About indirect reciprocation . . (And the hidden value of genuine community service)

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If you are a hotel owner and really want to encourage people to hang their towels, it helps to let users know you are actually making financial contributions to environmental organizations. After all, otherwise, the users (like me) think of the measure as a simple cost-reduction scheme for the hotel.

Indirect reciprocation and “unity” may be two of the more surprising elements of marketing effectiveness. You do something good for the community/cause, and then communicate the good deeds to encourage the behaviour you wish from your clients.

These forces relate to relationships and trust, of course marketing’s objective in generating results. So, for example, consider the effectiveness of a hotel putting the note in its washrooms asking people to hang towels for the environment.

Robert Cialdini in his interview with Matt Handal says:

In fact, my research team has studied it. You know how when you go to a hotel maybe 70% of the time somewhere in the room, there’s a sign asking you to reuse your towels and linen? They usually say “Do this for the environment.”

Well, some hotels have started using a strategy that they think incorporates the rule for reciprocation. They say, “If you do this, we will donate a percentage of the savings to an environmental cause in the name of our guests.” We tested that. We actually went to hotels and we used two kinds of signs. The claim that we will do this for you if you first reuse your towels had no significant impact on the willingness of people to actually reuse their towels.

But, we had another sign that said, “We’ve already donated to an environmental cause in the name of our guests, could you hang up your towels to help us cover the cost of that gift that we’ve already given in your name?” Now we’ve got a 29% increase in willingness to hang up their towels.

You have to do this right. The rule for reciprocity says you have to go first. So, if a project manager says “We promise to incorporate some of the students in the project so they can benefit from it. We’ve done it in the past, and we are committed to doing it on this project” that’s a very good idea.

Now, there’s another level here. Cialdini continues:

The extent to which we can bring people’s attention to a particular connection that they might have with an audience or with those who will benefit from moving in the direction that we are hoping our message recipients will move…that’s likely to work.

In my new book, what I’ve suggested is that, there is a seventh principle of influence besides the six that I described in my book, Influence. It’s called unity, the extent to which you feel a connection to the others who you are working with or dealing with. That connection, that sense of human connection, does elevate the likelihood that we will say yes to those people.

I have a colleague who a while ago whose help I needed. He’s known for being disagreeable; but he is on the same faculty, the psychology department that I am. I needed some help from him. I needed some data from a study he had done. I called him because I had a deadline for filing the report the next day. He said, “Bob, I’m not going to be able to help you with this. Just because you are a poor time manager and you’ve got a deadline tomorrow doesn’t mean I should drop everything I’m doing. That’s your responsibility.”

I had read some research earlier that made me change what I said in response to his denial of assistance. I would have said, “Tom, I really need this. I would really appreciate it if you could help me.”

Instead I said, “Tom, we’ve been in the same psychology department now for 12 years, I really need this. I would really appreciate it if you could help me.”

I had the information that afternoon. I just pointed to a connection, an existing connection.

It just wasn’t top of consciousness for him until I brought it there. That human connection made all the difference.

And it comes this way — if you genuinely (and without “marketing motivation”) do good deeds in the community, especially if you are in an environment with other influencers and decision-makers, you build the level of trust that cannot be found through any formalized marketing process. You genuinely create the “human connection” that leads to success.

As an example, consider that I’ve granted Matt Handal’s Help Everybody Everyday blog a week’s worth of hyperlinks here, without asking for anything in return. We know each other from shared participation and contributions to the Society for Marketing Services (SMPS) and its internal journal, the SMPS Marketer. We’ve also produced white papers for the SMPS Foundation. Handal has provided me (unrequested) business development leads. Even though there has been little business gained from these initiatives, I remember the relationships.

Consider, instead, the three to five people who request “guest post” opportunities in this blog each week.  I received yet another follow-up request from one of these outsiders this morning. I tell them all, “no”, or ignore them. If I’m especially angry with their intrusion, I cite my first-hand observations of Matt Cutts telling us why we shouldn’t play the guest post game. (I’ve been invited to the Google headquarters five times now because of my voluntary contributions on the Google help forums.)

Now, you can still buy a place in my heart. After all, advertising is our primary revenue source, and we’ll treat our paying customers well. (This doesn’t mean anyone can pay $50 or $100 for a guest post packed with spammy links — but we’ll generally find ways to publish news releases from our advertisers, and ignore those from non-advertisers.)

So, if you want your hotel guests to hang their towels, genuinely contribute a portion of the money you save in laundry costs to the environmental charity and if you want to really build trust with environmentally sensitive clients, go ahead and truly get involved with responsible environmental associations. (Consider your local US Green Building Council or Canadian Green Building Council chapter, for example.) Remember these community service and association connections are not quick-result, fast-acting marketing solutions. You need to earn your trust.

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