Marketing Smarter(er): Reciprocity

One of the first social psychology concepts I remember really standing out to me as a solid marketing strategy was the idea of reciprocity. Maybe it stood out in particular because I am absolutely, totally and completely, 100% a sucker for it. EVERY DAMN TIME. I just didn’t know what it was.


I already knew that I was a “soft touch” – I just assumed it was part of my personality. I am so totally non-confrontational that I will acquiesce to the dumbest things just to avoid conflict. I had always assumed that it was because of some inherent quality within my being that I would agree to sign up for all of these “No Risk!” trials for things I had no interest in. It wasn’t until I started taking these courses that I found out:


It’s not (just) me.

It’s a technique.

And it totally makes sense.


It was pretty gratifying to know that agreeing to what these salespeople asked wasn’t a weakness of character on my part, it was really due to how conscientious I am. Let me explain.


In North American/Western cultures, there are norms of reciprocity. Norms, for the unfamiliar, are basically unspoken rules of conduct for people to abide by within a society. To break a norm is to risk your place in that society – potentially scary stuff. So most people consciously or unconsciously (mostly unconsciously) abide by norms so that, you know, you can continue to have friends and a job and a distinct lack of being imprisoned or whatever.


So what’s this reciprocity business and how is it relevant? 


I’m guessing you already understand reciprocity in general – you give me something, I give you something.



For the most part, we take this for granted. Why? Because it’s a norm. And how does this relate to marketing strategy? If you stopped asking me questions I could get to that.

If you give people something for free, then they will feel like they owe you.


Whether it’s a free trial, a gift, some fabulous content/hints/tips, it doesn’t matter. Chances are, if you feel you’ve gotten something of value, you are likely to feel indebted (consciously or not). As a result—because people hate feeling indebted/that loss of balance or power—you’re likely to “repay” them or “return the favour” as soon as possible. You know how sometimes you read an article or watch a video and, at the end, they ask you to fill in your email address or other information? They’re employing reciprocity as a tactic. And it’s smart.


It’s understandable if your first instinct is to ask for their information first, before releasing access to your video/info-graphic/article. But chances are, if you give them access first (at least a taste!) you’ll get more conversions.


You’ll also be employing another, related, social psychological principle, but we’ll get to that next time.

Author Ahna MacLeod

More posts by Ahna MacLeod

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