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How An Ounce of Reciprocity Can Get Your Website Visitors to Do What You Want Them To Do

By Erin  |   Business Website Tips

Circling arrows showing concept of reciprocity

Ever had someone do something for you, and then you felt the need to do something for them in return?

This is known as the Rule of Reciprocity.

This psychological principle explains the strong feeling we often experience when we receive something for free from someone.  It's that persistent itch to make things feel even by making sure we give something in return.

For example, if your neighbors cook you a delicious dinner one night, soon after you may feel the need to invite them over for a home cooked meal at your house sometime in the near future.  That's the Rule of Reciprocity in action.

Why does this simple rule work?

One explanation as to why we feel compelled to reciprocate has to do with evolution.

Though not all scientists agree with this particular explanation, a recent article by the Nielsen Norman Group suggests that people feel obligated to reciprocate perceived acts of kindness and generosity because, in the past, “those who obeyed this principle were probably less likely to get enemies and thus more likely to survive and pass on their genes.” 

Let's take a quick look at a couple of fun stories showing the Rule of Reciprocity in action—then link everything together and explore how you can use this rule in your company's website.

Rule of Reciprocity: The Christmas Card Example

photo of Christmas CardsA famous study showing the Rule of Reciprocity at work was conducted by Phillip Kunz, a Brigham Young University sociologist, in 1974.

Kunz randomly selected 600 names and addresses from his local phone book and sent these people Christmas cards.

He wanted to see if people would send Christmas cards back to him—despite the fact that he was a complete stranger.

And yep, you guessed it.

They did.

Kunz actually received over 200 Christmas cards back from people he had never met.

Rule of Reciprocity: The Server + Tips Example

Asian woman offering sake to restaurant customersAnother study showed that restaurant servers can receive higher tips if they simply give their customers a piece of candy with their bills.

The study showed that servers who gave:

  • 1 piece of candy received tips that were, on average, 3.3% higher than the tips received by servers who gave no candy.
  • 2 pieces of candy received tips that were, on average, 14.1% higher than the tips received by servers who gave no candy.
  • 2 pieces of candy while looking at the person and indicating it was for this particular patron received tips that were, on average, 20% higher than the tips received by servers who gave no candy.

Using this rule in your business's website

The Rule of Reciprocity can be quite effective for getting your website’s visitors to perform the actions that you want them to take.

Over the years we've actually found that, when we suggest implementing this concept into their company websites, many clients initially feel afraid of giving away something for free. Ironically, doing exactly this can be exactly what they need to get their websites’ visitors to take the actions they want them to take, like:

  • signing up for a newsletter,
  • requesting a quote, or
  • completing a form to receive a free consultation.

According to the Nielsen Norman Group, website visitors who receive free content (think Enewsletters or free downloadable articles) are “more likely to reciprocate by doing business with the company” later on.

In other words, when you give your website's visitors free premium content outside of the standard content within your site, you're providing them with “the digital counterpart of the free samples from the physical world and is an ingrained use of the reciprocity principle on the web”. 

Just imagine how much more receptive a potential customer might be if someone from your sales team kindly reached out to him via phone or email if they've already taken something that you generously provided at no charge.  

Or how much more likely that potential customer might be to complete a form and share his email (if he's already not done so) when you point him to even more highly valuable content but kindly request a form completion for him to see it.

Now that's powerful stuff.

(Is it suddenly starting to make sense why we offer free downloads from our own website?)

The effects can be long term

The Rule of Reciprocity has been shown to impact the way people behave—even years after an initial gift has been given.

This means the free content that you give a website visitor to your website today can actually impact they way that visitor acts and thinks about your business in the future.

Are you using the Rule of Reciprocity in your website? If so, how has it worked for your business?

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