As I type this, I’m sipping a cold brew coffee inside what used to be a charming house.
Now, it’s a charming business. After starting just three years ago, QuinceEssential Coffee House is now one of the highest-rated coffee shops in the Denver area.
With 304 reviews averaging a 4.9 rating, it might be THE highest-rated.
What makes it so special?
An edgy advertising campaign?
Doubt it. Ink! Coffee tried that. Check out their Google reviews.
No – you could save money by getting coffee at a gas station or McDonalds. Or just brew it at home.
Efficient, high-tech service?
The lines aren’t long, but there’s nothing unusual about how they take orders. In fact, their system is downright luddite compared to other stores. If you want to use their reward program, you can’t just give them your name. No computer holds your data.
Instead, you must pull open a little drawer and search through hundreds of cards – like an old-fashioned library catalog.
(I take a small amount of pride in being old enough to have used the old library catalog card system. Yeah, with the actual cards!)
Okay, so what makes this place so loved?
A combination of things.
They do everything people want a coffee shop to do, and they do a darn good job. As a result, they’re rewarded with great reviews and loyal customers.
This is an example of advertising media becoming obsolete, in a certain niche.
This situation is becoming more and more common.
Consider the last few times you’ve chosen a restaurant.
Did you respond to a radio ad?
Maybe something on TV… or the newspaper?
If I had to bet, I’d say you looked up local eateries on Google or Yelp and sorted through highly-rated listings.
By using this elegant system, you can get matched with a hole-in-the-wall restaurant with darn good food. It might not do a lick of paid advertising. It might not be supported by a national franchisor. And yet, if the rating’s high and the menu looks appealing, you’ll scramble to make a reservation.
Not only that, but when you arrive to dine, you’ll waltz past a competing restaurant… even if it spent $100,000 this year on ads in local magazines, billboards, and paid people to hand out flyers.
It won’t even register in your brain.
Now, advertising media becoming obsolete is still rare, in the business arena.
Chances are, the world will NOT beat a path to your door, if you build a better mousetrap (check out the book How To Fly A Horse to discover how the cliched “better mousetrap” quote has been mangled for decades).
In most markets, you must still design, execute, and refine a strategic advertising campaign, to build some momentum – even if you provide the best products or services.
On the other hand, if you’re a…
… or the owner of any kind of business where potential customers simply choose among the local options…
… then your best marketing is doing a darn good job and making sure people give you reviews. If you’re like QuinceEssential Coffee House, you could get 304 reviews, a 4.9 rating, and all the business you can handle.
“We’re giving away a ton of content and great information, so we’ll get some good reciprocity there…”
Are you kidding me?
More of this?
If you think the “Law of Reciprocity” is helping drive your sales in a digital marketing business because you’re “giving away a ton of content” … you’re wrong. It’s a mistake that’ll waste your time.
Or kill your business before it even has a chance to grow.
I’ve seen it happen.
In this article, I’ll prove that any time you see or use the Law of Reciprocity in your online business and think it drove sales, your success was because of different factors. And that you’re better off throwing this paradigm into your mental garbage can.
The Law of Reciprocity first gained traction when the best-selling book Influence used Hare Krishnas at the airport as a shining example of the law in action. The story goes like this:
Imagine you’ve just landed in a new city, and you’re finally getting a chance to move your legs after a long flight. As you walk to the baggage claim, a robed man casually hands you a pretty, pink flower. Before you can ask why, he explains it’s a gift… but makes sure to add that donations to the Hare Krishna organization are always welcome.
Spurred by the man’s kind flower gift, you toss him whatever change is in your pocket, and hurry on your way.
Once you believe you’re out of his line of sight, you ditch the flower in the nearest trash can.
If you remember the exchange at all, you might be quick to assume you simply met a dopey, religious guy who liked handing out flowers. Instead, you were engaged in an elegant principle of persuasion. Because the man gave you a gift – no strings attached – you felt compelled to reciprocate when he asked for something in return.
He knows what he’s doing – and he knows what you’ll do next. As the book Influence describes on page 24, “[A Hare Krishna devotee] went from trash can to trash can beyond the immediate area to retrieve all the flowers that had been discarded by Krishna targets. She then returned with the cache of recovered flowers (some that had been recycled who knows how many times) and distributed them to be profitably cycled through the reciprocation process once more.”
When Influence sold its bajillionth copy or so, every digital marketer – from the multi-millionaire to mom’s basement-dweller – began engineering their marketing efforts to include a hefty dose of giving shit away.
The internet reached Peak Reciprocity right around the time the concept of “Move The Free Line” became the dogma-of-the-month. Its premise is to take whatever information you usually charge for, and “move the free line” so that information becomes part of your business’s free offerings.
The two paradigms joined forces in a perfect storm of give, give, give!
But does it work?
No. At least not the way people think.
You’re not a Hare Krishna with a pretty, pink flower and the internet isn’t a goddamn airport.
When you attempt to use the Law of Reciprocity online, you’re missing its secret sauce:
A face-to-face interaction.
Human beings bond when we can look into each other’s eyes, size up each other’s body language, and match our movements. When we catch a whiff of each other’s pheromones. When we can nod and tilt our heads, furrow our brows, shrug our shoulders, and laugh together. When we can shake hands. When we hug.
You can’t do any of that on the internet, and it destroys any chance of bonding.
It gets more fascinating when you consider that, for the first time in human history, we’re able to communicate with each other in real-time… without the bonding experience. The closest we ever came before this, was written correspondence, and then the telephone. The internet has put this bizarre situation on steroids.
Exponential road rage without borders.
Psychologically, everyone you “meet” on the internet is an enemy. Emotionally, they’re sitting right in front of you, in your home. But because it’s not physical, your interaction lacks the humanity and kinship. You didn’t experience any joys of bonding with a new person. No settling into a rhythm with each other. No feeling of connection. Instead, everyone online feels like they’ve invaded each other’s territory.
Let’s get back to reciprocity.
When you bond with someone, and they give you a gift, you feel compelled to give them something in return.
When you communicate with someone without the bonding, they can bestow you with all kinds of stuff, without ever triggering reciprocation. Because there’s no emotion. You never met. It wasn’t personal.
“But wait,” someone might say, “I see businesses succeed all the time by giving away tons of information. That must mean the law’s working somehow.”
This is an example of a business doing something that works, but not quite knowing why. When a business gives away a bunch of stuff, it makes for good promotional fodder. Their advertising is more interesting. Partners are more willing to promote them. Potential customers are more willing to get involved because they like the free stuff.
But if a business gives away valuable information and sells more product as a result, isn’t this a case of the Law of Reciprocity in action? No. They’re using information to demonstrate authority. The customer doesn’t buy because he feels indebted to the business. He simply feels more assured they know their stuff.
Consider Amazon.com. Do you shop there because they give, give, give? Or because of their convenience, and you feel like you can trust the 3rd party reviews on all the products they feature?
Or consider my blog. I’m publishing plenty of information, for free.
What are readers going to do? Send me flowers?
Are they going to bolt upright in their bed one night and shout, “Well gosh darn, that Nate character has published sooo much stuff! I’m just overwhelmingly compelled to shower him with riches!” Are they even going to feel this, beneath their conscious awareness? No. But they might respect my information enough, to feel like I’m an authoritative resource.
I’m not holding up my blog as a shining example of any kind of persuasion. I’m not selling a product at this point. My motivations for writing everything you see here are very different. But I have no delusions that I’ll generate reciprocity from anonymous strangers. No business does. Only people who bond with each other.
But wait… there must be an exception to this.
Sort of. Charities often send gifts via direct mail. But there’s a metric ton of guilt mixed into these promotions. Another exception is a specific way businesses can generate some reciprocity, when bonding occurs between a customer and someone within the business. Here’s how:
If a customer service rep communicates with a customer one-on-one and does the customer a favor, that could trigger the potential for reciprocity. But the customer must feel it’s genuinely one-on-one and genuinely an exception to how the business usually conducts itself. It can’t work with a mass mailing. So, save the Law of Reciprocity for your customer service, not your product launch.
Many times, during my 3+ year stint in Boulder, I curled into the fetal position on my condo floor, and cried.
For several months, I started every day with a glass half-full of a vodka/energy drink mix. You could have called me a “glass-half-full morning kind of alcoholic.”
In the midst of this isolation and warped sense of self, I scrambled to build various online businesses. All my partners and vendors were out-of-state, except for a DVD duplicator. So I was not working alongside allies in a bustling office. Instead, I languished in a dead-quiet apartment – save for blaring television and computer screens.
A couple years later, I filed for bankruptcy.
I feel fine about that. Shit happens. And, if you’re lucky, so does rock-bottom.
What I don’t feel fine about… is how long it took me to get back on my feet.
For almost three years, I earned $10-12 per hour waving around a sign while standing on a street corner. I wore a goofy costume shaped and colored like a $100 bill. Car exhaust and dirt caked the fabric until it looked like I wore a tattered dress. Hundreds of people flipped me off, screamed at me, waved at me, and cheered me on. A crackhead grabbed me. I called 911 once. Someone made a goat noise at me. It was a blast.
Until that company went belly-up and I got a job unloading trucks. That was pure torture.
Finally, in 2014, I packed up all my stuff and drove to Baltimore for a life-transforming career. After I established myself, I moved back to Denver.
This time, I was determined not to make the same stupid mistakes twice.
And I’m not talking about the bankruptcy or the risks or starting new businesses.
Less than 24 hours after getting my new apartment keys – before my bed even arrived from Amazon – I had dinner with a friend who lived in Fort Collins. I asked him who else he knew in the Denver-area, in the same industry we were in.
He thought of a few peeps.
So I asked for introductions.
Every time my friend introduced me to someone via email, I asked that new contact if we could grab coffee.
Roughly 90% of the time, we ended up meeting. Getting to know each other was easy. We could talk about how we knew our mutual friend. What our businesses were. Our goals. Who we learned from. How we could help each other.
80% of the time, we clicked.
“You know,” I said to a few new friends, “There’s so many of us direct response marketers in Denver, but we don’t really know each other, and we never meet. It’d be cool to have a casual MasterMind where we get together and share ideas.”
They all agreed. But nobody was doing it.
So I did it.
I emailed everyone I met with some tentative dates, a few weeks in advance. When enough people confirmed they could attend, I reserved a small meeting room downtown. Actually, a new friend lent a meeting room he had access too – so it was free.
We gathered around a table, and I thanked everyone for coming. Then I asked everyone to introduce themselves and tell a little about their business. We went around the table.
Then we did “hotseats.”
One person at the table would described a project he was working on, and get feedback from everyone else.
I have no idea why it’s called a hotseat.
Maybe because the person gets nervous about being on the spot, and sweats on the seat?
Everyone loved the meeting. So I made sure to host more. About every six weeks.
The meetings grew in size and scope. People had ideas on how to improve them. But I knew better. My top priority was keeping them consistent, on track, and making sure everyone who attended was a great person.
Someone I met for coffee suggested I film videos promoting the event, and post photos of it on Facebook.
Someone came up with a plan where new members would pay $20, and the referring member gets a piece of that.
Someone else suggested I start a Facebook group.
There were some private rules I came up with, to make sure the meetings didn’t mutate into lame, shitty events people tolerate once or twice and then abandon.
My goal was to build something sustainable.
As months went by, my friends introduced me to more contacts. Some were a fit for the MasterMind. Some weren’t. The meetings evolved. One thing didn’t change: I held them roughly every six weeks – to keep the momentum going.
That was almost two years ago.
The group has survived and thrived. We’ve watched our careers and businesses shift, and helped them grow. We make deals. And introductions to trusted people. We’ve helped each other through scary leaps of faith. During dinner after one meeting, I shared how I was weeks away from paying off $96,326.31 in IRS debt (and later, I texted my friends a photo of the Certificate of Release of Federal Tax Lien, when I did).
My stupid mistake that kept me so miserable in Boulder, and kept me trapped in financial starvation after my bankruptcy, was remaining alone. Working in isolation. Not fostering a dynamic group.
When I moved back to Denver over two years ago, I vowed not to make that mistake again. And I succeeded.
You can do the same.
If you feel stuck in your career, or growing your business, you can build a network like this. It’s a long-term play. Your chief aim is to create a group of dynamic people who can help each other. You keep them on-track (I joke that my job is to “herd cats” during these things).
You must guard your group against wolves. And well-meaning people who will bring the energy down.
You have to put in the extra work to keep everything running smoothly.
And you pay. Everyone else enjoys the meetings for free. A-players won’t jump at something they must pay for, until you’re very established. Even then, you still might not want to do it. It’s like investing in a stock and receiving dividends. Do you take the cash or reinvest? It’s hard to go wrong reinvesting.
The day I wrote the bulk of this, I scheduled the next MasterMind meeting – on the day before my birthday. I’ll probably open the meeting by saying something similar to: “There’s only one thing I can think of that I’d rather be doing right now.”
That’s how valuable these meetings are. They’re a completely different animal than regular networking. And you don’t have to slog through a bunch of strangers to get started. You just need one friend. And then another. And another. The other players in the group might shift around, but if you become the sun the draws everything in, you’ll grow a powerhouse asset.
“When I was three years old, my pet squirrel died. And it taught me… ”
A friend of mine and I were driving to a barbeque lunch in downtown Baltimore. We were mocking all the seminars we’d attended in the weeks prior, where every presenter made the exact same kind of speech. First, they gushed about some childhood or parenting experience, then droned on about how it helped them learn some lesson.
A child’s discipline problems led to learning how to look deeper at things. A death in the family at an early age led to appreciating life.
So we figured talking about the death of a pet squirrel would make for a great opener. Call it an Anti-TED Talk. (I also suggested a TODD Talk or a TIM Talk but Anti-TED Talk seems better.)
We never got around to what wisdom the squirrel would impart
“I want to know the guru gathering all these guys together and teaching them this model. He must say something like ‘alright start with some heartfelt story, and then choose one self-help point to drive home…’”
I wonder if it’s the same guy teaching marketers selling from the stage to put too many slides in their presentation and then speed through a select few, claiming “I don’t have time to go through all this with you.” You’d think after so many years, they’d get their timing down. Hmmm.
Anyway, whoever this guy is, he either taught all TED Talk speakers, or learned from them.
Because TED Talks are a prime example of what I call “learn porn.”
And much like ogling food porn or watching classic regular porn, you’re not actually doing it
The stories in TED Talks are designed to engage your emotions – which shuts down your reasoning and critical thinking.
The time is kept short to cater to cratering attention-spans.
Not only that, but reading the book TED Talks gave me an interesting window into the bias they present. Like a talk espousing how charities should not necessarily be condemned for lavish CEO pay and low margins, if they’re more effective as a result. No mention of how a charity’s effectiveness is measured, or its negative knock-off effects on the entrepreneurial economy.
Perhaps the book’s best part, was breathlessly describing how Al Gore’s irrefutable evidence of global warming was sometimes ignored… because of political preferences within the audience.
Never mind the ice shelf-sized presupposition of that statement
Perhaps it’s time for Anti-TED Talks to trend. Their concept is simple:
This isn’t to say TED Talks are entirely worthless
I think they’re excellent vehicles to help sell a book. Or solicit donations. Or funding. Basically, they’re fantastic for selling. Which is why they follow an excellent format for selling.
Learning and growth? A handy, occasional side-effect.