So Black Friday and Cyber Monday are over, but retail marketing is just hitting its stride as we all sprint to the finish of 2012.  There are many things retailers got right this year, but one I was surprised they still don’t seem to understand.  It’s called the Rule of Reciprocation.

Robert Cialdini, professor of psychology at Arizona State University, studies how behavior is affected by seemingly subconscious social rules which have incredible power over how we react.   What most interests him is the rule of reciprocation.  The rule, he says, is drilled into us all as children.

“We are obligated to give back to others, the form of behavior that they have first given to us,” he says. “Essentially, thou shall not take without giving in return.”

And so if someone passes you in the hall and says hello, you feel compelled to return their greeting. When you don’t, you notice it, it makes you uncomfortable, out of balance. That’s the rule of reciprocation at work.

Exhibit A:

You know those little pre-printed address labels that come to us in the mail this time of year along with letters asking for donations?  Those labels seem innocent enough, but they trigger a small but very real dilemma. “I can’t send it back to them because they have my name on them, but as soon as I’ve decided to keep that packet of labels, I am bound by the rule of reciprocation.”

I can tell you a packet of those labels costs about 9 cents, but they increases the number of people who give to the charities that send them by as much as 18% to 25%. In fact, research indicates waitstaff see a similar uptick in tips if they place a mint on the check.

Where to from here?

If there’s one thing we are ALL familiar with in this world of Black Fridays and Cyber Mondays, it’s purchase incentives. However, the rule of reciprocation tells us that rather than “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” retailers should be offering us something for free so we feel obliged to shop at their stores.

Is that radical?  I don’t think so.

Consider, as Dr. Cialdini puts it, “There’s not a single human culture that fails to train its members in [the rule of reciprocation]” and you begin to see it’s not that radical after all.

So, for all the retail marketers out there, go easy on the Buy One, Get One promotions.   Instead, think about ‘creating reactions‘.  Think about giving something at no obligation and watch your audience feel obliged to reciprocate.

Call it good karma or social conditioning, it’s certainly better than yet another BOGO.

James, 11/28/2012

There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Even if there were, I wouldn’t necessarily feel obligated to reciprocate with anything more than paying the tip.

Justin Downey, 11/28/2012

I think Dr. Cialdini would agree that the rule of reciprocation doesn’t work on everyone. The learn here is about shifting promotions from: “You do something for me and I’ll do something for you.” to “Here’s what I’ve done for you.”

Marlan, 12/03/2012

I think that rule of reciprocation is very powerful; I find it very difficult to avoid responding when a charity sends me a dollar and asks my support.

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