5 split tests that will change the way you think about reciprocity and persuasion

“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…


About the author

Joanna Wiebe

Joanna Wiebe - Copywriter and author of "Copyhackers"

  • Hi Joanna,

    Great article. Anonymity does seem to turn some of Cialdini’s ideas on their head. I don’t personally feel the tug of reciprocity when I try out a SaaS app. The free trial is a time to see if the app provides value and lives up to its promises. If folks don’t convert there was probably something missing from the overall service perspective.

    I am no fan of frozen pizza either. The Costco scene by my house is humorous. It is like a feeding frenzy at the sample tables. I don’t sense much reciprocity there either. A free lunch is a free lunch.

    I am in IT and help a lot of folks over the phone. I usually reply with “glad I could help” because I genuinely am glad to help people. You are correct that the “no biggie/no problem” response devalues the help. I use that sparingly.

  • fegd

    Trials aren’t favors, they’re promotional tools. A user not signing up after a free trial (after actually using it) only means that they either didn’t find the product that good and decided to shop elsewhere, or that the product didn’t solve enough of a problem for them to pay.

    If I’m offered a free trial and the software turns out to be amazingly useful and deliver me value, I have no reason not to pay for it once the trial is over.

    • Sure the first step is to create a great product, but the 2nd step is to let people convert into consumers. The article here is a useful way to push those on the fence into giving back for a trial.

      Sometimes even if a product is amazing it’s too expensive for the prospect (I.E, they are broke). Other times, trials or free demos offer too many features, which makes people comfortable using the free “trial” versions instead of upgrading.

    • Max Turner

      I disagree and agree with you. Trials can be a tool to leverage your customers to try the product for a limited time, or they can also be a trial that is offered all the time which in this case I agree it isn’t a favor.

      However I agree with John that making a great product should be first and the second step is to get people to convert.

      However, having a great product is all dandy in all but if no one knows about it your not going to get a lot of conversions whether they are able to afford it or not.

      My point is that offering trials exposes your brand/product/message to other people which in return will share it with other people and as a added bonus you get their contact information.

      • fegd

        Although I wouldn’t offer them myself, I never said I’m against trials. I’m just hard-pressed to believe customers will go and pay for something just because they’re so grateful for the free trial you gave them.

        Even if you happen to have a picture of a person on the website, that doesn’t even come close to the awkward effect of a real human employee at a sample table who can see you not buying – to equate those two things is ludicrous.

  • Neil Hartley

    Hi Joanna, I think the reason software trials don’t work from a reciprocity standpoint is that they’re really lead magnets and therefore a trade rather than a gift. And they’re certainly not personalized and unexpected (given they’re offered on a website).

  • John Krone

    I think the comparison would have been less biased if the grocery store sample referred to, was just a bowl of chips or some other “non served” item. Then you would see a similar result between the online freebie and the store freebie commitment to purchase.

    John Krone

  • Liam


    Here is my opinion and why I decided not to give your Snap service a try. Are you ready?

    First of all the article: I don’t rely on Caldini anymore than I do Carnegie’s ‘How To Win Friends and Influence People. I don’t think much of it is applicable to today’s world because people have changed and the world is different.

    You state the following in your article “with trials, users are given a valuable solution without paying for it”.

    Now, the first mistake is ‘assuming’ that it’s valuable. You might think it is, but users might not and i will get on to that when I explain why i didn’t sign up for your snap service.

    First of all, maybe your trial users are giving you back. Maybe they are silently telling you that actually your product or offer is NOT as good as YOU think it is and they are reciprocating by trying to help you to either improve your offer or product or stop wasting your time with it.

    The best comment i read on this article is the comment by Krithika Rangarajan.

    There are a ton of factors are at play when we’re talking about human decision-making, which is why you can’t rely on just Caldini.

    Relying on the advice of Caldini is unwise. If you look on Amazon and instead of automatically looking at the positive reviews, look at the negative reviews. Internalize what those negative comments are saying. It’s a bit like positive thinking. Positive thinking was good at fooling America and the rest of the world.

    The reason I didn’t take your offer was this: you are not offering anything special. Your pricing is well out of the league of most ordinary folk, yet you say you are perfect for start ups. A lot of start ups don’t have the kind of money you are charging for something that is not unique or special.

    Your website was frustrating for me to navigate. This responsive design you have going on is all over the place. Things are moving all over the place and breaking up. I also couldn’t see any samples of the copy writing you have done and i got bored trying to waste time finding samples. Those two things for me was enough for me to close the interaction.

    To me, you have not defined who you are targeting. You say in your copy ‘Your copy’ so you are taking to me directly, then when i look at your fees you are appealing to start ups, businesses, e-commerce.

    Just my opinion.

    • Joanna Wiebe

      hahaha – Cialdini and Carnegie aren’t relevant? Stop, you’re making my sides hurt.

      • Neither is any old philosophy, literature, psychology, economics or how-to. We know a lot more now and oh yah your little “Snap Copy project” is wayy too expensive. Even though it could make me an additional $200,000 that’s not worth $4,000.

        Does sarcasm still not convey well over the internet?

  • Laura Dario

    This is great. I am reading Influence now and am really impressed by the book.
    Your examples are very helpful. I am going to test out the give to get right away on my site. Will let you know how it goes.

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Cool! Let us know. 🙂

  • Jeffrey Eakin

    Great Article. So glad to have found your content. I found you in an early Unbounce webinar. I am a surgeon and my team and I are diving deeper and deeper into content marketing and leveraging inbound techniques in healthcare. I think this article hits right at the heart of on of our main problems. Building relationships with patients, or prospects, is (my theory) a highly emotional process, and as such, I fell like we are always walking a fine “digital” line between being to” salesy” and using techniques that only work well at the top of the funnel. Personally, I am disheartened by the amount of medical sites that have lead capture mechanism on their landing page – well, I am appalled if it isn’t working for them :). My point is we struggle between gradually building that trust and then making the “ask” or letting them know “hey, we sent you that white paper on gallbladder disease,” why don’t you help us out by coming in and getting on the OR table. Certainly, myself and my team, are not heartless individuals, and that is not how we see patients. Even so, we market, build content and market some more to grow our brand and practices. Hmm…sometimes I just write to hear myself because it helps clarify things. This article did give me some ideas of ho we can work around this issue. At the end of the day, it all come down to language. Tactical use of language sees to be the key. Back to the drawing board. Thanks for a great article. Content consumption on your site commencing soon. -Jeff

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Glad you were able to sort out some thoughts here, Jeff. 🙂 I hear what you’re saying about hesitating to come off as too salesy, especially given the nature of your service.

      To play the devil’s advocate: what happens to your prospect when you don’t sell to them? What happens when they download the whitepaper on gallbladder disease and you don’t follow up with them… and no one follows up with them?

      You’re not in a scuzzy snake-oil salesman business. You’re not selling a miracle cure; you’re selling an actual cure. People actually *need* what you’re selling. If you hesitate to sell to them – when they need it – and, I mean, how many people sign up for gallbladder surgery if they don’t need it, no matter the pitch? – then you leave them at a greater loss.

      The higher the *value* of the solution you’re selling, the less you should worry about appearing salesy. I marvel at the hesitation doctors seem to feel around selling. (Except, of course, plastic surgeons. 😉 )

      Example: We just took our little kitten Lily in to be spayed. What followed were two opportunities for the vet to sell us on shizzle. The first: we cringed at the idea of putting her in a “cone of shame” for 10 days, so the vet recommended we – listen to this – cut a sleeve off one of our old shirts, cut holes in it, and kinda pin it until it fit Lily. (Body socks exist for cats. Why doesn’t the vet carry them and sell them?) The second: instead of telling us to buy a crate and keep Lily in it for 5-7 days, they simply told us to “keep her off the stairs”. Her checkup 10 days later revealed that she’d been too active and would now need to be crated for a week. So why didn’t he just sell us on crates in the first place?! Carry crates and body socks, and upsell the **** out of ’em.

      …But now I’m just ranting. 🙂

      Solutions to pains should be sold to the people experiencing those pains. And I don’t think you should worry about or apologize for that.

    • Rav Shaw

      Dr. Eakin, as a former medical student myself and having caught the viral affinity for searching where exactly medicine and information technology could tie the proverbial knot, I can say your content resonates and resounds many folds to me. As a former medical student turned IT entrepreneur, I have explored nearly all the facets of the Medical-IT spectrum, and recently got myself professionally entangled in designing mechanisms to receive virtual patients online and to guide them properly employing informational technology as an integral feature of the doctor patient cycle. Your post has rejuvenated the belief I had instilled in myself long ago that IT, if given the right direction and work parameters could be made to serve Medicine at an institutional level. I would like to follow up on your idea for employing chat services as a medium of communication in the medical virtual sphere, please send me your contact, thanks.

  • #2 on the list reminds me of something we’ve been doing on the salesletters for our notes which is to give away 10-15 pages of the notes we’ve taken.

    I can’t remember what tool it is we use, but it lets someone get a preview of a nice chunk of the notes so they can see that there’s a difference between notes people take for themselves, which are usually not good, and notes taken with the user in mind who may not have gone through their copy of this course they bought, at all and is starting from scratch.

    It’s cool to see a smart person such as yourself saying this free preview is something to test. 🙂

    When reading this, I’m reminded of the advice that Jay Abraham loves giving which is to teach people to appreciate the value of what you are offering them.

    Most people just offer stuff up but they don’t elaborate and educate on the immense effort and cost that went into offering it up – whether it is paid for or free.

    No explanation might imply that if you don’t value it and if this is the case, why should they appreciate it?

    Jay is fond of telling the story about the struggle he went through at one of his seminars to make a unadvertised bonus Gary Halbert presentation available to them and how after he told the audience all the struggles he had to go through to get it for them, he had people going out of their way to thank him for doing so.

    I think this same rule applies doubly for stuff you’re offering for free. If your prospect has been educated on the fact that what they’re getting is the result of X amount of dollars and X amount of time invested to produce it for them, I believe they will be far more inclined to be in your debt than had it just been handed to them.

    We value what we appreciate! I thank you Joanna for reminding me of this valuable lesson. 🙂

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Oh my gosh – such a good example. You can always depend on Jay Abraham to have something interesting to say. Thanks for sharing – I hadn’t heard this one!

  • Shae Baxter

    EPIC as ever. I am actually in the process of preparing a survey today to gather some data and feedback so I will definitely take a look at Dan’s video. I’ve been in two minds whether to even bother with a survey but I will put it out there and see how I go.

  • Monique Silva Pinto

    I’ve always assumed free-trial conversions happened on the basis of the Endowment Effect, never considered reciprocity. Although I have shelled out cash for free software from developers I know are just dedicated to the whole open-source community, so I’ve certainly felt the weight of reciprocity there. But I never felt like I owed anything to fancy shmancy companies though, always felt my free trials were actually me giving this business a chance to wow me (anecdotal evidence, I know, but only to illustrate a point). So I’m totally with you on the whole remove anonymity thing, give it a face, make sure people know there are people behind the brand.

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Totally! I’ve worked with so many <10 person startups that want to hide their small size by not showing themselves at all, by only showing their "leadership" (which is the whole 3-person team), or by hiding their story of being scrappy. They hide the parts people are most likely to connect with! They want to appear large even though, as you say, nobody owes anything to "fancy shmancy companies". It's too bad.

      As for the endowment effect and its cousin loss aversion, definitely I agree that that can come into play with free trials: people value and want to keep things that they consider "theirs." So why, then, do 90% of people who sign up to try SaaS not place value on the product, and why do they let it go? Curious. In the numbers I've seen, a lot of that 90% actually activate… so wassup there?

  • Ian Cheung


    Reciprocity, totally get. But are free trials of SaaS really about giving (to the customer)?

    Free trials of SaaS app are more about giving the supplier the chance to prove to the user/customer that their product is worth the $x to continue to use.

    If the supplier fails to do so, then the customer doesn’t subscribe. You can tweak things with tactics like insisting on credit card numbers first etc. but the main principle stands.

    And if you think of it from a customer’s point of view, they are the ones giving, they are giving their time to try out the product or service.

    So it isn’t that the customer isn’t reciprocating, it is that in her mind the transaction is complete.

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Yeah, the confusing part for me is when a person is ‘given’, say, a month to use a SaaS solution. Let’s say that month is worth $49. So they’re given a sample valued at $49. They wanted it; they asked for it; they went looking for it and found it; they were given what they wanted…

      …but they didn’t end up using it even once.

      That’s not even the bad part.

      That’s understandable, I suppose.

      (Although, if you stood in front of me and asked me to use a $49 product of mine but then promptly abandoned it, that’d be weird. Socially, you’d look like a flaky nutjob.)

      The bad part is all the resistance to the marketing that follows. The nasty emails to support that go, “And could you please stop trying to sell to me!” The frustration of “being stalked by” retargeting ads. *That’s* what’s confusing to me. If someone’s giving you something, shouldn’t you do the fair thing and, like, show them tolerance? In person you would. That’s how timeshares sell out. And SaaS businesses aren’t despicable like so many timeshare businesses! So because SaaS sells online, where everyone’s anonymous, they have to work 100x as hard to get a sliver of the customers they might get if we all had to look each other in the eye during transactions? Color me confused.

      • Clive Portman

        “If someone’s giving you something, shouldn’t you do the fair thing and, like, show them tolerance?” But we’re not being ‘given’ anything out of generosity – it’s part of a sale process and we understand that.

        If the $49 trial said from the beginning “We’ll bombard you with follow-up emails if you choose not to continue, and we’ll follow you around with ads for a while as well”, would we signup in the first place? I’m not so sure.

      • Joanna Wiebe

        But the emails are part of the sales process, too. It’s just you feel inconvenienced by them. Nevermind that a team put 1000s of man-hours into building a solution for you. You want to try it on your time… without feeling any level of pressure… and even then you think you’re doing something kind for the SaaS biz.

        The trial is part of the sales process just as the Costco samples are part of the sales process. But with the samples, you feel the need to reciprocate. With the SaaS trial, you don’t. That’s where the question is. And I strongly doubt it has anything to do with the fact that frozen pizza is so incredibly irresistible or that you can’t afford the $29/mo SaaS offering.

      • Clive Portman

        But… I’ve tried the product, not liked it, and decided not to continue. As in, I’ve made my decision. At that point, any more marketing is inconveniencing me.

        I think the point you’re missing here is that when it comes to SaaS, you aren’t doing me a favour by giving me a trial – it’s expected.

        My need to reciprocate? In return for you offering me a trial, I’ll consider your product. That’s all. Because that on its own takes a lot of effort.

      • Joanna Wiebe

        It’s an interesting distinction: X kindness is “expected” so I need not reciprocate.

        * Glad you like. 🙂 I too will be dropping “no problem.”

      • We are finding this. Having people sign up for a month long free trial valued at $59.00 and then never logging in. Frustrating to say the least.

      • Joe Kizlauskas

        I know people who run membership sites and their split testing says charge $1. You have offered a discount so have offered value, it’s enough of a carrot, they have paid something and so feel like they should use it. You may get less trials but they convert better.

  • Emma Capell

    Loved this. Will drop my ‘no problem’ immediately and replace it with ‘happy to help’. Great instant takeaway, as well as all the other information. Thank you.
    As a business consumer who loves free stuff, I may not reciprocate immediately because I am not at the right stage in the buying cycle. Copyblogger took over a year to get me to part with money and they admit they know how long it can take. Now they will get thousands from me! They took me on the buying journey and completely changed my career for which I am grateful. But it took time.
    All is not lost in the early days though. Those that don’t buy yet, myself included, can still feel a debt and will recommend the service to others. Even if they are in the same field of service. I recommended someone else if I don’t feel ready to handle such a large job. Their advice about my same field isn’t wasted or abused/stolen.
    I think the trick is hanging in there longer term or creating such an amazing interactive autoresponder series, if you have the time and capability to get it right, that it comes together in the end and adapts to each customer, faceless or not.
    Otherwise, your 5 ideas above can help things move faster. Again I will print out your excellent advice.

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Totally, Emma. There are some services I’ve loved – and still love – that don’t even know I dig them ‘cos I, like so many people, don’t “reciprocate” with a comment or a tweet. It’s not that I don’t want to repay them; it’s often, I think, that we get the sense that a business is big and rich and filled with so many people, they couldn’t possibly care about our comment, email or tweet.

      We tell ourselves we’re small; we tell ourselves they’re big; we think our tweet is insignificant because we’ve only got 800 followers and they’ve got 80,000 followers. But I don’t actually know any businesses that don’t want your comment or tweet. Especially startups.

      The thing about eventually repaying a biz for all they’ve given you is that, in a lot of cases, they won’t be there a year or two from now without a little support in the here and now.

      • Liz Illgen

        Great article, Joanna! I recently read Cialdini’s book and agreed with most of it, except the issue of reciprocity. You nailed the primary issue, which is, it’s easy to hide on the web and therefore take, take, take.
        I also agree with everything Emma says as well. As a B2B copywriter focusing on the needs of small business buyers of software, the most important point is that there are millions of these buyers, and their purchase patterns are very different from larger enterprises.
        They are cautious consumers. They generally take their time and educate themselves before making a software decision. The sales cycle tends to either be very fast or very slow, and it’s up to the vendors to know each buyer well enough to know specifically how to appeal to them.
        But most important, they need to be seen and heard, and anonymous, generic follow up will not win points. Providing education, answering questions, and being supportive will lead to a long term relationship and “$1000’s” in sales once the decision is made. That decision is dependent primarily on how the vendor makes the prospect feel special. Thanks a great read, both of you!

  • Is it just the cardboard pizza bites you don’t like, or are we talking all free samples at Costco? Besides that, great article, and interesting how subtleties in how we frame our communication with people can get them to reciprocate.

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Mostly it’s the smell of different foods mixing together. What can I say? I’m a snob. 😉

  • Great post, super helpful framework to think along when coming up with growth hacks. Thanks! I am intrigued with Snap service too and likely to try it soon.

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Thanks, Lilia. It’s helped me to put some of my concerns about “persuading with reciprocity” down on the page.

  • Justin B.

    As a field marketer who has joined the content world, this is EXTREMELY valuable! Your observations are spot on to what I’m experiencing now that eye contact is gone. I now have a better understanding for the reason. Thank you!

    I’m really enjoying your posts, back catalog and podcast appearances. Time to reciprocate and purchase your ebooks.

    • Joanna Wiebe

      haha! As Mr. Norris would say, “I’m glad you found that helpful.” 🙂

  • Krithika Rangarajan

    Jeez – are humans really that selfish? *eesh*

    Amazing article, Joanna. Of course, those samples at Costco work because humans love food (and especially if it is free). Eating amounts to instant gratification for us, whereas technological systems just sound boring and a lot of work! LOL

    No. 5 is my favorite!

    Thank you #HUGS

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Indeed a ton of factors are at play when we’re talking about human decision-making. It’s curious to me that you don’t buy makeup after getting the free session. I can just see the makeup artist shaking her head as you walk away…

  • Hey Joanna

    Cialdini has an amazing video online where he gives a lecture at a University breakfast?
    Its about an hour long but the whole thing is fantastic

    One of the key takeaways, and he claims it as a disservice to society, is when people don’t take acknowledgment for their giving or value, we break down functions that help us build our society.

    People expect to give to receive and vice versa. When we then wave away that value of the act, its literally what we are doing.

    I think we are all guilty online of the points that Amy commented on, when we either dont follow up, or send a generic email to a potential client.

    The fact that we automate so many core interactions, is possibly why customers are so distant from their feelings towards us.

    If it feels like they are dealing with an emotionless uncaring machine, perhaps they will treat it as such?

    I know for a fact that we should definitely be reaching out and connecting to our potential leads on a more personal scale!

    Thanks again for a great post Joanna about one of my favourite books!

    Daniel Daines-Hutt

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Yeah, I mean, the studies show that they *will* simply take and slip away if you don’t make the interaction personal.

      When we’ve been promised automation and lean teams, it’s hard to write personal messages and connect in personal ways – but if we can start running tests in our organizations to measure the impact of simulating a face-to-face interaction with leads/prospects, perhaps it’ll get easier to make a business case for, well, more humans at work.

  • Peter Michaels

    Some great practical tips in here – proof there’s more than one way to skin a cat (or get a cat-skinning trial user to upgrade to the whole cat-skinning monthly subscription… yeah ok, terrible analogy)

    I remember reading Cialdini and feeling reciprocity was one of the lesser of the principles. Personally speaking, I mean…

    Yep, there’s some cool ways to use it in biz, but it’s always felt to me like it needs a certain leap of faith to make it an essential factor in a transaction. Compared to the classic, hard-boiled “What’s in it for me?” feeling all customers need addressing, for instance.

    To make the step up from a free trial to paying for the same (or more of the same) service, biz’s need to focus on the benefits more and less on hoping their customers are as decent in person as they’d like ’em to be : )

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Reciprocity was always iffy for me, too, as was/is commitment and consistency. Anonymity makes it possible for us to act in ways that are inconsistent with what we’ve said we’ll do. Anonymity is our enemy. Eye contact is our friend.

      Surely that’s why social proof and authority continue to be the easiest principle for most of us to nod along with – because at the core of all 6 of Cialdini’s principles is the need to be part of a herd and to act the way the herd wants you to.

  • Brilliant. Much needed context on an old principle that is often quoted but rarely examined. Thank you!

    • Joanna Wiebe

      I just can’t believe how many studies have been done on reciprocity! If you don’t have a account, get one and search “reciprocity” under marketing journals. It will blow your mind.

  • Randle Dube

    I just realized how often these have worked on me as a consumer, especially the “I’m so glad I helped you” move! Thanks for a great post. Particularly interested in trying out giving something away before asking for something.

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Very cool, Randle! I’m guilty of saying “no worries” when someone thanks me, so I’m going to have to try harder to say “glad I helped”.

  • KammyT

    Great to meet another Cialdini fan! Appreciate you taking this farther than the basic thought, though, and addressing a conundrum that’s rampant in B2B lead gen.

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Thanks, Kammy! Reading “Influence” is what got me interested in conversion rate optimization. Cialdini’s so good.

  • Amy Butcher

    Fantastic! I am very guilty of the “No problem” syndrome, so I’ll be stopping that right now.

    I need to read this book, but I agree that reciprocity has to be seen in context. If someone asks me to try a sample, then to me the reciprocity at play is my agreeing to take the sample. If someone asks me to take a sample and then gets mad because I don’t buy, my reaction would be, “Well then why did you ask me to take a sample if you didn’t want to risk my not liking it?” (Not that that’s ever happened at the pizza counter!) The point being that there has to be some measure of satisfaction. Because maybe people aren’t convertin’ because they just don’t like what you’re sellin’.

    But therein lies a great insight: once you determine that someone likes your wares, you can’t be afraid to ask them to buy, cheese and all. I was just thinking this morning about two very annoying sales situations: 1) pushy salespeople who don’t realize you’re just looking; 2) absent salespeople who totally ignore you when you are desperately ready to buy. Can be hard to strike that balance, but this post gives some solid advice on how to do that.

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Someone needs to build an app to tell sales people you’re ready for their help.

      …But now that you’ve got me talking about sales people, I’ve noticed something very interesting among sales people in clothing stores lately: they’ve started to be flattering. I was in J Crew a half-year ago, and the sales guy said something about me reminding him of [insert celebrity name here], and I was like, “Here, take my credit card.” Flattery is extremely persuasive. I wonder where that fits in Cialdini’s 6 principles. Under liking, maybe. Anyway, it got me thinking about what the hell took salespeople so long to figure out that all you have to do is make me believe I look fabulous in something – just tell me those words – and I’ll buy it.

  • Michael Gray

    Great article. I have two observations:

    First, marketers have to be honest about how much reciprocity a prospect owes them; if I download a free ebook, it’s probably unrealistic to believe I owe you much more than a once-over of your e-book. If, however, I take advantage of a free one-hour consultation to help me make use of your free trial period, I owe you a much higher level of interaction somewhere down the line. This highlights how important the offer is, and why it’s important to understand the client’s need to fill the lead pipeline versus their need to achieve a high conversion rate.

    Second, your prescription for testing a more personalized approach is right on the mark. I have written direct response campaigns for all types of clients, and at least 50% of them balk when it comes to personalizing their messages. The use of the corporate “we” and “the XYZ Widget team” just kills response, but many clients just recoil at the notion of making things personal.

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Thanks, Michael. Great observations. I suppose that there are a great many things about the whole “free download” sitch that frustrate me – but, for me, reciprocity falls apart when a person downloads my client’s ebook, begins to get emails from said client and then complains that they don’t want to be “sold to.” That’s where I get a little grouchy. 🙂 If content marketing is going to work, we need to better understand reciprocity – and swiping from what retailers and even timeshare companies do (i.e., face-to-face give and take) could help with that.

  • Aaron Orendorff

    Again … great article.

    Loved the section on “Ask.” Personalization and reciprocity totally go hand in hand. I’ve used these simple emails a TON and (while they might not always result in new clients) they absolutely up engagement. People actually write back! Kind of like removing anonymity: “Get your face in front of your prospects, and get theirs in front of you.”

    Oh, and not only am I’m featuring two of your posts in a new article I just finished for Unbounce … I also linked to your super engaging subject lines in another article for MarketingProfs that just went up today!


    • Joanna Wiebe

      Nice work, Aaron! I’ll check those out.

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