When the reciprocity principle goes wrong

What is the reciprocity principle?

If you've never heard of the reciprocity principle, you've surely experienced it. If I say to you, “thank you,” what are you going to say back? If I pay you a compliment, like, “I love your outfit,” you'll likely figure out some way to return a compliment. In defining reciprocity, the folks at verywellmind explain it well.

Reciprocity is a process of exchanging things with other people in order to gain a mutual benefit. The norm of reciprocity, sometimes referred to as the rule of reciprocity, is a social norm where if someone does something for you, you then feel obligated to return the favor.

Like I said, you've experienced it in your everyday life. But you've also experienced it online.

Using the reciprocity principle in marketing

Let's say you visit a website and browse around the page. If that site was built using tools like OptinMonster (over 1,000,000 sites use it), you may have experienced a pop-up appear as you are leaving the site. It's called Exit Intent. And as you're leaving, their software captures your interest and makes you an offer. For something that's free.

It's built on the reciprocity principle.

Back in 2014, the Nielsen Norman Group wrote,

Free content is the digital counterpart of the free samples from the physical world and is an ingrained use of the reciprocity principle on the web. That’s why newsletters, social media content, and articles such as this one are popular with many companies — as proven by our own studies, users appreciate these kinds of sources when they are informative and relevant.  Later on, these same users are more likely to reciprocate by doing business with the company.

So you give a site your email and they give you something of far more value – an ebook, a tutorial, access to amazing data, etc. But because it's super valuable, guess what? You're more likely to return to that site and do business with them.

Where it works and why

My favorite experience of reciprocity was with a well-known company named Zappos. It's likely you've heard of them and maybe even know this story about them.

I bought a pair of shoes from them years ago. Upon checkout I was given a delivery date. So far, so good.

But the next day I got an email telling me that my order had been upgraded, at no additional cost, and I would be getting the shoes the following day.

It was incredible. And when they arrived the next day, I was thrilled. And then I went to purchase more shoes from them.

Why did it work?

Not just because I felt indebted to them. Not just because I wanted to return the favor of getting the shipping faster at no additional cost.

While all of that is true and reciprocity was at work, the most important element was surprise. And for the reciprocity principle to really be powerful the exchange doesn't have to be huge, but it should be surprising.

Otherwise, it's just a transaction. And that's where most applications of the reciprocity principle go wrong.

Where lead magnets go wrong

When I go online shopping, I see an item at Amazon. These days I'm buying a lot of vinyl records. When I see a record I like, I also see the price. I then put it into my cart and buy it. And I never feel any level of obligation. The rules of the engagement are clear – I pay a price, they ship me an LP.

Reciprocity works when I get something surprising that I wasn't expecting. That's when the “obligation” hits.

My buddies and I have been talking about what records we're buying. Then one of them shows up with a gift – completely unexpected. They tell me I really need this one album. What do I do? I feel like it's my turn to surprise them. And on it goes.

But those pop-ups I was talking about? These days it's more often not something of incredible value, and my email has become way more valuable (mostly because I don't want an inbox filled with junk). So now the exchange is off. And nothing is surprising.

But that's not the worst part of where lead magnets go wrong.

The worst part is that they're not doing their part – which is to get you a lead. People who fill in these forms may even use an email that is disposable. And their willingness to give you their fake email doesn't suggest that they're willing to do the thing that's most important to you – part with money.

That's why I recommend a different approach.

Why I recommend a different strategy

First, I'm not against exit-intent pop-ups. When the offer is right, they work. But the value exchange has to be incredible so that it's not a transaction.

The strategy I'm going to describe comes from some other research that is a few years old but still rings true every time I talk with folks about their free communities and membership sites.

A few years ago a pair of studies were done with owners of online communities and membership sites. All of these were free sites. And the owners each shifted to a paid community / membership that cost $1. That's it. Not $1 / month or $1 / year. Simply $1.

Do you know how many people cancelled / quit? More than 30%.

It's incredible to me. But it's true. And it highlights that some people are never, ever, going to spend a dollar with you.

And if that's true, wouldn't you want to know early? Wouldn't you want to weed them out?

So I don't offer free downloads. Instead, sometimes I offer my ebooks (as a bundle) for $1. It's what I call a segmentation product.

The point is that I want to know that the people I'm working with know how to part with money. Even if it's a single dollar.

And once they buy the two-book bundle, you know what I have done in the past? By now you'll have guessed. I send them my third eBook. For free.

To surprise and delight them. And to kick in that reciprocity principle.

It's not that reciprocity doesn't work. But I want it to work for the people who don't mind spending something, not the folks who have no intention of spending anything.

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Chris Lema
Chris Lema has been working with WordPress since 2005. Over the years he's been a blogger, a speaker at WordCamps, a coach for WordPress product companies, and the founder of the conference for WordPress business owners, called CaboPress. Today he's the VP of Products at Liquid Web, where he manages the world's first managed platform for WooCommerce stores.

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