Reciprocity: The two-edged marketing sword

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persuasion silenceIt seems inspiringly easy.  Give a little and receive a lot. If you look at the reciprocity principle from a short-term (and minded) perspective, you may well fall into the trap of thinking that a little planned generosity is a simple way to elicit really big revenues. But you’ll have missed the point — because negative reciprocity — the sort of thing that happens when your clients feel you are pulling wool over their eyes for selfish return, is far more powerful than positive reciprocity.

Let’s get some of the “easy way to marketing success” stuff out of the way first. Consider David Regan’s 1971 experiment first, as referenced in Wikipedia.

Reciprocal actions are important to social psychology as they can help explain the maintenance of social norms. Reciprocity is so strong that a person will feel obligated to return a favour regardless of whether they like the person who originally gave the favour and even if they did not want the favour, as was demonstrated in an experiment by Dennis Regan in 1971.[4] Regan had subjects believe they were in an “art appreciation” experiment with a partner, who was really Regan’s assistant. In the experiment the assistant would disappear for a two-minute break and bring back a soft drink for the subject. After the art experiment was through, the assistant asked the subject to buy raffle tickets from him. In the control group the assistant behaved in exactly the same manner, but did not buy the subject a drink. The subjects who had received the favour, a soft drink, bought more raffle tickets than those in the control group despite the fact that they hadn’t asked for the drink to begin with. Regan also had the subjects fill out surveys after they finished the experiment and found that whether they personally liked the assistant or not had no effect on how many tickets they bought. One problem of reciprocity, however, focuses on the unequal profit obtained from the concept of reciprocal concessions. The emotional burden to repay bothers some more than others, causing some to overcompensate with more than what was given originally. In the Regan study, subjects paid more money for the tickets than the cost of the (un-requested) soft drink.

Sounds good. Robert Ciandini in Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion goes on to note that tipping increases significantly when waitresses leave mints for clients with the bill — and goes through the roof when, after leaving the mints, the waitress leaves then returns to the table with a line such as: “You are such great customers, I’ve decided to give you a few extra mints.”  Ahh, based on this research, you might think that selfish reciprocity might be the ticket to success.

Well, not quite. Because the reverse problem is greater. If over time, current or potential clients think you are just putting on a show and giving a little to get a lot, they’ll turn their perceptions on the head — and the negative impact is far greater emotionally than the positive objective.

These points are covered in a series of experiments by University of Chicago researchers Boaz Keysar, Benjamin A. Converse, Jiunwen Wang, and Nicholas Epley, who wrote a 2008 paper; Reciprocity Is Not Give and Take – Asymmetric Reciprocity to Positive and Negative Acts.

The message: If your clients perceive you are treating them negatively, watch out! They write:

Although firmly entrenched, the culturally conferred wisdom about reciprocity appears to be miscalibrated and in need of revision: ‘‘You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours, but if you take my eye, I’ll take both of yours.

So, where does this fit into marketing and business development initiatives?

If your activities are genuinely selfless, in other words, you are raising funds for charity or community deeds, applying some reciprocity may have positive value in helping the cause — and by working to help the cause, you may foster even more positive reciprocity for individuals to do business with you. So the “Coke for a raffle ticket” works — because the raffle ticket is not a selfish act.

However, if you try to give little things cynically in expectation of big returns, and the client perceives your intent, you’ll have egg on your face, because, as soon as the client sees the intent, the wall will go up with a cynical response. This is why, for example, making a small purchase and then trying to get the counterpart to make a big order in return won’t be successful in most cases (unless you are truly competitive on all other aspects.)  More pragmatically, joining an association, attending a few networking events, and expecting new-found colleagues to do business with you because you offered some small networking “gives” is almost certain to fail. Your generosity, if sincere, unfettered and with absolutely no expectation of return, will be rewarded, but only after your peers see you are sincerely working for the community or association’s overall good. (This is why voluntary work on relevant client-based association activities is so rewarding, longer term, because the trust builds up and then the sense of obligation increases.)

In conclusion, you should apply the reciprocity principle with caution. Give, and give some more, but only focus on “taking” when the consequences of your reciprocal party’s generosity will serve higher values than your self-interest. The paradox is that when your clients see this higher value/objective, and know it isn’t faked, they’ll likely indeed follow with the reciprocation you might have sought with selfish ends in mind. Generosity, it seems, “works”, just when you wouldn’t expect it to be effective.

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