Reciprocity and Copy

Human beings are certainly advanced animals by any measure, but there are some surprisingly psychological flaws that are exploited every single day by compliance experts.  Any good copywriter should be a compliance expert, and thus it only makes sense for copywriters to learn how to leverage a few basic psychological principles in their copy.  What followers is the fundamentals required to employ one of the most powerful psychological tools in a copywriter’s arsenal: reciprocity.

Give Something to Get Something

One of the fundamental principles of human societal organization is the concept of reciprocity, and it is deeply ingrained in just about everyone.  What is reciprocity?  Simple: the idea that I give you something and then you owe me something in return.  Think of the words we use for people that do not obey this principle, and you will realize that they are uniformly negative: moocher, free-loader, and so on.

How powerful is reciprocity?  I think that the best example is probably found in the religious group known as the Hare Krishnas.  This particular religious group gained tremendous wealth and influence in just a few short decades despite the fact that their appearance is odd, they are often labeled as beggars, and are not necessarily well liked in general.  So, how did the religion gain money?  Did they compromise on their clothing, acts, or other modes of behavior that were dictated by their religion?  No.  They just started giving people gifts before asking for donations, and voila!  Success.

There are many other tests that psychologists have conducted over the years, including one in which a series of test subjects were accompanying an experimenter through an art gallery on a mission to rate paintings.  The subjects were taken one-on-one with the same person who tried to keep his behavior consistent through hundreds of assistants, though naturally some people liked him while others did not.  At the end of the rating period, the assistants/subjects were asked to buy raffle tickets.  It would not be surprising to suggest that the number of tickets purchased was related to what the subject thought of the experimenter, but something surprising occurred.  The simple act of the experimenter offering a free soda during a break trumped the effect of positive/negative feelings towards the experimenter.  In short, subjects that claimed to dislike the experimenter and received a free soda would actually buy more raffle tickets on average than people that claimed to like the experimenter but did not receive a soda.

Both of these examples say something about the psychological power of reciprocity.  What they say, in big loud words, is that we are so ingrained to operate using this principle that we are nearly powerless against it when it is undetected.  In fact, people go out of their way to avoid Hare Krishinas rather than to be rude to them, which only goes to show that we would rather avoid conflict than violate one of our most sacred societal principles.  So, how can we employ reciprocity to our own ends?

One nice gift

How to Employ Reciprocity

The first thing that you need to do to employ reciprocity in your copy is to offer a valuable nugget of information or perhaps something more tangible such a demo product or subscription to a service that the customer will feel is actually beneficial to them.  The only real conditions to what you have to offer are simple: it must truly be of value, and it must not look like an overt sales effort or people will do an end run around it faster than busy people at airports dodging Hare Krishinas.

Offering something of value for free can be a challenge to some, but here are a few possible ideas:

  • Are you offering an e-book?  Give away the first few chapters or even the entire last edition for free if the subject matter is constantly updated.
  • Do you have a service?  Offer a free sample of the service on a trial basis.  This is done by so many companies that are wildly successful for a good reason: reciprocity.  It also helps for people to be able to test what they would be buying, but there is a sense of indebtedness that could be carefully woven in with follow-up emails that are properly worded.
  • Do you have a product that you could give away?  Free products build goodwill too.  Even something as simple as a coffee mug or promotional t-shirt can prove quite effective.  Just remember that the gift MUST be valued in order for it to build a need to reciprocate.  A coffee mug with your company logo on it won’t be as effective as a coffee mug with a custom logo on it that the user gets to generate.  Of course, a site dedicated to coffee could probably get by with nearly any kind of coffee mug or a small sample of this month’s flavor mailed to customers.  That being said, some products are simply better than others.

Be Genuine

Even a valuable gift will be viewed askance if the recipient sees the sale coming.  This means that great care must be taken to disguise a gift, and never to attach strings directly to the gift.  Many websites require users to provide contact information in order to get a free e-book, and that certainly is effective in many situations.  I cannot help but wonder how much more effective the e-books would be at converting users if they came with no strings at all attached, and a polite request for the data was added on the last page of the e-book.  The overall number of people submitting e-mail addresses and other contact information may decline dramatically, but the overall percentage of recipients that would probably be open to further offers would likely increase dramatically.

Chad Weirick is a global traveler, ghostwriter, teacher, and father. His hobbies include reading, languages, mixed martial arts, photography, digital media, blogging, and spending time with his family.

Written by

Chad Weirick is a global traveler, ghostwriter, teacher, and father. His hobbies include reading, languages, mixed martial arts, photography, digital media, blogging, and spending time with his family.



  • Marc Brodeur says:

    Hi Chad

    I liked your blog. The entire concept that someone can get something for nothing….is false. We have to treat others as we would like to be treated. Its that simple. See ourselves through out customers eyes. In business we all need something from our clients and they need something from us, or there would never be a transaction. In my business it is more knowledge based so I believe I have to give my customers or potential clients some of my knowledge for free and if they like what I have given them hopefully they will get to know me, and we can establish a relationship and do business together.