In December 1975 hundreds of Americans received a surprise. Tucked among their mail was a Christmas card, addressed to them but from a family they’d never heard of. How they reacted was to have important implications for marketers.
Unbeknown to them, they were part of a psychological study. Phillip Kunz and Michael Woolcott, two sociologists from Brigham Young University, posted 578 Christmas cards to random families and then monitored how many cards were sent back in return.
The most striking finding was the volume of people who felt obliged to reply. 20% of recipients took the time to find a card, write a message and send it back to the experimenters.
In the context of 0.1% response rates to digital ads this is impressive. Why go to such lengths for complete strangers? Kunz and Woolcott attributed this to the cultural norm of reciprocity – the strong social pressure to return favours.
The power of reciprocity exists outside of formal experiments. Take language. Our use of "much obliged" as a common synonym for "thanks", unwittingly reveals our attitude to gifts and favours. Reciprocity is a bias that marketers should capitalise upon.
How can advertisers use reciprocity?
Many brands offer a value exchange to consumers, the key is to position that exchange as a gift.
How does that work in practice? Consider loyalty programmes. The standard model is to require customers to fulfil certain criteria and, in return, offer a reward. So Tesco awards a Clubcard point for each pound spent and Caffe Nero a free cup of coffee after nine paid ones.
The problem is these approaches are transactional. There is a quid pro quo. Since the customer feels they have earned the reward there is no obligation to reciprocate, no need to repay an outstanding debt.
Brand rewards must be unpredictable and surprising to harness the bias.
Who uses reciprocity well?
Pret A Manger is a rare example. The brand empowered its staff to give away free cups of coffee. Since this was originally positioned as a gift it created a subtle pressure on the customer to reciprocate by returning again.
However, their subsequent promotion of the initiative is counter-productive. The free coffee seems less a kind gift than a manipulative stunt.
But if reciprocity is so powerful, why is it used infrequently? It’s because brands are obsessed with easily countable metrics of success. It’s simple to tally the number of Clubcard points redeemed, harder to quantify additional sales due to reciprocity. Hard, but not impossible.
Brands that establish controlled test and control areas can ascertain the value of reciprocity. The scale of responses to Kunz and Woolcott’s Christmas card experiment shows that it is at least worth trialling.