered at all kinds of stages in the campaign.

In the case of a free gift, you might:

  • Send an actual free gift out and ask for action
  • Send an offer that includes a free gift on completion
  • Send a two-step campaign, where the first step asks the recipient to choose a free gift

Small changes in format might have a big effect on perception, so test. For example – these two have the same outcome…

A: “Your free iPhone is boxed up and ready to ship, we just need you to tell us where to send it when you book your conference tickets.”

B: “Book your conference tickets today for a free iPhone.”

… with a completely different feel. (A) emphasises the free iPhone that already has your name on it – essentially it’s been pre-gifted to you and the seller is suggesting they’ve already done something for you without being asked. (B) says you can get a free iPhone as a reward for booking on the conference – seller will do something for you if you do something for them.

Remember, reciprocity can be subtle or overt, look out in your offers where you might unintentionally be missing, or creating reciprocity purely from the language used. For example – reinforcing the offer with a guarantee is actually a reciprocity play. If you find that bumps your conversion, then perhaps your market is responsive to this kind of trigger and you can experiment with others.

The giant shoulders we stand upon:

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