“I am obligated to give back to you the form of behavior you first give to me.”

book_influenceThat’s how Dr. Robert Cialdini, the mastermind behind Influence (one of my fave biz books), defines the idea of reciprocity or reciprocation.

Reciprocity is one of Cialdini’s six principles of persuasion.

You’ve surely heard of it.

If not, click here to buy the book (and be sure to read it, too)

Reciprocity is the persuasion principle at play in most of our content marketing efforts and when we give out free trials. We’re banking on the idea that, if we do something generous for someone – such as giving them a free whitepaper, letting them try our software without entering their CC or writing super-helpful posts (ahem) – they will give back to us in kind.

But If Reciprocity Is So Powerful,
Why Don’t More Trial Users Convert?
Why Don’t More Leads Open Our Emails?
And Why Don’t More People Comment on Our Posts?

In 2012, Totango reported that only 15% of free trial users who did not have to enter a credit card converted into paying customers. And in a 2013 study of 712 small businesses that have achieved product-market fit, Groove uncovered the following average conversion rates:

Groove trial to paid conversion rate study 2013

The trial-to-customer number is the interesting one for our discussion of reciprocity.

With trials, users are given a valuable solution without paying for it. They are the recipients of a gift. According to the laws of reciprocity, should those gift recipients not try to pay back the giver in keeping with the generosity they’ve been shown? If you let me use your product without even asking me to give you my CC details, should I not feel good about our relationship and do my part to reciprocate? It’s the fair thing to do. It’s the right thing to do. As Cialdini said, “I am obligated to give back to you the form of behavior you first give to me.”

So why do only 11% of people gifted with a free trial convert?

Is it because 89% of free trial users never sign in and try our solutions?


But you’re probably already thinking about the many other reasons why people would not act that way.

And one of those reasons could have something to do with this:

If I Can Get Away with Taking Without Giving Back,
What, Short of Promised Saintdom, Could Motivate Me to Give Back?

As a consumer, I’m not a fan of the free samples at Costco.

As a marketer, I am. Sampling has been found to boost sales by as much as 2000%. Here’s what The Atlantic reported as the average % increase in sales for sampled products:

Beer and wine increases in sales based on sampling - reciprocity

When you give out samples at a grocery store, you’re doing essentially the same thing that a SaaS business does when it gives out free trials. You’re offering a taste of something you believe the taster is likely to like.

So why do free samples of frozen pizza lead to paid conversion spikes of 600% while SaaS businesses ostensibly offering something 1) of greater value than cheese-covered cardboard 2) to an audience that has shown strong interest convert just one-tenth of their samplers? Are SaaS products simply the worst thing on the planet? I mean, I can’t think of much that’s more depressing than a frozen pizza, and yet sales of said pizza shoot through the roof when you let people sample it.

What Is at Play at the Sample Table
That Isn’t at Play in Free Trial Land?

Compare these 2 scenes…

Costco’s sample table:

Reciprocity at Costco

A winback / trial-extension email in an inbox:

CoSchedule reciprocity

The obvious difference? One forces you to look a [generally likable] person in the eye and to take something directly from them… while the other lets you stay nice and anonymous.

The difference is the social pressure you feel at the sample table vs the ease of hiding from a SaaS provider. As the British Food Journal found in 2011:

“Samplers with a heightened awareness of the presence of others at the sampling station may feel a level of social ‘pressure’ to make a post-sample purchase.”

And that, my friend, speaks to the bigger problem when we try to ‘implement’ reciprocity-focused tactics to persuade people to act. We think reciprocity means that there’s an internal force built into all of us that makes us do right by those who’ve done right by us. After all, as Cialdini said, “every member of every human culture has been trained to play by this rule: you must not take without giving in return” – but is that as simple as it sounds? Or…

Are We More Likely to Reciprocate When External Factors Pressure Us to?

Recent studies cited in this fascinating study say yes. Some of the key findings include:

  • Altruism and a desire to act fairly are not the powerful motivators they’ve been made out to be
  • People are less likely to reciprocate when they’re allowed to stay anonymous versus when they’re made to face the requestor
  • Generosity varies based on personal characteristics, like gender and social context
  • If people can act selfishly and hide their selfish acts, they are likely to do so
  • The majority of people share / reciprocate reluctantly
  • The majority of people will share / reciprocate if asked but would rather avoid fielding the request entirely
  • We are more likely to engage in negative reciprocity – or repaying unkindness with unkindness – than we are to engage in positive reciprocity

Interestingly, a 2012 experiment found that when people were told a door-to-door fundraiser was going to happen, they chose not to open the door of their homes more often than when they were not told. This shows that most people would rather avoid the social unpleasantness of saying “no” to someone’s face. If they can hide, they will.

If we can avoid reciprocating, we will.

The flipside of this is that the likelihood of a person to reciprocate a kindness increases significantly when they feel social pressure, or fear of appearing selfish, to do so. So reciprocity is not simply about altruism or fairness; rather, it’s largely about preserving one’s social image.

So What Can You Do with This Info?
Here Are 5 Tests You Should Run

Reciprocity can be powerful for your business… as long as you don’t leave your sample table unmanned. Here’s what to do based on what has worked in academic environments

1. Remove anonymity.

Get your face in front of your prospects, and get theirs in front of you. This could mean having a member of your support team tweet with or properly (ideally not automatically) email new trial users. Create an if-then rule where you immediately follow a new user on Twitter. If your brand is largely centered around one personality (or, worse, no personality), do more to showcase your individual team members. Wistia does a great job of this, and so does Bench:

Bench people social pressure reciprocity

Doing webinars for new users? Get in front of the camera instead of hiding behind it. And do that thing everyone loves: call out the names of those who chat to you before and during the webinar.

Sending out a survey? Try adding a personal-feeling note to the invitation. Dan Norris (not the one you may be thinking of) ran a study in which he saw double the responses to a survey when he added a compliment-heavy and personalized invitation to his.

The point: You can’t afford to be a faceless company. And your prospect can’t believe they’re a faceless entity that can pass through your store like a ghost, lifting your merchandise and sweeping out of the building unseen.

I’m not saying hover. I’m saying be visible and let free users know they’re visible

2. Give to get.

Re-read this Cialdini quote: “I am obligated to give back to you the form of behavior you first give to me.”

You first must give.

That means that, instead of asking a visitor to your PPC landing page to enter their details to download your whitepaper, first give them a free taste of your whitepaper right there on the page. Give first in order to incite like behavior in return. Let them read half of the thing – or two thirds of it! – before giving over their email address. Why not? What’s the difference to you? If the paper’s any good, they’ll enter their email to continue reading.

Have a video behind a paywall or turnstile? Instead of putting the turnstile at the start of the video, let the viewer watch a healthy amount of it – and then ask them to enter their email address to continue watching. They should be more likely to enter their email address not only because they’re stuck in cliffhanger mode waiting to see what happens but also because you gave first. People reciprocate more when there is a material payoff for reciprocating.

3. Introduce social pressure.

Nobody wants to look selfish.

We repay people and businesses for their kindnesses not because we want to act generously or fairly – not because of internal motivators – but because we want to avoid the guilt or shame of disappointing others. We don’t want to publicly violate norms of sharing. We don’t want to give the impression we’re selfish even though we are selfish.

So let’s say you want to get new trial sign-ups to actually sign-in and use your SaaS solution. To introduce the social pressure that will move them to pay you back for letting them try your solution free, you might:

  • Tell them the good numbers, like, “More than 90% of people who signed up to try PMsoft chose a plan here”
  • Add an endorsement from an authority
  • Add testimonials from people they are likely to relate to, complete with photos and/or videos that create the sense of being watched by one’s peers

4. Ask.

Time and again, the research shows that people will do what they’re asked to do – but they are very unlikely to do something if not asked.

So ask for what you want. Yes, it’s that simple. The obvious answer is usually the right one.

You want a new trial user to activate and use your project management software? Ask them to. Test triggering an email based on an event (or lack of event) that reads like so:

Hi {First_Name},

I’m so glad you’re going to use PMsoft for {Company_Name}.

You’ll love PMsoft because it’s based on 25 studies of project management techniques and it’s designed by UX designers from the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design.

Now’s the time for you to start using it!

Will you please sign into PMsoft by clicking here?

After you do that, you should invite 3 members of your team to start using it with you.

That’s the best way to get your team on board with your decision to try PMsoft.

Looking forward to helping you, {First_Name},
Mai Name

PS: I’d personally be honored to know that {Company_Name} is a fan of the software we’re building. So I really hope to see your name among our “happiest users” ranks…

Can’t get a great prospect to open your emails? Call them and ask them to do the thing your emails were trying to get them to do. Can’t get tweets? Ask for them. Can’t get retweets? Ask for them. Remember: “The majority of people share reluctantly. They share if asked but prefer to avoid the sharing request.” Don’t let them avoid it.

5. Reframe “no problem” as “happy to help you.”

Let’s say you’ve got a support person or team, and they do what they’re supposed to do: they help. When a support ticket is resolved, the user thanks them for their help.

What does your support person / happiness engineer reply?

For best results, it shouldn’t be “no problem” or “no biggie.” Norris recommends that, to encourage reciprocity, you avoid minimizing the impact of what you’ve done to help someone. Instead, use language that reinforces the fact that you’ve given them a gift. He recommends replying with such things as:

“I’m happy I could do that for you.”

“I’m glad you found that helpful.”

“Hey, isn’t that what friends do for one another?”

Don’t undervalue your helpfulness.

An important and perhaps under-discussed element of Cialdini’s argument in favor of reciprocity as a persuasion technique is this: “People say yes to those they owe.”

That means that, for people to reciprocate your kindness, they need to be told that a kindness has been done to them. They need to know they’re indebted. So, in keeping with the better practices guiding top-converting copywriting, do not leave anything implied.

Reciprocity can work for your business.

You just have to push harder on the external motivators. Don’t rely on internal forces to cause people to pay back your kindnesses – or you’re sure to lose your faith in humanity…