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How To Use Reciprocity In Marketing (+10 Killer Examples)

Samuel Hum
Samuel Hum
January 14, 2022
2 min read
How To Use Reciprocity In Marketing (+10 Killer Examples)

So much of marketing comes down to understanding human behavior, and human psychology.

After all, you've got to convince your potential customers to purchase your product or service...

...and it's very unlikely that they will do it out of the kindness of their hearts.

Instead, you need to be able to tap into deep-seated social norms, moral codes, or maybe even different survival mechanisms that are brought on by millions of years of evolution.

And thanks to personality and social psychology (and Dr. Robert Cialdini), we are able to do exactly that.

The Rule of Reciprocity is an example of one way marketers tap into the psychology of human beings to manipulate them into buying certain products or services.

And you can use it in your online shop or business as well. Reciprocity in marketing can lead to increased sales.

Want to know how?

Of course you do.

Then read on, my friend, because I will break it all down for you in this article. I'll teach you about the reciprocity principle, show you how you can use it in your marketing strategy, and give you case studies of it happening in real-time.

What is the Norm of Reciprocity?

One of the most commonly cited books that intertwine both psychology and marketing is Dr. Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. In the book, he uncovers six principles of persuasion, each of which can be used to influence potential customers to perform a certain behavior (i.e. purchase your product or service).

And the number one principle of persuasion?

The Reciprocity Principle.

What he was referring to wasn't new to the field of personality and social psychology either. In fact, the Norm of Reciprocity dates back to the 1960s when Alvin Gouldner first explored the benefits of cooperative interaction between two people.

Dr. Cialdini took it a step further and explored how this rule might apply to business and marketing.

He noticed a common marketing strategy among business owners that tapped into basic survival mechanisms over and over again.

What was the strategy?

They were all offering a reward to their potential customers before they even made a purchase.

“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.

When business owners offered samples or a small gift for free to their potential customers, they were basically creating a social obligation for them to return the favor. Kind of like an inverted loyalty program, except the gift, comes first.

In an indirect way, they were increasing their sales by first offering things for free. And you can do it too.

5 tips for reciprocity in marketing:

The concept of reciprocity has been around for millions of years. It is a behavioral pattern that has helped us survive as human beings... is the original 'I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine.'

And it can easily be used in your marketing strategy.

If you'd like to instill a bit of cooperation in your potential customers with the Reciprocity Principle, then keep these five tips in mind:

1. Offer something first

Rather than publishing an ad and hoping that your target audience will feel compelled to make a purchase, offer them something for free first.

Besides the fact that it's hard to pass up something for free, it also goes with social norms to feel obligated to return the favor. Maybe your soon-to-be customers won't be able to offer their money for free, but they will certainly offer their attention.

This attention in exchange for the free offer may be just enough to convert the virtual passerby into a paying customer.

2. Make customers feel special

Before you go out advertising your free samples with the expectation that customers will come to your online shop in droves, take some time to make your customers feel special. and of course, appreciated. You can do this by sending a personalized note or by letting them choose their free reward. By giving them a little extra attention or freedom to choose their own reward, you are showing them that you genuinely care about them as human beings, not just as a potential revenue source.

3. Help the customer outside of your store

A part of the reason why the Reciprocity Principle works is that you are simply doing a good deed without the expectation that the favor will be returned. Sure, your good deed can influence behavior and help establish long-term relationships with your customers so that they continue to shop at your store for years to come, but the initial offer should be given without anything expected in return.


It establishes trust between you and the customer. It provides a positive experience with your brand before any transaction is ever made. And when customers feel positively toward your brand, they are more likely to shop at your store.

One way to establish this trust is to provide value to the person's life outside the context of your store. For example, a popular content marketing tactic is to provide free guides that help users whether or not they actually make a purchase.

This simple gesture provides you an opportunity to both showcase your expertise as well as the value that your business has to offer. In response, the customer is more likely to turn to your business when he or she is ready to make a purchase.

4. Make it memorable

Though it might be tempting to offer something that is cheap and easy, such as a free sample, in hopes of convincing your potential customer to eventually make a purchase, this is only likely to make you a forgettable brand. Instead, make the entire experience a memorable one.

Run an entire campaign on social media or enlist the cooperation of other brands to make it a fun and exciting offer. By making both your brand and your offer memorable, people are more likely to remember your brand when they are actually ready to make a purchase.

5. Keep the relationship going

Once the customer finally makes a purchase, don't let the relationship end there. Instead, engage them in another social interaction either by offering yet another reward or by sending them a personal thank you note. One easy tactic that is especially effective is to reward them for referring your business to others. With ReferralCandy, for example, you can offer a discount for every person your existing customers send to your shop. Building long-term relationships with your customers are one of the best ways to keep money flowing into your business month after month.

10 reciprocity examples in marketing

While marketing campaigns differ between small businesses and major corporations, the marketing psychology behind them is very much the same. Any small business owner can take some of the psychological principles used by these ten businesses below, including you.

In fact, content marketing is pretty much the perfect encapsulation of all five principles of reciprocity in marketing - as you will see.

So take a look at these examples of reciprocity and see what will work for you and your small business.

1. Sparring Mind – Insightful Blog Articles

Sparring Mind - norm of reciprocity marketing examples - giving before you get insightful blog

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.

Content marketing receives three times more leads than paid search advertising. (Content Marketing Institute, 2017)

Gregory Ciotti’s Sparring Mind is a good example of great content marketing; 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 grteful 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 - norm of reciprocity marketing examples free content giving before get

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.

But before you even get to all of that, they offer free training on how to create superior content. While they occasionally open up their Authority program, which offers workshops and classes on how to improve your content marketing skills, they also have certified copywriters for hire.

So they offer you all the tools you need to create quality content yourself and conveniently have professionals available for hire when you need them.

3. Helpscout - Free resources

Helpscout resources norm of reciprocity marketing examples customer acquisition

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.

helpscout popup screengrab reciprocity marketing examples content marketing

Now here’s your chance to return the favor!

4. Spotify Premium free trial

Spotify Premium reciprocity marketing examples free trial
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 canceled 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.

Learn more: How Spotify Built A $5B Business With >75M Music Lovers Through Word-Of-Mouth

5. Moz Pro free trial

Moz Pro free trial reciprocity marketing examples

Moz is a software as a service tool for digital marketing professionals. One way the company attracts new clients is by offering a free trial to marketers with no commitment required other than log in details.

This strategy not only showcases the software's capabilities but also means that the marketers will feel compelled to sign up for the service once they're ready to commit to any digital marketing software at all. Besides, with so many competitors for SEO software on the market, the trial caters to professionals searching for their first tool as well as customers of competitors considering an alternative.

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.

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. Not only does this remain an incredibly useful tool, even today, but Founder & CTO Dharmesh Shah credited it with incredible traction:

A simple little tool that helped millions of people improve their websites — and in the process, helped HubSpot become a publicly-traded company [NYSE:HUBS] with over 15,000 customers and a market value of over $1.6 billion.

Dharmesh Shah

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

True&Co Home-fitting service examples of Reciprocity marketing 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 homes. At the end of 5 days, they only pay for what they keep, and return the rest of the items for free!

Learn more: Fashion Referral Program Examples: True&Co

8. Amazon - Free ebook samples for Kindle

Amazon Kindle Free Samples examples of 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.

Learn more: Lessons From Amazon Prime's Referral Program

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

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

buffer BufferApp examples of reciprocity 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.

(Personalization works- 87% of marketers report a measurable increase from their personalization efforts.)

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.

Learn more: Building A Powerful Brand Through Earned Word-of-Mouth: 8 Reasons Why Red Bull Is Freaking Awesome

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.

Learn more: How $50B Company Uber Expanded Into 300 Cities In 6 Years Through Word-of-Mouth

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.

Learn more: Marketing Strategies: How Converse Positions Itself Boldly

13. A Mint Case Study

In The Psychology of Persuasion, Dr. Robert Cialdini included a study that described the principle of reciprocity. A waiter increased their tips by 3% after diners were given a free mint. They were increased by 14% when given two mints. If the waiter left one mint with the bill and returned quickly to offer a second mint, the tips increased by 23%.

This clearly demonstrates the power of an unexpected gift. As customers feel special, the chances they’ll respond favorably dramatically increase.

reciprocity in marketing

14. Oola Tea - Give $10 and Get $10

Oola Tea markets to its customers by giving away $10 gift cards to new customers through the referral program. They also incentivize the current customers of their product by giving them a $10 referral bonus.

reciprocity in marketing - Oola Tea

Oola Tea also taps into their customer’s charitable nature. They donate to Rice bowls. Every box of tea that is purchased from Oola Tea provides a meal to a child in need.

15. ButcherBox’s Free Bacon

ButcherBox wants you to experience their high-quality home-delivered meats. They have routinely offered specials that give away a cut of meat with every order. Twice in the past, they've offered their incredible Free Bacon For Life.

reciprocity in marketing - Butcherbox

Many people find it difficult to pass up a free offer. Not to mention, the savory bacon taste is wonderful. Bacon is one cut of meat that is loved by almost all meat lovers.

This works well for ButcherBox. Their free bacon creates a motivation for customers to stay subscribed - and it lasts for the lifetime of the subscription, way beyond the initial offer. They receive bacon for the lifetime of their subscription. Therefore, giving away some bacon allows for greater profits as customers are incentivized to continue purchasing more meat.

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:

  1. Reciprocity [you are here]
  2. Commitment (and Consistency)
  3. Social Proof
  4. Liking
  5. Authority
  6. Scarcity

Here are some articles that we think might be insightful for you: 

Samuel Hum
Samuel Hum

As a finalist in Esquire's Best Dressed Real Man contest, Samuel is ReferralCandy's fashion eCommerce expert and resident sartorialist. He is obsessed with human behavior, social psychology, and handstands. He is also the lead calisthenics trainer at Weightless.

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