[Last Updated January 21st 2024]
Reciprocity is a social norm whereby an individual is expected to provide a positive response to a kind action. This can materialize as an equally/similarly kind action (e.g. a gift for a gift), as a future positive action of equal/similar value (e.g. returning the favour), as increased compliance to future requests (e.g. as seen with the door-in-the-face-technique), or in various other ways. It’s important to understand that reciprocity is likely biologically ingrained, and thus universal, meaning strategies that leverage reciprocity generally work cross-culturally as long as you keep cultural nuances of reciprocity norms in mind (see Hoppner et al., 2015 for tips). Trivers (2006) described the norm of reciprocity as reciprocal altruism and argued that it evolved to promote cooperation. This function for cooperation can be seen as early as three and a half years old, where children begin taking reciprocity into consideration when cooperating with others (Warneken & Tomasello, 2013). By age five, this consideration becomes a recognized social norm that children communicate verbally (Wörle & Paulus, 2019). de Waal (2005) points out that our closest living evolutionary relative, the chimpanzee, regularly reciprocates grooming with food. Further, he describes three reciprocity mechanisms that transcend species and apply to both human and chimpanzee. The first is symmetry-based whereby individuals in a close relationship (e.g. friends or family) regularly help one another out, without keeping track of each other’s behaviour. This is least relevant to marketing as it’s unlikely that individuals will view your brand in a similar way to a close friend, but it can be relevant to influencer dynamics when considering the interactions between streamers and their viewers, especially on platforms like Twitch and Youtube. The second reciprocity mechanism de Waal (2005) describes is attitudinal reciprocity, where individuals actively adopt the same attitudes (e.g. “we will help each other out”) and trade favours in-the-moment (e.g. you hold the door open for someone and they hold the next door open for you). This can be leveraged in marketing strategies to influence customer decision making by priming reciprocity norms through small favours or gifts (like a discount). Lastly, de Waal (2005) describes calculated reciprocity whereby individuals keep track of how others behave towards them, and use that information to decide how to act towards those others in the future. This is also relevant for marketing strategy as individuals tend to remember their interactions with a brand. Thus, providing a present benefit for a customer can lead to numerous future benefits for your business, such as repeat purchases, good reviews, and word-of-mouth marketing.

There are numerous studies that demonstrate the benefits of reciprocity for businesses. For example, Bock et al. (2021) provided evidence for a cycle whereby customer gratitude (e.g. a positive experience with customer support) led to reciprocity-driven motivation to help the business by praising employees (e.g. through a positive review), which improved other’s perceptions of the brand if they believed the brand was sincere, which then led to those customers experiencing gratitude, and repeating the cycle. Interestingly, this is somewhat the opposite of a negativity spiral of death that can arise from negativity bias. Another interesting example of reciprocity is in the sharing economy, where Proserpio et al. (2018) demonstrate that Airbnb hosts who leave more detailed reviews of guests (are more reciprocal) elicit higher reviews and can in turn charge higher rental fees, even though guests don’t see these reviews prior to writing their own review of the host. They suggest that reciprocity within these sharing economies helps regulate behaviour and create trust, which in turn benefits all those involved creating a better brand/app experience. A third example of the benefits of reciprocity can be seen in a study by Park & Campbell (2017) who find that corporate citizenship (e.g. helping the local community) from small and medium businesses leads to reciprocity-based benefits. The study mainly focuses on owners’ perceptions of these benefits (e.g. customers would do them a favour if asked), but the authors suggest that this can lead to long-term benefits like brand preference and more purchases. For example, they cite Maignan et al. (1999) who found that corporate citizenship improves business performance and customer loyalty.

Negative Reciprocity and the Dark Side of Reciprocity

Negative reciprocity occurs when a negative action against an individual leads to that individual retaliating with a similarly equal negative response (e.g. tit-for-tat). Generally, this isn’t a major concern in marketing as long as your customer support employees, or social media managers, don’t personally attack your customers. Disappointingly, this is a fairly common occurrence, so it’s important for brand managers to help train customer support staff and work with customer support managers to ensure they aren’t eliciting negative reactions from customers. The dark side of reciprocity on the other hand has been described by Tangpong et al. (2016) as reciprocity that leads businesses towards engaging in unethical or problematic practices. We mention this here as one ethical choice marketers need to consider is how they manage their customer’s private data. Numerous data brokerages use reciprocity-based tactics to elicit quasi-unethical deals regarding this data. We hope if faced with a sales pitch, you recognize this strategy, and consider the ethical implications of your actions absent the influence of any reciprocity norms.

Applying Reciprocity to Marketing

Reciprocity is a useful way to elicit actions from customers, or to generally improve the customer-brand relationship. To elicit reciprocity, you need to think about what you can offer that is valuable. And you need to frame it in a way that makes it seem like a gift. For example, a useful tutorial can be framed as a gift if you preface it with a button that says “click here to access a free whitepaper on how to accomplish X” as opposed to just having a link to it on your website. Once you have provided a gift (whether real or perceived) to a customer, you can then ask them to provide something in return (e.g. their contact information). Make sure that you aren’t demanding this. Rather, ask for it politely, without referencing the gift. Alternatively, if you don’t ask for anything, you want to experiment and determine if providing a gift leads to benefits for your business such as increased sales, more repeat purchases, etc. You can also elicit reciprocity through positive customer-brand interactions, like sending out a happy birthday email, or providing positive customer support that goes the extra mile. Further, small businesses can generate reciprocity through direct and indirect community involvement by helping non-profits, funding local sports teams, and supporting community events.

Practical Examples of Reciprocity

Building Reciprocity into Customer Support

When engaging customers through customer support, it can help to frame interactions as if the support agent is going the extra mile (e.g. doing a favour) for the customer. For example, if you run an ecommerce store, support agents can say they are “fast tracking” any problematic issue. Or if running software as a service, support agents can say things like “normally we would forward this to a technician and get back to you the following day but let me look into it for you.” These types of actions can lead to reciprocity from customers in the form of positive reviews, repeat purchases, word of mouth marketing, and increased spending on services. You can also prompt them for reviews right after, and they are likely to leave a positive review.

Using Free Samples to Elicit Reciprocity

On B2B websites, consider offering something of value prior to asking for contact information. For example, research suggests that providing access to desired content (e.g. an ebook or a white paper) before asking the visitor to sign up for a mailing list or set up a call is more effective than locking content behind a request for personal information (Gamberini et al., 2007). In addition to eliciting personal information, this can also help increase conversions. In retail, the same strategy can be used with free samples at retail and grocery stores. Providing a customer with a free sample can lead to consideration of the product due to reciprocity norms, and research suggests it can also lead to long term benefits such as repeat purchases, with benefits persisting up to 52 weeks (Bawa & Shoemaker, 2004). However, it is important to note that the effectiveness of free samples, especially in a retail setting, will differ depending on brand, industry, and product usage.

Sending Extra Gifts to Elicit Reciprocity

If you are an ecommerce business, one way to elicit great reviews, repeat purchases, and word-of-mouth marketing (especially on social media), is by sending extra gifts alongside any purchases. This can take the form of extra copies of the purchase, stickers, keychains, or anything that you think would make the customer smile. Unique gifts might cut into your direct profits from sales, but can pay off in the long run by eliciting social media attention (e.g. via posted pictures of the gift). The effectiveness of these small gifts is apparent on a lot of ETSY storefronts whereby numerous 5-star reviews reference the extra gift they received, and how happy it made them.

Using Reciprocity to Grow Social Media

If you are just starting out and want to grow your brand’s social media presence, it can help to like and share the content of other active business owners. This often leads to reciprocal responses where the business owner follows your account, and likes/shares your posts as well. Creating these mutually beneficial relationships early on can help you quickly grow your brand presence online, while at the same time creating valuable social networks in your industry and finding social communities populated by your target markets. Many businesses openly advertise a willingness to “like for like” or “share for share” and you should take advantage of these offers. Keep in mind that very few customers will search for your old posts, so this is a great way to build up the perception that your brand is popular. Put another way, visitors won’t realize you grew your social media this way, and will just pay attention to all the followers you have. The only one thing to consider here is that as of the start of 2024, X (formerly twitter) shows users who aren’t logged in your posts with the most engagement. So if this trend continues, make sure that once you have grown your social media, you promote some key posts to get high engagement to appear here (so customers aren’t seeing posts from years past where you had superficial growth-oriented engagement).

Research Example of Reciprocity

Increasing Restaurant Tips with Chocolate (And Smiles?)

Strohmetz et al. (2002) performed two experiments to determine if providing chocolate when delivering a cheque would influence tips at a restaurant. The first experiment was performed in 1992 in New York City, where servers randomly provided or did not provide a foil-wrapped chocolate with the cheque. Individuals who received a chocolate tipped over 2% more on average (17.84% with the chocolate compared to 15.06% without). To determine why this occurred, Strohmetz et al. (2002) ran a second study in 1998 where they varied the number of chocolates provided, this time allowing customers to either pick one chocolate, two chocolates, or one chocolate followed by the server turning around and offering a second (which they called the 1+1 condition). The reason for this manipulation was to see if the results were due to enhanced mood (e.g. related directly to how many chocolates were received) or due to generosity (e.g. the waiter in the 1 + 1 condition would seem more generous than the 2 chocolate condition as they would be perceived to be “making an extra gesture,” and thus elicit more reciprocity). Strohmetz et al. (2002) found that as the number of chocolates went up, tips increased, and that the 1 + 1 condition (whereby the waiter elicited greater reciprocity) elicited a larger tip than the 2 chocolate condition (22.99% compared to 21.62%), even though in both conditions the guests received the same number of chocolates. Thus, this demonstrates that even a simple gesture like providing a couple chocolates can elicit reciprocity norms, and have a significant financial impact (a potential 21% increase in tips overall in experiment two if servers would consistently behave as they did in the 1 + 1 condition). Tidd & Lockard (2013) took this idea one step further, and found that merely smiling (specifically big smiles showing teeth) can increase tips, arguing that smiles may be an evolved mechanism to indicate affiliativeness (social connection) which might suggest potential future cooperation/relations and thus the need for reciprocal altruism. As smiles are often a form of non-verbal communication for interpersonal or sexual interest, it is unsurprising that in this study men tipped a lot more than females if a waitress smiled at them (although females still tipped more when seeing a big smile compared to a small smile). Men in this situation might have been hoping for the possibility of a future sexual relationship. This would be in line with other research at the time which suggested physical characteristics of female servers influenced tips (Lynn, 2009). Although it is important to mention that over the past decade social norms have shifted, and thus these expectations of future potential sexual relationships may no longer occur to the same degree, especially with younger demographics.

Works Cited

Bawa, K., & Shoemaker, R. (2004). The effect of free sample promotions on incremental brand sales. Marketing Science, 23(3), 345-363.

Bock, D., Thomas, V., Wolter, J., Saenger, C., & Xu, P. (2021). An extended reciprocity cycle of gratitude: How gratitude strengthens existing and initiates new customer relationships. Psychology & Marketing, 38(3), 564–576.

de Waal, F. B. M. (2005). How animals do business. Scientific American, 292(6), 72-79.

Gamberini, L., Petrucci, G., Spoto, A., & Spagnolli, A. (2007). Embedded persuasive strategies to obtain visitors’ data: Comparing reward and reciprocity in an amateur, knowledge-based website. In Y. Kort, W. Ijsselsteign, C. Midden, B. Eggen, & B. J. Fogg (Eds.), Persuasive technology (pp. 187–198). Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

Hoppner, J. J., Griffith, D. A., & White, R. C. (2015). Reciprocity in relationship marketing: A cross-cultural examination of the effects of equivalence and immediacy on relationship quality and satisfaction with performance. Journal of International Marketing, 23(4), 64-83.

Lynn, M. (2009). Determinants and consequences of female attractiveness and sexiness: Realistic tests with restaurant waitresses. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38(5), 737-745.

Maignan, I., Ferrell, O. C., & Hult, G. T. M. (1999). Corporate citizenship: Cultural antecedents and business benefits. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 27(4), 455-469.

Park, J., & Campbell, J. M. (2017). U.S. SME’s corporate citizenship: Collectivism, market orientation, and reciprocity. Journal of Small Business & Entrepreneurship, 29(2), 120-139.

Proserpio, D., Xu, W., & Zervas, G. (2018). You get what you give: theory and evidence of reciprocity in the sharing economy. Quantitative Marketing and Economics, 16(4), 371-407.

Strohmetz, D. B., Rind, B., Fisher, R., & Lynn, M. (2002). Sweetening the till: The use of candy to increase restaurant tipping. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 32(2), 300-309.

Tangpong, C., Li, J., & Hung, K. (2016). Dark side of reciprocity norm: Ethical compromise in business exchanged. Industrial Marketing Management, 55, 83-96.

Tidd, K. L., & Lockard, J. S. (2013). Monetary significance of the affiliative smile: A case for reciprocal altruism. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 11(6), 344-346.

Trivers, R. (2006). Reciprocal altruism: 30 years later. In P. M. Kappeler & C. P. van Schaik (Eds.), Cooperation in primates and humans. Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

Warneken, F., & Tomasello, M. (2013). The emergence of contingent reciprocity in young children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 116(2), 338-350.

Wörle, M., & Paulus, M. (2019). Normative foundations of reciprocity in preschoolers. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 188, 104693.

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