By Bob Salvas
The reciprocity principle is one of the basic laws of social psychology: It says that in many social situations we pay back
what we received from others.
When it comes to marketing, utilizing the reciprocity principle is one of the most effective practices a business can engage in.
As consumers, we see examples of it all the time: the free teriyaki chicken sample in the food court; the birthday card that
arrives in the mail; the rewards programs we participate in; the free SWAG we get from our favorite business; the items we pick
up at a trade show booth; even the ‘smiley face’ and ‘thank you’ drawn on our bill after dining out. These all represent a sort
of bonus or delightful surprise. It is not something we directly pay for.
In New Orleans the phrase lagniappe (from the Louisiana Creole French) is the practice of giving the customer ‘a little something
extra’, such as a free piece of desert to take home. Many people are also familiar with the phrase ‘baker’s dozen’, the ordering
of a dozen items but getting 13 of those items. As a side note, the term ‘baker’s dozen’ originated in medieval England during a
time when there were strict punishments (like fines or flogging) for selling undersized loaves of bread. Because of fluctuations
in the baking process, bakers did not want to risk the penalties, so they threw in an extra loaf to make sure they were over the
required minimum weight established for a dozen.
While we may not fear flogging today, we still see businesses giving more than a customer is paying for. Are they bad at math?
No. They are probably generous people, but that generosity also invokes the reciprocity principle. The customer feels the need
to ‘return the favor’. This may be realized in additional purchases, long-term loyalty or referrals to friends and associates.
And in business, this is where the gold is.
In her article The Norm of Reciprocity, author Kendra Cherry sites another fascinating example of reciprocity:
In 1974, sociologist Phillip Kunz conducted an experiment. He mailed out handwritten Christmas cards with a note and photograph
of him and his family to approximately 600 randomly selected people. All of the recipients of the cards were complete strangers.
Shortly after mailing the cards, responses began trickling in.
Kunz received nearly 200 replies. Why would so many people reply to a complete stranger? This is the rule of reciprocity at work.
Since Kunz had done something for them (sent a thoughtful note during the holiday season), many recipients felt obligated to
return the favor.
How can you use the reciprocity principle to grow your business? In addition to giving your customers that ‘little something extra’
when they do business with you, consider some other ways you might be able to give:
1. Gifts- Giving tangible branded or unbranded gifts to clients and prospects is the most obvious and direct way.
2. Networking- Meet people face to face: Smile, compliment them and bring value to the conversation. This IS a form of giving. It
is no surprise that the largest networking organization in the world, BNI (Business Networking International) has the term ‘Givers Gain’
as their mantra.
3. Mail- While you can certainly give to people in the online world (good content in blogs and email communications), it can really be
impactful to send them an actual greeting card in the mail. While the example of Phillip Kunz (above) was many years ago, the practice
stands out even more in today’s digital world.
Lastly, it is important to have the right intention when you practice the reciprocity principle:
1. Be authentic to who you are- people have an ability to detect BS.
2. Don’t ask for or have an expectation of a return- this is not a scorecard. You are giving, not trading.
3. Remember to give useful value. Something that is meaningful to the receiver goes a long way as compared to something that is not relevant
to them. The more personal and helpful it is, the better.
Ironically, if it is done correctly with the right intention, this GIVING will move many people to WANT to reciprocate. And that is where your
business can blossom. Happy GIVING!