The Law of Reciprocation

Researcher Denis Regan conducted a classic study by sending a student named Joe out to sell raffles. Twice as many tickets were bought by one-half of the people he asked. What had Joe done for this group, prior to asking them to buy a raffle?

In the experiment, people who had received a small unsolicited gift from Joe, who was a stranger to them, in the form of a can of Coke, purchased twice as many raffle tickets from him as those who received no gift at all. This occurred despite the fact that there was a time delay between the giving of the gift and the request, and that Joe made no reference to the gift when requesting the purchase of raffle tickets.


If you do me a favour, I owe you a favour. People say yes to those they owe. Every member of every human culture is trained by this rule. We must not take without giving in return.

The formula for using the Rule of Reciprocation to your benefit is simple: Give something away — a gift, a service, valuable information, assistance, or anything — to create in the other person a feeling of indebtedness. Once the other person feels indebted to you, then you ask for what you want and let the Rule of Reciprocation go to work. That’s it.

The reciprocation obligation doesn’t just apply to tangible items, it applies to the perception of extra effort and personal touch also. In an intriguing study, surveys were sent out to people with a request to complete them. One group was sent just the cover letter and survey; one was sent the survey and a handwritten note on the cover letter, which requested completion of the survey; and the third group was sent the survey with a handwritten post-it-note attached to the cover letter, requesting they complete the survey.

75% of the people who received the survey with the post-it-note request completed the survey. This compared to 48% of the group who had received the handwritten note, and 36% of the people who just received the cover letter and survey.

Not only did the post-it-note get more people to respond, it also got them returned more promptly and filled out in more detail.

You know how when you’re at a restaurant and the waiter or waitress brings you a bill with the little mints or confectionery inside. Do you think those little lollies have the ability to alter the tip you leave? Research suggests they do, and you’ll be fascinated as to how a little action can make a massive difference.

A control group were given no sweets, the next group one sweet - which led to a 3.3% increase in tips, and in the third group, the servers gave two sweets to each diner, leading to a 14.1% increase in tips. But what do you think got a 23% increase in tips?

The following, simple process: the waiter included one sweet per diner as he placed the bill, went to walk away, turned back, reached into his pocket and dispensed another sweet each.

So there are three factors that determine the success of reciprocation:

1 – That what is given is seen by the recipient as significant.

2 - The extent to which it is unexpected.

3 - The extent to which it is personalised.

What can you give? Anything: a free booklet, free planning kit, free gift, free survey, free sample, free catalogue, free special report, free service, or virtually anything else that’s related to your product or service, as long as it’s free.

Here are some ways in which we’ll investigate running a successful promotion for your business, using the principle of reciprocation:

  • Offer exclusive information. Valuable information that is not readily available is always appreciated. I consulted with a bike shop called Cycleworld and helped them do their launch radio promotion. The advert simply encouraged people to call in and get a free map and description of the 10 best local mountain biking tracks. When they ran the promo, their biking accessory sales went through the roof. By giving a little something, people felt obliged to at least give a little back.
  • Offer concessions. Giving someone a lower price or a special deal when they’ve refused your first offer can have the same effect as offering something tangible. A gym called Sky Fitness ran a radio promo offering a low weekly price on a 24-month contract, they then handed a three-month gift voucher to all new members to hand to their friends, They got a 34% take up on gift voucher members signing up to the 24-month deal.
  • Offer samples. If you really believe in your product, and a sample would be independently valuable to prospects, send it. Home Gourmet launched a Gourmet Duck Congeries product range into New Zealand. So they teamed up with an upscale local supermarket and ran a radio promo saying, if you want to impress with the ultimate dinner party treat, come to taste the duck being cooked at the supermarket this Saturday. They smashed it - sold out of stock by 11 am, with what they thought would be a month’s supply gone in 3 hours.
  • Offer a trial. When the Saint Maritz Hotel in Queenstown opened, they ran a marketing campaign saying, “pay what you think your stay was worth.” Virtually everybody was happy to pay the asking rate, many suggested they were happy to pay more. The publicity from the confidence they had in their value put them on the map.
  • Free service. AA vehicle service centres do the following for any vehicle booked in for a service at their workshops, regardless of how big or small the job is. They black the tyres, polish the dashboard and leave a little pine air freshener in the car.
  • “7 Secrets” giveaway. Whether you use this in advertising, in-store or on your website, creating a free “7 Secrets of the Trade” PDF document that provides customers with valuable information that helps them avoid problems; answers their most commonly asked questions; and provides them with helpful industry insights to save time or money; is a great reciprocity tool.

So, offer something extra that your customer or prospect didn’t ask for. When you make a sale, deliver more than is expected. And continue to give: before, during, and after every transaction.

When you intelligently employ the Rule of Reciprocity, the more you give, the more you’ll receive.