Psychology of Persuasion: Experiential Marketing and The Reciprocation Rule

The reciprocation rule is hugely powerful. Sociologists and anthropologists have found evidence of its existence in every human society, with it being deeply rooted in our evolutionary past.

Indeed, this rule could very well be the basis of how we, as a species, succeeded above all others, as it allowed individuals to form robust and complex relationships by building trust, allowing for collaboration, and encouraging the exchange goods and services—all without the fear of loosing any investment.

The influential French anthropologist, Marcel Mauss, described social pressures as: “There is an obligation to give, an obligation to receive, and an obligation to repay”. In other words, a favour would be guaranteed with a favour in return and, importantly, would be received, or else society shuns the individual who does not obey the rule.

In particular, there are two situations in which research has suggested the rule mainly takes place. Firstly, as before mentioned, it can be employed by providing a person with a favour and then asking for one in return, and secondly, by making a concession to an individual who has already made a concession to us. Lets take a look at the two in a little more detail and how it relates to experiential marketing.

The “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” scenario

This is the more obvious situation and is commonplace in everyday life, business and politics. It is invoked by the feeling of the need to return a favour and, is so powerful, psychology research has shown it enhances the chance of compliance even in a situation where you may dislike the person who originally gave the favour, or you did not want the favour in the first place.

I, for one, used to be terrified of taking a bit of free Comté at the cheese stall for fear of being trapped into spending a small fortune (No longer a problem and now love the freebies, rule-free… ish). No wonder product sampling is still such an important marketing strategy for brands. Lets look at a simple, but very famous, example of an experiment from Cornell University to better understand how the rule can be exploited.

The study pretended to be about rating art paintings but its true purpose was to test the rule. It was carried out multiple times with different participants, but it always only featured a confederate (a person in on the experiment) and one participant for each of the two conditions.

In the first condition, the confederate would leave the room for a few minutes and, upon returning, would state that they had “bought two cokes in the vending machine” and offer a free one to the participant (all the different participants in the tests excepted the coke). In the second condition the confederate would leave the room for a few minutes again but this time would not return with any soft drink to offer the participant.

Later on, the confederate asked the participant in the different conditions if they could do him a favour by buying some charity raffle tickets. In the condition where the confederate had given the unwanted gift, the free coke, the participant was under the rule’s spell and purchased many more tickets when compared to the other condition. Thus, in the first condition, they felt obligated to return the earlier favour and, in most cases, spent much more money on the raffle tickets compared to what the confederate spent on the coke.

The “Okay, you won’t do that, but how about doing this, instead” scenario

This is a much more subtle way the rule can have influence. It is built on the premise that people will be more likely to become compliant from a non-compliant position. In other words, when a larger request changes to a smaller request it appears as a concession on the part of the requester—the so called rejection-then-retreat technique. For example, one psychology experiment demonstrates this rule perfectly.

Students walking around a university campus were picked at random by the incognito researchers and asked whether they would be willing to help a “County Youth Counseling Programme” by chaperoning a group of juvenile delinquents for a day-trip to a zoo without any payment. Not surprisingly, out of the group asked only 17% said yes.

Next, the researchers added an additional variable when asking a new sample of students. Firstly, they asked if they would be willing to sign-up for a programme of two hours per week to be a counselor to a juvenile delinquent for a minimum of two years without pay; unsurprisingly, they all refused. They then asked the smaller request about the zoo-trip and magically the results went up to 50% compliance from 17%, earlier.

As is evident, the reciprocation rule can be used very cleverly in the right hands. Shrewd negotiators and high-performing sales people are fully aware of this persuasive trick. One thing to note about this tactic is that it can backfire if used poorly. For instance, if the initial request is too extreme, or obviously unreasonable, then bargaining will breakdown as it will be seen as not being in good faith.

So… is experiential marketing built on the foundation of the reciprocation rule?

I would say, yes, most definitely. As we know, experiential marketing is a form of advertising that allows brands to create experiences for consumers—via live events, shopping experiences, or product sampling, for example—which brands hope to generate customer loyalty and influence purchasing decisions. Arguably, these all engage the rule, as it creates a platform where individuals can be influenced. Lets take an example from an excellent experiential event I wrote about in a previous blog post.

The brand was Campo Viejo, a Spanish wine brand, and took place in the Southbank in London. The event had many characteristics that offered the potential for the rule to influence people in attendance.

  1. The event was free;
  2. it had lots of Spanish pop-up food stalls, which, although were not free, provided people with delicious, genuine Spanish cuisine from Barcelona;
  3. it had wine priced very reasonably;
  4. it provided a free sensory experience, which allowed people to take part in a world-first experiment called Soundscape;
  5. it had free wine blending classes;
  6. it had free live music in the day and DJs at night;
  7. and generally created a great street festival atmosphere that all attendees seemed to be enjoying thoroughly.

All these things combined left me feeling very warm and friendly about the brand, with a positive sense of indebtedness—as if your friend had invited you around to their house for a dinner party. I shared the experience via social channels, as did many others, and I am not ashamed to admit it influenced the purchase of a few bottles since. And judging by the huge numbers in attendance one can only imagine a large amount of these people were influenced by the rule, too. When you get to attend a great experiential event, especially with the magical word “free”, you can’t help but feel some obligation to the brand and form a bias to them over their competitors.

How the rule can directly benefit your next experiential campaign:

  • Generate better brand loyalty
  • Improve amplification through media channels
  • Influence the future decision process
  • Encourage behavioural change
  • Get people to give you £5 (Only joking)

As we can see, the rule is hugely influential within experiential marketing, even if we are not always perhaps aware of it when creating and delivering activations and campaigns. Consequently, if you can take one thing from this blog post, it is to not just let things happen accidentally or by chance, but pay close attention to the rule in both the design and delivery phases and plan to influence by using the power of this persuasion technique.

These ideas have been borrowed from the pioneer in the science of persuasion, Robert Cialdini, and his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

Get involved by leaving a comment below, or by following me on Twitter. You can find me @eventpsychology.