October 31st, 2014

Give and You Shall Receive

How to Please Your Social Media Audience with Reciprocity

Please Your Social Media Audience with Reciprocity
Please Your Social Media Audience with Reciprocity

Written by Dave Landry Jr.

The Gift of Giving

If you’re like my mom, the holiday season is your favorite time of year. Along with the aesthetics of the snow, the colorful lights, and the overall spirit of good cheer, there is something else that brings a sparkle to her eyes – the hunt for the perfect gift.

My mom considers herself an excellent gift giver (a personal opinion shared by her family and friends alike). So, while on the surface it would appear that her joy for the season of giving would be because it allows her to play a game in which she has a clear and unfair competitive advantage, there is another, less obvious force at play. Not only does she give great gifts, generally speaking, she gets great gifts in return.

Most of her friends and family would not consider themselves extraordinarily good gift givers, myself included. How then, do we manage year after year, to deliver consistently good gifts to my mother? Psychologists have answered this question long ago, and they attribute this to the rule of reciprocity.

Scientific Studies of the Rule

Simply put, the rule of reciprocity states that we tend to feel obligated to return favors after people do favors for us. In their book, Social Media Marketing, Tracy L. Tuten and Michael R. Solomon posit that, "we have an embedded urge to repay debts and favors", regarding reciprocity as a "social contract" and a "common norm of behavior across cultures".

Robert Cialdini, an emeritus psychologist at Arizona State University agrees: "There's not a single human culture that fails to train its members in this rule,” he says. Inspired by Hare Krishas in the United States, Cialdini observed how their culture relied on the rule of reciprocity even though it seemed their religion was struggling financially. While this way of life made it difficult to earn money, it wasn’t long until they discovered a solution.

In public places, they would simply give the people passing by what they described as a gift: a flower, a book, or a magazine. Then, after the person had the gift in his or her hand, they would ask for a small donation.

Cialdini recalled: "You would see many of them with frowns on their faces reach into a pocket or a purse, come up with a dollar or two, and then walk away angry at what had just occurred." Regardless of how much was in their pocket, they still gave because of the rule of reciprocation, and it’s a rule that’s helped the Hare Krishna raise funds.

Demonstrating the same rule while working as a sociologist at Brigham Young University in 1974, Philip Kunz conducted an experiment to find out what would happen if he distributed Christmas cards to complete strangers.

To further randomize this experiment, Kunz set out on a mission to gather directories from nearby towns and selected around 600 names. Each one of the 600 recipients received handwritten Christmas greetings from Kunz, including a photo of him and his family. As a result, the experiment received 200 total replies, even more interesting were the responses that continued in the years that followed.



The rule of reciprocity has been studied in charitable giving, controlled role-playing environments, and even in restaurants with regards to tipping.

Following one study regarding the psychology of restaurant tipping, when a server brought mints to the table along with the check there was a 3% increase in tip. However if after the server brought mints they then returned a few minutes later with another set of mints under the pretense that the customer might ‘want another’, there was a 21% increase in tip.

The theory of reciprocity is powerful because of two core principles:

Members are recognized as individuals.
Members also belong to a larger community and therefore are subject to its norms and customs.

It is so powerful and timeless that today we are seeing marketers apply the rule of reciprocity to how they manage the relationship between consumers and brands through social media.

Reciprocity and Social Media

Genuinely passionate bloggers that feature or write about a product or brand are rewarded with more access, exposure and often times even more of that product than the average consumer. To call these gifts payments misses a key point. A blogger’s most sacred relationship lies with the readers. In exchange for the traffic their audience provides, the blogger feels an obligation to be honest.

While consumers may not require or expect the level of intimacy from brands that they get from a personal blogger, the rule of reciprocity reminds us that people do internalize their relationships, rewarding kind actions and punishing unkind ones. When engaging customers through social media there are several ways that a brand can remain on the positive side of that equation.

Suggestion #1

In a recent article for AdAge, Matt Rosenberg reminds us of the importance of being mindful of the medium, when engaging with consumers. “No matter the medium,” he says, “when people interact with your brand, the response should be friendly and helpful.”

According to Rosenberg, Twitter consumers are not looking to be friends with brands – they're looking for product support and customer service. He argues that when consumers engage directly with a brand on Twitter, more often than not, they are looking for help with a problem or information. Acknowledging their tweet via a retweet, and then publicly addressing them directly in a friendly and helpful manner is a meaningful application of the rule of reciprocity.

Suggestion #2

Facebook, on the other hand, can serve as both a great direct and indirect means of engagement. It can be used to improve your brand's customer service and is a great medium to celebrate your customers by allowing them a place to congregate to share their experience.

Selfies are a purrfect tool for social media exchanges


Suggestion #3

Soliciting selfies is another great tool for reciprocal social media exchange. Selfies have multiple reciprocal exchanges. Last year, hundreds of brands hosted selfie contests or utilized them in their campaigns. Not only do they encourage fan participation, which encourages fan loyalty, but they also exploit the benefits of network effects because these fans also share the news with their friends if their selfie is promoted and shared by the brand.

A Caveat to the Rule

One thing to keep in mind is that the reciprocal theory takes into account that people evaluate the kindness of an action not only by its consequences but also by the intention underlying the action. In a world with social media this has some implications worth considering.

The social pressure to reciprocate should be subtle and pleasurable overall. If the act of reciprocating the gift leaves the giver with a sour taste in their mouth, the giver now has multiple ways to voice their dissatisfaction – days, weeks, or even months later. If the Hare Krishna’s, (who as we mentioned earlier, rely on the rule of reciprocation for a donation) have a Facebook page, I wouldn’t be surprised if one of those displeased donors eventually paid it a visit.



Dave Landry Jr. is a guest author, business journalist and personal finance advisor living in Southern California. In addition to discussing the role of reciprocity in social media, his writing also covers finance management, business telecommunications and globalization.