Understanding the principle of liking and knowing how to use it in your marketing and on your website can give you an unfair advantage over the competition.
People feel an obligation to do something for you and return the favor when you’ve done something for them. This is the reciprocity principle.
Here’s everything you need to know about the reciprocity principle, plus all other important principles and theories that can supercharge your marketing and influence people to buy your products or services.
What is the reciprocity principle?
People feel an obligation to do something for you and return the favor when you’ve done something for them. The obligation is strongest when something is given without expectation of return.
Dr. Cialdini and the reciprocity principle
Dr. Robert Cialdini, in his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, discusses the reciprocity principle at length. The reciprocity principle is one of the core principles of social psychology and reflects a human need for a give and take in a relationship.
Dr. Cialdini discovered, while conducting social psychology experiments, that even the smallest gestures can often have a powerful effect. Be the first to give something and people will want to give you something in return. In one example, Dr. Cialdini observed that when waiters gave diners a mint at the end of a meal, the average tip amount increased by 3%. If two mints were given, tips increased by 14%. And if the waiter left one mint with the bill, but then quickly returned to give a second, the tip increased by a whopping 23%.
Research proves that the rule of reciprocity can be powerful
Sociologist Phillip Kuntz conducted a social psychology study in 1974 testing out reciprocity tendencies in complete strangers.
Kuntz mailed approximately 600 Christmas cards out to people he had no relationship or contact with. He wanted to know if he was the first to give something, how many would feel obligated to return the kind gesture.
As it turns out, he received around 200 cards in response. One in three of the card receivers were influenced by the principle of reciprocity enough to initiate action.
The Behavioral Insights Team tested the principles of reciprocity differently. A group of investment bankers was asked to donate a day of salary to charity. While many complied, researchers found that when the request was accompanied by a bag of candy, the number of bankers who opted to donate doubled. That is a very small investment for a big payoff!
Bankers weren’t the only ones influenced by sugary treats. David Strohmetz of Monmouth University conducted an experiment with his colleagues on service tips in relation to reciprocity. The experiment, set in a restaurant, showed that waitstaff could increase tips by 3% when they bring candy along with the bill.
Tips jumped up to a shocking 14% when customers were offered two pieces of candy and rose even further (21%) when the wait staff delivered a single piece of candy and returned a minute later to give another piece because it had been such a great table.
Reciprocity Can Grow Your Business Faster
Give something to customers and prospects before you ask for something
Giving something first can seem counter-intuitive, but offering a gift or service without the expectation of something in return can be profitable as a reciprocity strategy.
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Saying thank you can be a powerful reciprocity strategy
Saying thank you to a customer can seem like a small, mostly insignificant act, but it can have a noticeable effect on a customer’s behavior.
A study that looked at restaurant tips found that when the server wrote thank you, included a happy face, or added a tip about an upcoming special to the back of a bill, the amount of tip left by customers increased by 17-20%.
Writing a thank you note or email to a customer can leverage the same reciprocity that restaurant servers used on customer’s bills.
Three ways you can say thank you include:
Thank you pages Create a thank you page for downloads, registrations, purchases, and other customer actions. You can also include on this page details of what the customer did to help tie their action to the thank you.
Thank you emails Similarly, send customers a short email thanking them for a recent transaction. You can provide them with the information they may need or be looking for regarding the transaction as well.
Handwritten thank-you notes These may take more effort and time, but they can be very effective. Companies like Stitch Fix include handwritten thank notes inside all of their clothing shipments, which not only act as a seed for reciprocity, they also help increase the authenticity and personalized nature of the service.
Make customers feel unique Stitch Fix’s personalized notes demonstrate something that helps increase the possibility of reciprocity: the customer should feel like whatever is being offered is being individually provided to them.
Besides personalized notes, you can also help increase the sense that a gesture is for that specific customer by using demographic or geographical targeting (give them something specific to who they are or where they live), or by offering a set of things and letting the customer choose. We have a human need to connect and these small gestures can powerfully leverage that need.
Use the reciprocity principle effectively by offering something of value
Give customers something they find valuable outside of the existing relationship or services you already offer them. Coupons and deals are always an excellent way to encourage repeat business, but inspiring the customer to return the favor often requires something above and beyond.
For example, don’t just give your customers individual discount codes, but also give them codes they can share with their friends or family.
Meal prep services like HelloFresh uses this technique extensively by providing new customers with free meals they can send someone else as a gift.
Use reciprocity effectively to boost your content marketing efforts
The goal of content marketing is to share valuable, relevant, and consistent information used to attract and retain an audience.
This type of marketing is naturally reciprocal. You create meaningful content to share and the audience and readers show appreciation through engagement. It is the epitome of I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine, and an essential tool for all businesses.
Importantly, 73% of consumers are impacted by a brand’s content marketing when making a purchase decision.
Avoid the urge to push for a quick sale – nurture the relationship instead
Ever have a salesperson work so hard for your sale, only to disappear as soon as you have signed on the dotted line?
Don’t be that business.
Gaining a single sale is a short-ended achievement. Investing in a client’s experience and relationship with your business can yield consistent sales and the probability of the client sharing your business with others. Continue to nurture the relationship by offering first-time customer discounts and communicating with your e-mail list about upcoming sales and promotions.
Ask customers to provide feedback about your business
If you run the type of business where word-of-mouth referrals are important, ask your customers to post reviews on Google, Yelp, and other review sites. Such reviews can be critical to businesses, even if they come from total strangers. Human behavior normally pushes us to look for social proof and reviews can often make or break a business.
And, if your business has an amazing mobile app, you have a potential gold mine of reciprocity. Clients who download and regularly use an app you provided are very likely to provide a rating when asked. Timing is key for this type of action. You must give the user ample time to review, use, and form an opinion of an app before asking for feedback. And don’t make the users feel like they must give you a review - make it clear that the review is entirely optional.
Advertising and marketing ideas based on the principle of reciprocity
Dunkin’ Donuts Cheers to the Champions campaign
Dunkin’ Donuts ran a campaign that leveraged reciprocity and the idea of giving-to-getting effectively. Called ’Eagles Win, You Win,’ the campaign offered Philadelphia area customers a free coffee the day after the Philadelphia Eagles won a game. The free coffee was redeemed via the Dunkin’ Donuts mobile app.
The campaign was a big success, with the donut chain reporting over a quarter million customers taking advantage of the free coffee offer every week after an Eagles win. Over the long term, this free sample paid for itself many times over. The campaign drove huge downloads of the mobile app by many people, which exposed customers to carefully targeted promotional messaging and incentives. Sales and general foot-traffic increased because of the free samples, which demonstrated the power of reciprocity.
Morton’s Steakhouse surprise and delight campaign
Mortonʑs Steakhouse also used reciprocity to gain lots of free publicity and advertising. They used a method commonly known as surprise and delight. The basic idea is to surprise customers with something that delights them, in the hopes that the principle of reciprocity will kick in.
The campaign was inspired when a traveler jokingly posted on Twitter requesting for a Morton’s steak to be waiting for him when his plane landed. So, Morton’s went ahead and sent a tuxedoed staff member to the airport to wait for the traveler with a big, juicy Porterhouse – free of charge! A positive, memorable experience is a win-win for everybody: it makes customers happy, drives word-of-mouth, and keeps them coming back to your store. And, of course, the traveler graciously shared this via social media where the campaign gained Morton’s a great deal of free publicity.
Zappos do anything possible for the customer policy
Another company that uses surprise and delight to great effect is Zappos, whose customer service exploits are legendary for encouraging deep customer loyalty and viral word-of-mouth.
One great example is the time a traveler to Las Vegas checked into her hotel, only to discover she had forgotten her favorite shoes at home. She went on the Zappos’ site to buy a replacement, but the site was out of her size. So she called customer service. The company didn’t have her size in stock, but it found a pair at a Las Vegas mall not far from the company’s headquarters.
Someone from Zappos went to the mall, bought the shoes, and then hand-delivered them to the customer at her hotel, all free of charge.
What are the core principles of marketing psychology?
There are many important principles, theories, and concepts used in marketing psychology. These include:
- the principle of reciprocity
- information-gap theory
- social proof theory
- and loss aversion marketing
You can research each of these principles, plus dozens of other key principles of marketing psychology, via the links below.
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