The rule of reciprocity is alive and well on the Internet

Friends share a coffeeImagine you are at a business meeting where you know no-one. You have arrived, slightly nervous because you are alone. You wander over to the coffee table where another guest at the meeting is pouring themselves a caffeine-laden cup. As they do so they turn to you and say “would you like a cup?”. You say, yes and they pour you a coffee, ask you if you take milk and sugar and then pass the cup to you with a smile. What do you think? Almost certainly you react positively – “what a nice person”, or “how kind”.

Later on in the day, you feel almost duty bound to do something in return – perhaps saving them a seat at the lunch table, or offering them some bread to have with their meal. You have reciprocated. The “rule of reciprocity” suggests that when someone does something positive towards us, we feel compelled to do something in return.

You can see this in operation – often badly executed though – on many web sites. “We’ll send your a free report, if you give us your email address.” It’s a reciprocal arrangement, but is often thrust down our throats, rather like the coffee pouring individual saying, “here’s your coffee, now what are you going to give me?”.

The real reason reciprocity works is because it is gentle. Online in many web sites it is far from this. That’s why social networking works better. You form some online friendships, gradually revealing more to each other, then one offers the other something without asking for return or favour. But the recipient feels they have to do something in return. In other words, a more friendly basis for the “free report” offer is likely to bring longer term, more solid gain.

That’s because we will be providing such potentially lucrative sales material to people who now trust us. They have done that because we have built relationships with them. Indeed, as a recent article on the basis of friendship explained in Psychology Today, we test our friends by offering slightly more information about ourselves and seeing if it is reciprocated. If people tell us a bit more, we realise they want to be friendly. So we reveal slightly more and if it is returned, our friendship deepens.

It’s the same online; in social networking sites you can see people gradually revealing more about themselves. As they do so, they get more comments, connections and so on. They deepen their relationship with these people and the same old routine carries on, as though these people really were in the “real world”.

What happens online in terms of how we relate to each other is no different to the way it works offline. The problem is that things like “Internet Marketing” have been given a bad name because some people have heard of the rule of reciprocity and executed it in a rather “in your face” way. You can surely use reciprocity online to your business advantage. But do it the gentle way you would when meeting people for the first time, just like offering them a coffee at a business event.


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Graham Jones
Graham Jones is an Internet Psychologist who studies the way people use the online world, in particular how people engage with businesses. He uses this knowledge to help companies improve their online connections to their customers and potential customers and offers consultancy, workshops, masterclasses and webinars. He also speaks regularly at conferences and business events. Graham is an award-winning writer and the author of 32 books, several of which are about various aspects of the Internet. For more information connect with me on Google+
Graham Jones


Graham Jones is an Internet Psychologist, professional speaker and author of 32 books who helps businesses understand the online behaviour of their customers
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