Reciprocity (or, how to respond to ‘thank you’)
For the next couple of weeks we’re going to be presenting a series of articles on Cialdini’s Six Principles of Persuasion as they relate to marketing, with a dash of the social science behind them. First up is reciprocity, where we’re giving a little something back.
Reciprocity is a simple matter of favours. Every gritty anti-hero you’ve ever seen in a movie or on TV hates being in someone’s ‘debt’ – and as a result they will return the favour as soon as possible just to get out of it and on with their own gritty lives. Similarly, people will generally try to return favours done for them in their day-to-day lives, whether immediately or after a delay. We hate to feel like we owe someone. Broadly, reciprocity can either be positive or negative – either ‘treat others as you wish to be treated’ (return gifts/favours) or ‘eye for an eye’ (punitive/revenge). These both serve as social mechanisms to maintain balance in society.
One way which this is shown culturally is by the exchange of birthday presents. When we’re given presents, the gifter will usually feel that the giftee should give them a present of equivalent value when the time comes. Significantly, the giftee feels this obligation also – they aren’t blind to the expectation of reciprocity. A ‘true gift’ is one that is given with no expectation of reciprocity, but this is actually very difficult for most people to stomach. Even when a gift is given truly and unambiguously, we still feel like we should be giving something back. This is because gift exchange is used to strengthen relationships and kin bonds in our culture – a continuous exchange over time helps maintain strong relationships. As a result, one-off true gifts are hard to accept.
This sense of obligation is used to great effect in marketing. There’s no such thing as a truly free sample – if you accept it, you’re accepting a gift, and along with that comes the burden of obligation and reciprocity. Offering free samples certainly increases the rate of sales and persuades customers to buy things regularly that they would not have bought before. A more subtle method of reciprocity is that of concession, known in marketing as the ‘door in the face’ technique. Make an outrageous request, and when it is inevitably turned down, return later with a much smaller request (which was the actual request all along). The customer will feel that you have already done them a favour by conceding and making a better offer, and thus will experience the obligation associated with reciprocity. The rate of agreement with the second, smaller request is significantly higher if an outrageous request was made first.
According to Cialdini, we all have huge persuasive power immediately after someone says ‘thank you’. Doing favours for people creates this persuasive potential – and dismissing a ‘thank you’ with a ‘no big deal’ is the easiest way to throw that power away. Whether in marketing or in everyday life, harnessing the power of reciprocity is as easy as fostering the sense of a partnership – that we’re all doing things for each other, as a network or community. Responding to ‘thank you’ with ‘no big deal’ ends the conversation and negates the obligation, but ‘it’s what friends do!’ builds relationships. That is the beauty of reciprocity.