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The Rule of Reciprocity

November 9, 2010
at 2:17 pm PST

How marketers persuade their customers to do their work for them.

The other day, my father was telling me a story about a water bottle. This was your ordinary half gallon reusable bottle that someone might take to the gym, or on a camping trip. The difference about this bottle was that my father didn’t want it, but he paid good money for it. “Then why did you buy it?” I asked. He went on to tell me how when he went to fill up their water for the week, he encountered a man from Watermill, the company that owned the water purification kiosks. The man said, “Here, fill up your water on us, no purchase required.” Handing my father 8 tokens (no cash value) to put into their machines to fill his water for free. Wow, this was a great deal, no strings attached!

After my father was finished the man mentioned that he was selling new water bottles and asked if my he was interested in buying one. He felt an urge, no an obligation to purchase one. Even though he didn’t need it. Even though the price of the bottle was more than the $2 in quarters he would have spent to fill up his water. So there sits my father with this unwanted water bottle, and a perfect opportunity for me to introduce him to the rule of reciprocity.

I first read about this concept in Bob Cialdini’s book Influence, The Science of Persuasion (@RobertCialdini). Many of you that have been in sales and marketing for the past 26 years may already know about this book. I was 3 years old when the first edition was published; so give me a break for just getting around to reading it. The second chapter dives into the concept and power of reciprocity. “People are more likely to give in to a request, if they have first received an unexpected gift, either tangible or intangible.”

This got me thinking about what everyone is calling the intrinsically motivated minority of the population that take the time to blog, write reviews, rate books, restaurants or movies, and that the majority of us freeloaders that benefit from these acts of goodwill.

I have trouble with this concept. As a marketer, I can’t do anything with it.  I can’t settle with the fact that only this small percentage of my customer base is intrinsically motivated to write reviews and rate content. I have trouble believing the mass-adoption and wild success of websites like Pandora, Amazon, Wikipedia, and Yahoo Answers are a result of a minority of intrinsically motivated individuals.

We are seeing the beginning of a surge of reciprocating actions that will turn into a tsunami as the technologies continue to enable these acts of goodwill. The challenge to marketers is enabling and encouraging these activities. Trigger the emotions that drive the desire to reciprocate, and you’ll have a very powerful device.

The most powerful technologies are the ones that have equal or greater reward for the reciprocating act required of the user. Think of Pandora for a minute. The user is liking or disliking a song so that their music selection gets better. They most likely don’t even realize that the reason Pandora can make such informed suggestions, is due to the massive crowd of music listeners sharing their musical preferences.

Another example that I find to be very powerful is the follow-back on Twitter. One of the quickest ways to get someone to follow you, is to first follow them.

The next time Yelp finds you an amazing deli while in a town you’ve never been to, or Netflix suggests a movie that turns into one of your new favorites; eventually the reciprocation feeling will creep up on you. Eventually, will everyone begin to feel the need to rate a movie, restaurant, or book? I believe if we learn how to build reciprocating communities, this could become our reality.

The next part of this conversation will be about how marketers build reciprocating online communities of customers. But before then, I’d love to hear your feedback on this concept.

If you’d like to read more about Bob’s work, and scientific research to back up his claims, check out Influence.

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5 Comments.


  1. The follow-back on Twitter is a great example of a typical reciprocation. The reciprocation is search engine optimisation is a very grey area in my opinion

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  2. The Golden Rule is said to be based on reciprocity.The word reciprocal is derived from the Latin word ‘reciprocus’ meaning going backward and forward.

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  3. I’m going to write about this same thing on my blog. Thanks!

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  4. Very nice information.

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  5. Love all the opinions expressed here! How is everyone? Love how everyone expresses whatr they feel :)

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