What Is the Law of Reciprocity?

According to anthropology, there’s a natural law in every society called the Law of Reciprocity. The Law of Reciprocity states that when people receive something, they feel compelled to return the favor in kind. For example, say someone gives you help when your car breaks down on the side of the road, changing your tire for you. Now you feel indebted to them, and you want to pay them back. The driving motivation behind reciprocation might be to dispel our debt, or to not be seen as a moocher or parasite, which is a major social taboo. Much of the time, the law of reciprocity inspires us to give even more than the value of the thing that we received.

We navigate this law every day, however we seldom realize what a powerful effect it has, even subconsciously. And it has a powerful effect on our buying habits, which is why it’s something that’s essential for marketers and small business owners to know about.

Free Samples and Swag

One of the most powerful examples of the law of reciprocity used in marketing purposes is through free samples and promotional items (sometimes called swag). At first glance, it would seem that the purpose of these things is to demonstrate the value of a product or company, or to get the name out more, and to draw people into being participants in your business.

Of course, that’s true, but there’s more going on under the surface. As soon as you give a customer or client (or just a potential one) a free product, the law of reciprocity is triggered. This is why free samples in settings like Costco have been shown to boost sales by about 600%. As soon as we receive something for free (even if it’s something that we didn’t ask for in the first place) we feel an obligation towards whoever gave us the free sample (either the company, the store, or the employee themselves).

Based on Trust and Loyalty

Studies have shown that the law of reciprocity works best in trusting relationships wherein the giver has no expectation of a return. In fact, utilizing this dynamic can help to create a relationship of trust and loyalty where formerly, there wasn’t one. The reason that this works is because the law of reciprocity is self-perpetuating. One person gives, the other responds with something greater, and then the first person again feels the need to return a favor. Eventually, this creates a bond that goes beyond counting up favors. On the other hand, manipulative use of the law of reciprocity easily sets off an alarm in your potential clients and customers. It can have the opposite effect, if your tactics are viewed as pushy or overbearing.

How can you make sure that your use of the law of reciprocity is managed in a way that will encourage trust and loyalty? Well, start with one simple principle: always strive to give value to your customers first. This is more important than getting back value from your customers, and will automatically come with its own return in time.

Different Forms of Reciprocation

Because the law of reciprocation can be a self-perpetuating cycle, often, what you end up getting in return from your clients or customers (in the long run) is much more valuable than the small items or services or advice that you give away for free. In return, customers often repay your favors with things that they know will be valuable to your company, including:

  • Referrals and word-of-mouth marketing
  • Brand loyalty
  • Sponsorship or professional relationships that benefit you both


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