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Lessons in Marketing Psychology: How Reciprocity Can Improve Your ROI

5 Minute Read

How did you feel the last time someone opened the door for you, or let you go ahead in the grocery line? These little acts of generosity are actually powerful tools when it comes to the marketing psychology of persuasion. The science shows you are much more likely to give or do something nice for that person in return. We feel compelled to reciprocate.

What Is Reciprocity?

In her book Webs of Influence: The Psychology of Online Persuasion, psychologist and digital strategist Nathalie Nahai defines reciprocity as “a form of cooperation between two or more people that involves the exchange of something valued between the parties involved.” It could be anything from material goods, assistance, and services to advice, contacts, help, or opportunities. In a nutshell, we tend to repay in kind what someone else has given to us. Nahai explains that activating reciprocity is a more effective influencing strategy than those that are based on rewarding behavior.

A bowl of tomatoes being given

Image attribution: Elaine Casap

How Does Reciprocity Work?

Interestingly, reciprocity is not all about being altruistic. While some forms of reciprocity may be linked to altruism and kindness, others have to do with the expectation of future obligations or, in other words, the concept of indebtedness.

Nahai cites LinkedIn as a primary example: “People who receive testimonials from happy customers or associates will usually respond in kind without even being asked. Why? Because we somehow feel compelled to do so. Even if we don’t feel utterly obliged, we know that it’s just not good business to be seen to break this unspoken rule, so fundamental is it to our social success.”

From an evolutionary perspective, sharing knowledge and assistance increased our own likelihood of survival. It’s a form of cooperation that other scholars like Yuval Harari have credited with the proliferation of culture and society. Reciprocity is now a social norm that allows the growth and strengthening of a cooperative society.

According to Robert Cialdini, professor emeritus of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University, reciprocity is one of six principles of persuasion.

Scientists know that in making a decision, we don’t simply consider all the available information. Instead, we use shortcuts that help us get to a reasonably good answer faster. Reciprocity is one of the shortcuts that guides our behavior.

“In the context of a social obligation,” says Cialdini, “people are more likely to say yes to those that they owe.” In a series of studies conducted in restaurants, giving diners a mint at the end of their meal increased tips by approximately three percent. When two mints are provided, there’s a 14 percent increase in tips. But when the waiter gives one mint, starts to walk away but returns and says, “For you nice people, here’s an extra mint,” tips increase by a whopping 23 percent. In this example, it’s not about what was given but how it was given.

The key takeaways from the psychology of reciprocity are:

  • Be the first person to give.
  • Make the gift personalized.
  • Make the gift unexpected.

How to Employ Reciprocity in Your Marketing Strategy

Cialdini emphasizes that using reciprocity as a marketing tactic must be done ethically. In fact, reciprocity only works when it is employed with integrity.

One of the best ways for brands to activate reciprocity online is with branded content. Writing articles that provide information and value to your customers is a form of gift-giving. You are educating your audience and thus making them better equipped to make an informed purchasing decision when it comes to your products and services. You are also providing interest and entertainment that creates a positive emotional connection with your brand.

The trick to using content to engage the principle of reciprocity is that you’re not using it to sell your products and services. You are using it to establish yourself as a credible thought leader and subject matter expert in your industry space, and as a way to establish a more personal connection with your audience. Content that simply attempts to provide this kind of value is viewed as authentic and honest.

Brand storytelling is an ideal space to establish personal and unexpected connections. Tell stories that contain rich, specific narrative and characters that your audience can identify with. These characters could be real or hypothetical. If you sell garden tools, go and interview that charming old woman who has been gardening for fifty years and swears by her age-old method of singing to her plants to help them grow. Or invent a persona that matches the age, gender, and demographics of your audience, explain what problem they might be having with their common garden plant, and provide information about how to solve the problem that’s specific to your audience. For example, what is it about the soil and climate that could be making his roses wilt? The more specific and personalized you can make your content, the more valuable and authentic it will be for your audience.

Think outside the box when it comes to reciprocity. It can include things like giving a small gift but it can also encompass providing advice and education. Reciprocity simply involves the exchange of something of value. It’s been the fuel for growth and cooperation in society since the time of hunter-gatherers, which makes it a deeply ingrained psychological principle of behavior. Make it personal, make it unexpected, and use it with integrity. Your audience will respond in kind.

For more insights into the psychology of marketing and how you can use science to boost your marketing ROI, subscribe to the Content Standard newsletter.

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Featured image attribution: Evan Kirby

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Nicola is an international award-winning writer, editor and communication specialist based in Toronto. She has stamped her career passport all over the communication industry in publishing, digital media, travel and advertising. She specializes in print and digital editorial and content marketing, and writes about travel, food, health, lifestyle, psychology and personal finance for publications ranging from the Toronto Star and WestJet Magazine to Tangerine Bank and Fidelity Investments. Nicola is owner and principal of communication consultancy Think Forward Communication, and Editor-in-Chief at AnewTraveller.com. Nicola revels in the visceral, experiential side of travel, and will passionately argue for its psychological paybacks, especially after a few glasses of wine. You can contact her at nicola.lauren.brown@gmail.com

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