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Analysis of Reciprocity as a Marketing Strategy

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‘You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.’ Sound familiar? That’s reciprocity. The human instinct to offer something in return when something is offered.

In the 1970s, sociologist Phillip Kunz carried out an experiment to test the reciprocity principle. He mailed out six hundred handwritten Christmas cards, along with a family photo, to complete strangers. He was met with hundreds of responses, despite never having met these people, as they felt obligated to return the sentiment. That is reciprocity at work.

So much of marketing relies on human behaviour, and the Rule of Reciprocity is one we can tap into. In his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Dr. Robert Cialdini notes a common marketing strategy used by businesses. That being the offering of a reward to prospective customers before they even make a purchase. This is designed to invoke the feeling of indebtedness. Customers are likely to feel socially obligated to return the favour, which can increase sales in the long run.

The types of reciprocity fall into two main categories, material or financial and emotional reciprocity. Material reciprocity refers to physical exchanges, for example a loyalty scheme or referral programme, whereas emotional reciprocity is an intangible gesture of thanks. Although most businesses harness material reciprocity, emotional reciprocity can be a powerful tool in making your customers feel valued, which in turn increases brand advocacy.

Here are some of the ways we can use reciprocity in marketing

Be the first to give

Offering something first will trigger that feeling of indebtedness. Make sure to offer something valuable, this could be anything from a free eBook or webinar to a discount. What you’re buying here is the attention of potential customers. Offering a voucher is another effective way to harness reciprocity, as customers will likely feel obligated to make further purchases once the voucher has been exhausted.

Make your customers feel valued

Showing appreciation towards your customers goes a long way. Instead of choosing rewards that you think are best suited for your customers, offer them the autonomy to choose. This will show that you genuinely care about them, rather than viewing them as a potential source of revenue. Personalisation is another technique that can be employed to make your customers feel special and will set you apart from the competition.

Differentiate your brand by making it memorable

Think about how many free samples you’ve received. How many of those have left a lasting impact? Humans are inclined to buy from brands they remember, so be sure to offer something of value. Think about what you can offer that will differentiate your brand from others. You can do this by creating an experience around your offering rather than a stand-alone exchange.

Maintain the relationship

Keep the relationship going after the point of sale. You can further engage customers by offering another reward or a personalised acknowledgement of thanks. Rewarding referrals can be a particularly effective technique in growing your customer base whilst cultivating existing relationships. Consider a loyalty programme to extend customer lifetime value.

Now that you have an understanding of how to utilise reciprocity in your marketing strategy, just like Philip Kunz, you can put that knowledge into action.