Thump. A hefty envelope lands on the counter with “FREE GIFT ENCLOSED” splashed across it.

Put that one in the “look at” pile. Someone gave you something—for nothing! Or did they?

What they are really doing is initiating reciprocity, hoping that you will do something desirable (open an envelope, make a donation, join, subscribe) in return for the “free” gift.

Reciprocation is a marvelous “weapon of influence” (Robert Cialdini). It’s how societies evolve and thrive, creating a “web of indebtedness.” Marketers have adapted this societal convention and made it into a successful persuasion tool, particularly when it’s magnanimous (freely given) and the “ask” is relevant to the recipient.

Let’s be honest. If you’re in the business of direct response, you’re in the business of non-response. Send 1,000 prospects a very compelling, appealing offer, and (news flash), they won’t all say yes to you. Depending on what you are marketing, you might be deliriously happy if 30 people sign up. It’s a weird business when being ignored by 970 people is a success, but that’s the world we live in.

If a freemium (or a free-gift offer) turns that 30 into 40, it could change your world as long as the economics work.

So what does this reciprocity in marketing have to do with address labels, that unidentifiable lumpy thing in the envelope on your counter, or the promise of an Amazon gift card in exchange for a few minutes of your time?

Reciprocity is a weapon against being ignored

Reciprocity can be very powerful. Lumpy packages get opened. Free gets attention (it’s one of the most powerful words in the English language, along with “easy”,“now” and “because”). It feels good to give someone something. And it feels even better when they give something back. Effectively done, reciprocity triggers future obligation.

Be wary of being overly presumptuous, however. Done well, a free gift is received with a measure of gratitude. A great freemium has a level of practicality to it. You might need to label something, someday, and those address labels will be just the thing.

A poorly presented “free gift” can sound like a gotcha. Worse yet, disingenuous. A gift that doesn’t make sense (no functionality, no plausibility, no relevance) can be a double-whammy to a campaign resulting in reduced response AND increased cost. If your free offer makes someone think, “what in the world would I do with that?” you’ve lost the good will.

But when reciprocity marketing works, it really works

I wonder how many times around the world you could go with the address labels that have been included in fundraising packages. End to end, around and around. Whew.

Yet they keep showing up. Despite the rush to communicate by email and pay bills online, people do still seem to value address labels. Labels are tactile, and have a perception of value. And they have your NAME on them. What’s more beautiful than one’s own name?

Sunscreen packages for RV owners, gun-cleaning wipes for a gun group, die-cut notepads, and multi-use tools. And then there’s gardening seeds, wet-wipe hand sanitizer packets, eyeglass cleaning wipes, the list goes on.

But wait—a reciprocity trigger doesn’t have to be a physical item, like a freemium.

It can be information (communities thrive on access to information not easily available elsewhere).

It can be status and recognition (“Congratulations on being a member for 49 years. Renew now so at 50 years you earn life membership status.”).

It can be a gift delivered later (Amazon gift card, anyone?) in exchange for a give-us-a-chance quote.

Give Reciprocity every opportunity to succeed

Cialdini writes about another angle to reciprocity he calls “Reciprocal Concessions.” Put forth a larger offer and when the prospect says no, come back with something that feels like less of a commitment. The prospect feels obligated to take the lesser offer because he has said no to the first one.

“Is the Preferred Plan more than your family’s budget can accommodate today? Good news—we have a special Budget-Friendly option that provides less coverage but allows you to get in today—you can always increase the protection in the future.” Reciprocal Concession.

Be patient; Reciprocity isn’t an instant strategy

Communities use reciprocity as part of their “currency.” Do for others, and someday they’ll do for you. The Good Sam Club of RV owners was started on the foundation of reciprocity. The expectation was if someone in an RV with a Good Sam sticker in the back window broke down by the side of the road, other members were obligated to stop and offer assistance. Because someday it might be them.

Surveys are a fantastic place to invoke reciprocity. “Share your opinions and shape the future experience for others.” Take the survey in exchange for being labeled a “thought leader” in your space.

Be patient. Reciprocity may take time to deliver. Like any sincere efforts to build good will, some people need the message to simmer. Be remembered as the magnanimous giver when the time comes to take an action.

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