The Reciprocity Principle and How to Use It in Marketing

You’ll be familiar with the reciprocity principle in marketing if you’ve ever received a free sample, a gift from a charity, or been accosted by Scientologists / Hare Krishnas / Jehovah’s Witnesses. All of these people want to give you something, whether it’s a free pen, a flower or a copy of their magazine.

They want to give you something because they know that you’ll find it much more difficult to resist when they ask you to do something for them. They’ll follow up their gift with a request for money, or for you to come to one of their meetings.

Robert Cialdini outlines in his brilliant book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion why this works.

Why do these groups know that if they give you a tiny something, you’re much more likely to do something for them, even if you don’t want to, even if you don’t like them?

Cialdini says that we’re hardwired from caveman times to reciprocate if someone does something for us, that we must do something back. In ancient societies, people gave away something to their neighbours, often in elaborate gift-giving ceremonies, as an insurance policy.

If I give something to you, you’ll help me out if I have difficulties. Or if I give something to other members of my tribal group, someone, maybe even a different person, will give back to me at some point.

Lewis Hyde shows how this gift giving is enshrined in folk law and deeply embedded practices in his book The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World, where he discusses whether we should see art and creativity as a gift, or as a product for sale.

Gifts need to have some value

How does this apply when you’re selling high-value goods and services in a much more complex market place? How does it help you when your customers are much too sophisticated to be taken in by a freebie?

The reciprocity principle is so deeply embedded that we need to take it seriously for marketing of all kinds. But we need to be a little more subtle about it, as people have become reluctant to take the obvious freebies, as we don’t see them as gifts any more.

I don’t see those promotional packets of mints and the other junk I get in the party bag after a conference as a gift any more. I expect the mints and am disappointed that I didn’t get more chocolates. They’re my right, not a present someone has given me. Andrew Nash, who runs Sussex Promotions, encourages businesses to give away higher value branded items such as this lipstick holder with a mirror or Swiss Army knife if they want people to see it as a gift.

I’d be impressed if someone gave me one of these, and I’d keep it and use it every day.

“Being nice” gifts

Gifts don’t have to be physical tangible items. I know one person who was very successful for years in selling something which was out of date compared to his competitors, simply because he was wildly effusive every time he saw you and insisted on being first at the bar.

Because he’d been welcoming, and bought me numerous glasses of wine, I recommended him to people before I really thought about what he was selling. His investment of a few hundred quid on entertaining probably brought him in thousands of pounds of extra work each year.

Maybe your gift is a favour to someone. This is something skilled politicians use all the time. They will offer you some kind of advancement, maybe a contract they can put you forward for, someone they can put you in touch with.

As with any gift giving, this can be done in a spirit of generosity, where I do something to help you, maybe by recommending your services because that’s my gift to you, freely given.

Or it can be done in a mean spirited, controlling way. I’ve noticed several people pretend to offer me something which could lead to big chunks of work since I’ve become President of the Brighton and Hove Chamber of Commerce.

Funnily enough, the large contracts were not forthcoming, and I then worked out that this was just political manoeuvring to get me on to their side. I’m wise to this now, but it did take me a while to work it out.

Gift ideas

Here are some ideas of things you can do in a clear and ethical way to use gift giving as part of your marketing:

  • Thank people with a little something if they do you a favour. If someone recommends you for a job or does something to help, send them a little something.


  • Don’t overpower people with gift-giving, or they will become uncomfortable. An ex-client of mine had used small scale gift giving really well but then blew it by sending one of her clients an Xbox 360 at Christmas. It was too much, and her client felt like she was being bribed. The contracts dried up after a while.


  • Be generally generous. At Brighton and Hove Chamber of Commerce, we have 60 business people, including me, who all donate our time to helping the Chamber run smoothly. We’re all making the gift of our time and expertise to create something bigger, but we know that we’ll get profile and kudos back from this.


  • Give away your knowledge. When I write this blog, I’m giving away lots of my know how – the business tips I give here are often inspired by something I’ve advised a client about and charged them £150 per hour for. Now, partly that’s because I like the sound of my own voice, and partly it’s because writing the blog helps me to develop my thinking, but mostly it’s because I know that people respond to this generosity – they’ve got something useful, and then when they need my know-how for their specific business situation, they’ll come to me for some business advice and support. Won’t you?


Photo credit  – Smarties by Alexandre Duret-Lutz