Email Persuasion Series Part 1: The Rule of Reciprocation

By: Jack Reamer |
 April 13, 2015 |

Welcome to the “Influence Series” at

For the next 6 articles, we’ll break down Robert Cialdini’s landmark book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” and how you can use psychology to create more profitable email marketing campaign.

If you’re a marketer who has not yet read this book, buy it now. And if you’ve already read it, keep it on your desk and revisit it when you need some marketing inspiration.

We’ll cover emails’s 6 “weapons of influence” or the 6 psychological factors that will get your subscribers ready to buy what you’re selling:

  1. Reciprocation
  2. Commitment and Consistency
  3. Social Proof
  4. Liking
  5. Authority
  6. Scarcity

Email’s 1st Weapon of Influence: Reciprocation

The rule of reciprocity says that, “we should try to repay, in kind, what another person has provided us.”

Let’s take a look at 3 case studies to see how reciprocation works:

1) The Christmas Card Giver

A few years ago, a college professor sent Christmas cards to a sample of perfect strangers. He expected some reaction, but the response he received was “amazing.” Holiday cards addressed to him came pouring back from the people who had never met nor heard of him –  without even asking who this mystery card giver was.

Just receiving a Christmas card prompted hundreds of people to repay this mystery card giver by writing and sending a similar card.

2) Mexico’s $5,000 Relief Aid

In 1985, Mexico gave the impoverished people of Ethiopia $5,000 because the country’s economy was in shambles and it’s food supply had been ravaged by years of drought and internal war. People in Ethiopia were dying in flocks.

But the same year that Mexico sent the relief aid, the Ethiopians returned the favor and gave back $5,000 when Mexico was hit with an earthquake. The Ethiopian people could have used the money, but the rule of reciprocity inspired them to return every last dime.

3) Cornel University’s “Coke Experiment”

2 people are in a waiting room. One of them is the test subject, the other is an undercover researcher (who looked and acted like another test subject.)

In some cases, the undercover researcher left the waiting room for a couple minutes and retuned with two bottles of Coca-Cola saying, “I asked him [the experimenter] if I could get myself a Coke, and he said it was okay, so I bought one for you too.”

In other cases, the undercover researcher did not provide the test subject with a coke or any other favor.

Later on, the undercover researcher asked the test subject to do him a favor. He said he was selling raffle tickets at $0.25 a piece. And if he sold the most, he’d win a prize. “Any would help, the more the better.”

The people who were first offered a coke bought twice as many raffle tickets than those who did not receive a favor!

The bottom-line: We feel a need to repay other who help us with favors, gifts, invitations and the like.

How you can use Reciprocity to improve your email marketing

The key is to create a feeling of debt and to maintain that feeling of debt. – Dean Rieck

Give your email subscribers a free, ice-cold Coke!

In Cornell University’s “Coke experiment”, when the test subject received a coke, they bought more raffle tickets. Why? Because they felt like they “owed ’em something.”

The key here is the Coke was just a favor. It could have been a piece of chocolate, music to listen to or a Golden Retriever puppy. The point is, the test subject received something of value for free.

Luckily, it’s easy to give out “something of value for free” with email marketing.

When you send helpful emails that let your readers to get results, they will be grateful to you. (And the rule of reciprocity will start working in your favor.)

So the challenge is to focus on being genuinely useful to your email subscribers.

5 content ideas that will inject your email marketing with the rule of reciprocity

  1. Send a download link to a free report or ebook.
  2. Write an actionable how-to email that helps your readers solve a problem.
  3. Invite your readers to a webinar where you answer your subscribers questions live.
  4. Share a link to a podcast with a relevant industry leader that will benefit your email subscribers.
  5. Ask your email subscribers to about what they are struggling with and take time to reply with personalized, helpful tips

Warning: Avoid this mistake with the rule of Reciprocity

Don’t send a coupon or something that directly relates to a sale. Remember, this is a favor with no strings attached. And giving something away that asks for a sale (like a coupon or promotional code) get results, but it’s you won’t benefit from the rule of reciprocity.

Instead, try giving something away like great content first. Then, the next time you ask for your list to take action or buy, the rule of reciprocity will help you convert more customers.

Stay tuned for the next weapon of influence: Commitment and Consistency.