Why Giving is So Important in Social Marketing – The Rule of Reciprocation

I learned about “The Rule of Reciprocation” in a less than obvious place … on the radio. After commuting by train into NYC for some time, I recently started to drive from my home in New Jersey to the Ryan Partnership office in Wilton, CT and it has had some definite benefits. One of the great things about this change (in addition to working with some of the best clients and marketing’s most talented people) is that I get to listen to a decent amount of NPR (National Public Radio for my readers outside the US).

This past week, I heard a story that highlighted the secret sauce ingredient for social marketing without even mentioning social media once. The piece started by telling the story of Phillip Kunz, a sociologist at Brigham Young University. In 1974, Kunz and his family got a record number of Christmas cards. Most of the cards that came were complete with well wishes for Phillip and his family as well as the writers sharing their own news. I know you would say that this is pretty normal, but there is one other little thing I left out of the story – Mr. Kunz didn’t know any of them.


The story, which is also documented by NPR in their article, “How The Rule Of Reciprocation Binds Us” goes on to describe that Phillip Kunz ran a little experiment to see what would happen if he sent Christmas cards to people he didn’t know. Kunz found names and addresses of 600 random strangers in nearby towns and sent those people Christmas cards. Why would so many people write him back at all? The answer – The Rule of Reciprocation.

So here lies panacea for social marketing success – The Rule of Reciprocation. Marketers need to constantly think in the Christmas (or Hanukkah, Kwanza, etc.) spirit of giving to yield results. If social communication is focused on giving, well wishes, stories, and adding value to the target audience’s needs, wants, and interest, those individuals will reciprocate with stronger relationships, loyalty, and possibly advocacy down the road.

The rule of reciprocation is embedded in human nature. Robert Cialdini, is an emeritus psychologist at Arizona State University, stated in the NPR piece “We are obligated to give back to others, the form of behavior that they have first given to us,” he says. “Essentially thou shall not take without giving in return.”
And this is the human behavior rule social marketers must follow. A different approach is required for social marketing than marketing advertisement. Both are extremely important to brand success, but the strategy and execution must be very different in social media and advertising. Social marketing must be about giving and delivering value to the target audience. A few brand promotions can be sprinkled in social channels, but the overwhelming amount of communication must be about giving, human stories, and genuine care and motivation for building strong relationships. Then The Rule of Reciprocation yields strong results.

Cialdini offers a few examples of the ramifications of The Rule of Reciprocation. In one scenario he describes how the act of leaving a mint on a restaurant check tray results in an average tip increase of 3.3 percent and if a second mint was added, servers got a 20 percent increase over their normal tip. While this is not a social example, it is easy to see how the same “giving” approach can pay dividends in social execution.

In my personal life I am truly inspired and driven by the saying, “It is better to give than receive.” But truth be told – in my professional life as a marketing executive helping brands execute social marketing strategies to yield measurable results, I am led by a slight twist on this saying … “If you give, you will receive.” 🙂

Make It Happen,
Social Steve



Filed under behavior, brand marketing, content marketing, marketing, social marketing, social media, social media influence, social media marketing, Social Steve, socialmedia, SocialSteve

6 responses to “Why Giving is So Important in Social Marketing – The Rule of Reciprocation

  1. Nice observation. There are a lot of online services that basically offer the same thing. You register and send postcards to people from around the world, and get postcards from random strangers in return. Some people like it, as it allows an interesting experience, and a wide collection of postcards. However, others believe it to be quite pointless, as few people are actually interested in building connections.

    This is something that is happening in the online world too. I find blind reciprocating somewhat fake, as it is targeted at people who are not truly interested in what you are doing. I would personally prefer quality instead of quantity.

  2. Ron Catron

    Great stuff, Steve!

  3. Jim Matorin

    “The Rule of Reciprocation” I understood this rule pre-Web 2.0, thus formulated a networking philosopy that was sustainable. In the new world of social media, Steve, candidly few people practice this rule let alone brands. More situational people/brands now, a whole lot of broadcasting, little listening. Listening is a form of giving.

    • Jim – what most people do in social won’t drive success. As you know, I try to share how to use social successfully … on my blog here and with my clients. I am committed to demystifying the smoke social smoke screens.

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