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Using the principles of influence ethically in marketing, part 1: Reciprocity

Using the principles of influence ethically in marketing, part 1: Reciprocity

The study of sales and marketing is, in a nutshell, the study of human psychology. Understanding human behavior gives one insight that can be used for good, just as well as it can be abused. However, as we here at Inquisitek have long believed, there is a cost for unethical practices in business.

To put our take on ethical marketing in brief, one crosses the line from ethical to shady when one tries to leverage psychology to create the illusion of value, rather than to honestly communicate the value they provide. Ethical sales follow a simple formula:

1.     Identify your Value Proposition

2.     Identify the people who benefit the most from your VP

3.     Learn to communicate your VP to those people in terms they understand

4.     Execute

When one gets out in the weeds of “I-can-sell-anything-to-anybody-ville”, it’s safe to say they’ve strayed far from the philosophy that successful business is all about: providing value in exchange for value.


But the reality is that fast talkers and Sith-Lords-of-sales do exist, and they can successfully swindle people into believing something is better than it is. This is irrelevant to local business owners, of course, because they know that this style of business is not sustainable.

So the point of this article is to help business owners understand how they can use psychology to communicate, rather than to persuade. That means 1) reaching the right audience, and 2) communicating with them effectively.

What are the principles of influence?

Dr. Robert Cialdini wrote the book Influence to share what he learned from years of research into what he calls “compliance professionals”, i.e. salesmen, conmen, cult leaders, politicians, advertisers, and propagandists.

His books contains six principles of influence, and explains how each one works. In a nutshell, the principles are aspects of evolutionary psychology that influence our decisions in subtle ways we are often unconscious of.

If this seems far-fetched to you, I suggest giving the book a read. It explains why these tendencies exists in the first place, in a way that helps you see these principles all around you in modern society – even in your own behavior.

This article focuses on one principle, which the author calls “reciprocity”.

What is the principle of reciprocity and how does it work?

We feel an urge to help those who have helped us. Like all of the principles, this works both consciously and unconsciously. It’s an instinct we have, and it’s there for a reason -presumably because we’re social creatures, and we only survived this long as a species because we cooperate with each other.

It’s important to each of us that others know we understand the value of cooperation. It seems we humans feel some sort of “obligation” to reciprocate, and this can be a good thing. It means that those of us who truly believe in a fair exchange of value will get something in return for providing some kind of value.

Cialdini gives several striking examples to illustrate just how powerful this principle is, and just how important it is to us to be seen as somebody who knows how to cooperate with others. If you think this sounds like an obvious and elementary idea, I would, again, suggest reading the book. The studies he shares show that our urge to reciprocate is irresistible at times, and often unrecognized at the conscious level.

You may have heard the sales adage that “people buy based on emotion, and justify it with logic.” This adage is well supported by Influence. Cialdini makes a convincing case that the reasons we give ourselves for certain decisions are often only part of the story, and sometimes are even an outrageous lie.

This sometimes irresistible urge to reciprocate can be a good thing for honest contributors to society, because it means that honest efforts to provide value will not go unappreciated. So as long as we’re making good faith efforts to 1) talk to qualified leads, and 2)provide them with real value, we can ethically leverage the principle of reciprocity to advance our sales/marketing conversations.

Examples of ethical ways to leverage reciprocity in your sales and marketing

Some of the examples below may seem like basic good business practices, but I encourage you to see them in a new light. Perhaps the best part of Influence is that it serves to remind us what it is that humans value the most in their personal life and in business. Good manners and hospitality never go out of style.

•      Give out items of value as part of your sales/marketing efforts(like branded apparel, coffee mugs, or fridge magnets)

•      do small favors for people. In other words, be helpful to your potential customers. Even a customer who walks away might repay the favor by recommending you to somebody else

•      Share your expertise

•      Make tangible efforts to provide things like transparency where it’s not necessarily expected

•      Provide valuable resources on your website

•      Be a good host or guest in physical sales situations. Concern for the comfort of others shows that you value cooperation and are adept at it.

Be involved in the community, as an individual or as a company. Things that actually serve the community will not go unnoticed (we advise against bragging about your acts of charity, though, and want to point that charitable donations are not “felt” by the community in any way – service provided is much more valuable than donations)

The most valuable thing you can offer at low cost to your business: your expertise

There’s a question you can ask yourself that will help you tap into the power of reciprocity, and that question is this:

“What kind of value can I provide to prospects, especially that my competition cannot?”

In our opinion, there actually is a correct answer to this question: your expertise. It’s taken years to learn what you know, and you know much more about your field than your customers will ever need to know. Yet in that wealth of knowledge, there are nuggets of insight that can be of immense value to them.

There’s a three step process you can follow to sift these nuggets out:

1.     open up a dialogue with your customers/leads to find out what they need to know

2.     encourage every person in your organization to be as helpful as possible in this regard

3.     implement a content-based marketing strategy to share your expertise in ways that impact the customer

Content based marketing strategies 101

Content based marketing doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive (though there are strong reasons to invest heavily in it for some small businesses). You can run a newsletter, put pamphlets on your sales counter, publish blog content, or share video content that only takes a matter of minutes to make.

The easiest and most straightforward way to share your expertise is with small blurbs via social media, although this has its drawbacks.

If you’re going to use this strategy, we suggest putting some thought into the best tools for social media marketing in 2021.

Further reading

Here is an interview with Dr. Cialdini by Harvard Business Review on the ethical side of influence:

And, of course, the book Influence is available at booksellers and libraries, as well as Cialdini’s follow-up, Pre-suasion.