Examples of Reciprocity in Marketing

I have always been a fan of the 6 principles of influence by Robert Cialdini, and was inspired to put together this example-driven post after reading this article by Dean Rieck. (Also, check out this cool post by Commerce Sciences about Exploiting the power of reciprocity.)

Here’s a thought you might have had when told to give away quality work for free:

“Why should I give away stuff for free?”

“Isn’t that cheapening my brand? Don’t people only value things that they pay for?”

Not quite!

When you offer something first for free, if it’s helpful, people feel a real sense of indebtedness towards you. This indebtedness is a real phenomenon, and it has a significant effect: Your subsequent requests would make them much more likely to return the favor.

Here are some ways you can utilize the reciprocity principle in your marketing, with examples of successful companies that have done it:

A. Offer something first: Allow them to feel indebted to you.

1. Sparring Mind – Insightful blog articles

Sparring Mind

One of the best reciprocity strategies is content marketing.

Blogging is a great way to utilize the reciprocity principle, as you are essentially giving away value for free in the form of blog posts. The challenge is to focus on being genuinely useful to your audience.

Gregory Ciotti’s Sparring Mind is a good example; it contains some of the most insightful articles on applied psychology in the workplace.

When your articles enable readers to yield results, they will be grateful to you, and are more likely to reciprocate by providing their email addresses for future blog updates. They become valuable leads in your funnel.

2. Copyblogger – Free ebooks, articles, webinars, podcasts


Copyblogger is another great example of content marketing.

They provide a ton of free content: blog articles, ebooks, seminars and webinars, which can be accessed with a free membership.

With so much goodies they’re offering you at no extra charge, you might want to consider returning the favor by signing up for their Authority membership, which costs approximately $1/day.

They even offer a 30-day risk-free Authority trial, with money-back guarantee! So no hard feelings.


3. Helpscout – Free resources


Free guides on customer acquisition, support and retention can be found on the Helpscout website.

They take the game a little further by giving you access without even asking for your email address!

When you start feeling half guilty that you’re actually able to read all their beautiful articles for free, a small popup appears in the corner of your screen, promising you more weekly articles like these.

Now here’s your chance to return the favor!

Now here’s your chance to return the favor!


4. Spotify Premium free trial

Spotify Premium

Free 30-day trial of ad-free music

Spotify Premium: Ad-free music streaming with offline mobile access. Spotify provides a 30-day free trial for their Premium membership, which can be cancelled at any time at no cost.

This makes it hard for people to stop the payment when the free trial ends, especially when it only costs $8/month.


5. Moz Pro free trial

Moz Pro free trial


6. Hubspot Keywords Tool free trial

Hubspot Keyword Tool free trial

The ingenious thing about free trials is that you begin to integrate these products/services into your daily life, such that when the trial ends, you now feel handicapped without the added features.

The desire to continue and maintain existing habits and systems can be quite powerful.

P.S. For those interested, here’s a list of 10 SEO tools that you can either try for free or at a super-cheap price.

EDIT: As Aviva Pinchas points out in the comments, HubSpot also has a website grader tool that helps you evaluate your marketing effectiveness by looking at factors like: website, social media activity, mobile responsiveness, blogging activity, email marketing, lead nurturing, and analytics.


7. True&Co. – Free home try-on service

True&Co Home-fitting service Reciprocity ReferralCandy

True&Co. offers a home try-on service, where customers can have 5 different bras and 5 other items sent right to their doorstep.

Customers have the luxury of trying out lingerie for free in the comfort of their own home. At the end of 5 days, they only pay for what they keep, and return the rest of the items for free!


8. Amazon – Free ebook samples for Kindle

Amazon Kindle Free Samples Reciprocity ReferralCandy

Amazon sells an amazing selection of ebooks for their Kindle devices and apps.

Customers can choose to download a free sample of any ebook, which is the first 10% of the book. The free samples never expire, so you can keep them for as long as you like until you decide to buy the full ebook.

B. Offer something exclusive: Allow them to feel special.

Stuff that’s exclusive and never-before-seen-anywhere-else

9. Buffer – Acquired 100,000 users through guest blogging


In an interview, the co-founder of BufferApp, Leo Widrich, mentioned that the 100,000 users gained through guest blogging were the result of about 150 guest posts.

Having exclusive blog partnerships with other companies and providing them with unique content not found on your own blog gives them something to be proud of.

They will be more than happy to return that favor, either by promoting that post more vigorously, or by guest posting on your blog in return.

C. Personalize it: Make sure they know it’s from you.

10. Red Bull

Red Bull

Red Bull, the company that dropped a man from space, makes sure that their brand cannot be ignored.

From their massive banners are sporting events to the girls who give out free Red Bull drinks, their brand logo and colors are emblazoned everywhere.


11. Uber Boston free bus rides during bus strike

Uber bus during Boston Bus Strikes

A Boston bus strike in 2013 saw Uber providing free bus services to all Boston public schools.

They not only saved the day; they let everyone else know who did it, earning goodwill in their community and beyond through the resulting PR.


12. Converse‘s free recording studio

Converse Rubber Tracks

In 2011, Converse set up a recording studio in Brooklyn, allowing emerging artists to sign up and record songs for free!

Many musicians find it hard to make a living, and Converse did a wonderful job in providing them with the opportunity to do so in a quality studio.

Recap: Remember to give first; then you shall get in return.

In order to amplify the effects of reciprocity, it is important to:

  1. Incite the feeling of indebtedness by offering first;
  2. Provide something exclusive and unique to the recipient so they feel special;
  3. Make sure they know it’s from you

Also, don’t just give once. In the words of Dean Rieck:

The key is to create a feeling of debt and to maintain that feeling of debt.

The reciprocity principle seems straightforward: Give something, get something in return.

But it can get complicated.

It gets complicated because different people have different interpretations of what “free” or “no-strings-attached” means.

For instance: can free trials really be considered a reciprocity technique?

I had an interesting conversation with Lincoln Murphy (from Sixteen Ventures) about this. In Lincoln’s view, free trials aren’t unconditional because they expire after a given time. The user is then obligated to pay to keep using the product.

This perspective is completely valid. However, in my personal experience, I’ve had instances where I felt grateful for the opportunity to use a product before buying it. So it really depends on the perspective of the end-user.

How does YOUR customer feel about what you’re offering them?

What Lincoln and I agree on completely: if an unexpected gift is given during the free trial, then that would inspire reciprocity.

Here are the other principles of influence: