Stop Claiming You Used The Law Of Reciprocity In Your Digital Marketing Campaign – You’re Wrong

Published December 22, 2017 in Marketing - 0 Comments

“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.

Here’s why:

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.

The result?

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 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.