Construction Marketing Reciprocation is a Science, It?s not an Art


sharingBy Matt Handal

You probably hear this a lot. If you give to others, they will give to you. This is the whole concept behind network marketing. But do you ever feel like you give and give and give, but nobody ever gives back? That feels pretty frustrating. Why won?t this reciprocation principle work for you? Here is the problem, you are doing it wrong.

Mark recently mentioned that he ?continued to find the concept of genuine generosity one of the most intriguing and challenging aspects of construction marketing.? Mark is not alone. Many people, especially in the construction industry, struggle with the concept.

The Coke Experiment

Dr. Dennis Regan conducted the most famous experiment about reciprocation. He had his lab assistant pretend he was a student evaluating art alongside the unwitting target of his experiment. His lab assistant would ask to go to the bathroom, but then every other time would come back with a Coca-Cola for the real target. So half of the people the lab assistant sat with would receive this gift of a Coke. After viewing several pieces of artwork, the lab assistant would tell the target that he was selling raffle tickets and asked him or her to purchase some. Here is what Dr. Regan found.

  1. Those who received the Coke were more likely to buy raffle tickets (i.e. comply with the request).
  2. Those who received the Coke bought on average 500 times the cost of the soda in raffle tickets.
  3. Whether the target wanted the coke or not, he/she still felt compelled to buy raffle tickets.
  4. In post-experiment interviews, Regan found that feeling that they owed the lab assistant produced a stronger result than liking the lab assistant.

If They Expect it, it Won?t Work

Just like the Coke in Regan?s experiment, your gift has to be something unexpected. It has to be something significant enough to induce a feeling of being indebted to you. In later experiments, researchers found that waiters and waitress who provided extra mints with the customer?s check did not receive significantly larger tips. But those who gave the customer their check, paused, and then reached in their pocket and put a few more mints on the table did receive significantly higher tips. You see, that act of pausing and reaching into the pocket made the gift significant.

There are typically two mistakes business people make when trying to use reciprocation to their advantage. First, the gift is not viewed as significant enough to make the other party feel obligated to give back. Second, the lab assistant in Regan?s experiment asked the target to comply with a request, buy raffle tickets. Very often we expect those we give to just to give back to us on their own accord. That?s not how it works. You gotta ask.

So you see, reciprocation in marketing is not an art. It is quite simply a science. Once you understand the principles behind it, you can use it to your advantage. Just be ethical in your application. If you want to read more about the topic of science and marketing, check out my post on the science behind marketing in the architectural, engineering and construction industry.


As a marketer, producer of the Construction Netcast podcast, contributing editor of SMPS Marketer, co-author of the Marketing Handbook for the Design & Construction Professional, and @MattHandal, Matt sure is busy. But never too much to answer your questions at or post at, where you can sign up to receive his weekly articles.

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