Cialdini Principles of Persuasion Series – Principle 1: Reciprocity

March 17, 2015 | blog | By Mike Sullivan

Few books have had such a profound impact in the marketing world as Dr. Robert Cialdini’s stellar book, “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,” has. First written more than three decades ago, the persuasion principles the book highlighted are extremely relevant in the 21st Century environment of digital marketing.

Cialdini’s great hook was to get right inside the consumer’s mind and understand it from the inside out. By figuring out how consumers thought, Cialdini was also naturally able to educate marketers on how to persuasively sell to their customers. In short, the book is a godsend for any brand wanting to increase its sales and acquire long-term customers.

Many articles bunch Cialdini’s powerful principles together in one piece, but we want to do something different to give all his principles the coverage they deserve. Over the next six parts, we’ll be going in-depth into each of Cialdini’s principles to help challenger brands understand exactly what they can do to sell more persuasively to their audiences.

What Is Reciprocity?

Reciprocity is returning a favor to somebody and feeling obligated to do so. It’s just how people and customers are wired by nature. One of the quickest ways to explain this is the concept of free samples in advertising. When you accept a free sample, you subconsciously feel indebted to the company that provided the free sample. This makes you likelier to actually go out and purchase its products.

Our blog post today will focus on inspiring examples of challenger brands using Cialdini’s reciprocity principle to drum up more sales.

Help Scout Offers Free Resources

Help Scout’s a tech startup that focuses on help-desk software. Founded in 2011, the company dedicates an entire page on its website to free resources that site visitors and leads can use to build their own small businesses more efficiently. The resources are very thoughtful and high-value: They’re all long-form content that focuses on in-depth tutorials and insights companies need to become successful.

Because all of this great content is given for free on Help Scout’s website, it creates reciprocity in site visitors and leads. After learning from and using these valuable resources, they’ll be likelier to buy customer-service software from Help Scout.

Help Scout logo

Bonus: The company also operates an influential blog with more than 60,000 subscribers. This is another resource that’s alive and dynamic since Help Scout employees are always contributing to it and sharing stellar, help-desk advice and tips.

Spotify Offers Premium Users a Free Trial

You can’t go wrong with offering your would-be premium users a free trial, especially if you’re trying to catch up to and eventually beat Pandora, the leader in the music-streaming service industry. Spotify has about 60 million users these days, but it’s nothing close to Pandora’s user base of more than 75 million.

Spotify logo

Spotify uses reciprocity by offering its premium users the chance to experience its service for a full 30 days for free. If users dislike the service after a month, they have the option to easily cancel the service, just like that. Of course, this Cialdini principle works on creating a sense of indebtedness, so some users may feel obligated to continue their use of the service for just a few dollars per month after the 30-day free trial ends.

By offering this free trial, the company’s able to entice users and get them to see what its services is all about. Any money the company would lose through the free trial would be more than made up for by those who turn into continuing subscribers.

LOOMIS Imagibrand Process

The Honest Company Gives Away Free Baby Stuff to Parents

Being good parents is such a great responsibility, which is why startup The Honest Company gives away various free trials of its products to moms and dads around the country. To inspire a sense of obligation to its brand in new parents who aren’t yet familiar with The Honest Company’s baby products, the company offers free gift bundles that contain everything babies need and parents want.

The Honest Company logoHonest’s free trials are super-generous, too, because the gift bundles include everything from diapers and wipes to shampoo, healing balm and body lotions. This is also what sets apart Honest’s reciprocity strategy from its competitors: Whereas its competitors may give away only one item or two, Honest bundles several essentials together as a gift.

Customers who opt for the free trial are going to be automatically enrolled in the company’s monthly service—but they can cancel anytime. Of course, by the time the moms and dads have used up Honest’s generous bundles of baby essentials, they may have a hard time canceling the service!

HubSpot Allows Its Customers to Try Its Product for Free

If you’re involved in inbound marketing at all, you’ve likely heard of HubSpot, the Massachusetts company that sells marketing automation software by the same name. While HubSpot has already been successful in its industry in its short existence as a company—its currently listed on the NYSE as HUBS—it’s still far behind Infusionsoft and Eloqua, making it a challenger brand.

The company knows that one of the best ways to peel customers away from its competitors is by letting them try its product with no strings attached. That’s exactly what HubSpot offers to potential customers in its 30-day free trial of its software. People don’t even have to enter their credit card info, and there’s absolutely no obligation…at least on the surface.

HubSpot logoHowever, when we look at this free trial through the reciprocity principle, we see that users may well feel a sense of obligation to this brand after the 30 days is up. After all, in that period of time, a business will already have been relying on HubSpot’s software for its marketing purposes…and that feeling of indebtedness increases the chances that some businesses will become paying, regular HubSpot customers after the trial period is done.

Reciprocity: A Powerful Principle for Challenger Brands

One way of easily recalling what reciprocity is all about is the phrase: You have to give before you receive. That’s this Cialdini principle in a nutshell. Challenger brands can’t expect their leads and customers to find them—that’s why they have to get their audience’s attention.

Reciprocity is a surefire way of achieving this because, who doesn’t like a free sample?! If your product or service is good and solves a problem for your customers, then using the reciprocity principle is a sound way to turn people into regular, paying customers.

Stay tuned for the next Cialdini principle in our exclusive series: commitment/consistency. It’s up next!


Mike Sullivan

President at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency


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