Can surprising someone with a free gift increase your chances that they will do you a favour in return?
Leading social scientist Robert Cialdini lists “reciprocity” as one of his six key principles of influence, and whether it’s a Hare Krishna handing you a flower or a business offering you a free e-book to download, giving often leads to getting. It seems the obligation to return a favour or gift is hard wired, and as Cialdini writes “there is no human society that does not subscribe to this rule”.
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(The book is Influence, The Power of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini. Here’s a two minute clip of Cialdini talking about reciprocity.)
And so the behaviourist in me was pleased to receive a free bandanna along with my online shoe order recently.
CanTeen, the Australian not-for-profit organisation that supports young people with cancer, has partnered with StyleTread, an online shoe retailer, to distribute free bandannas. Here’s the flyer that came with my bandanna.
Rather than just a flyer asking me to donate, they went to the trouble of sending me something, so let’s look at three reasons why giving free stuff away can be a clever way to get people to do what you would like them to do – in this case, make a donation.
As described above, by giving me the free bandanna, CanTeen was going first. The ball was then in my court, and it’s hard (though not impossible) to not do a kindness in turn, and our desire to relieve the sense of indebtedness is such that we are more prone to take action to square the ledger.
But you have to be careful here, particularly if you want to establish a long-term relationship because getting someone to take action on the basis they feel they have to rather than want to can create resentment – I didn’t ask for the bandanna and might resent the position I’ve been put in, for example.
Paying for the guilt to go away can be a once-off rather than the start of something ongoing unless you’re careful, so make sure you hook your recipient with reasons beyond a sense of obligation.
2. Endowment effect
Rather than the promise of a free bandanna, CanTeen actually shipped the bandanna to me, going out of their way to get it into my hands*. Why? Doesn’t it cost them money? Sure, but they also know that once I’ve taken ownership of the bandanna I will imbue it with personal value. It’s now ‘my bandanna’.
This is the endowment effect – our tendency to value something simply because we feel like we own it. For example, participants in a study were randomly either given a mug and asked how much they would sell it for, or not given a mug and asked how much they would spend to buy one. Turns out that those who ‘owned’ the mug valued it at $5.78 and those who didn’t, only $2.21.
(Read about both studies and lot more on the Endowment Effect in this PDF chapter by Kahneman, Knetsch and Thaler.)
Another study gave participants the:
- choice of either a mug or bar of chocolate
- a mug which they could then swap for a bar of chocolate or
- a bar of chocolate they could swap for a mug
In this case, those who were offered the chance to swap from mug to chocolate, or from chocolate to mug refused around 90% of the time. Once we ‘own it’ we are loath to give it up. No wonder car salespeople are keen to get us behind the wheel!
I’m sure part of the attraction for CanTeen was partnering with a retailer who had a distribution system in place, but another benefit was linking the donation to a purchase. Just spent $150 on shoes? Then a $20 donation seems a relatively small act.
There are two main takeaways from CanTeen’s bandanna approach:
1. The closer you can get to your prospective customer the better – make their experience a tangible one because once they start to take ownership, you’ve made a real connection upon which you can establish a relationship, and
2. reciprocity works but you need to walk a fine line. If people feel there are strings attached and they have to do something, they’ll likely baulk. But do it well so that they want to repay your kindness, then you are likely to win their patronage.
*Word of warning, it is an offence under Consumer Law to send unsolicited goods and demand payment. CanTeen was in no way demanding payment for the bandanna, it was inviting me to find out more and make a donation.
Bri Williams runs People Patterns, a consultancy specialising in the application of behavioural economics to everyday business issues.