How to make reciprocity work online: 14 surprising insights

Egor Driagin

(With the release of Cialdini’s new book Pre-suasion over the course of 8 part series I will do an in-depth exploration of each of his 7 (not 6!) principles and how best to sequence them)

Ever wondered why helping influencers on Twitter doesn’t create a relationship?

Tired of giving well researched content away without even getting a bunch of shares, not to say email addresses?

Baffled that free trials aren’t converting into paid subscribers?

You might be overlooking some important reasons that reciprocity may not work as well in an online world, as it does in an offline world.

I have been reading posts about reciprocity that make bold statements about how it works online, but they oversimplify. There have been countless times when I would never reciprocate anything back even though people’s content was outstanding.

It can’t be just as simple as give and take, can it?

So, I decided to do some research. I am not an anthropologist. I cannot give you a full explanation about what role reciprocity plays in our cyber lives. But, I have spent more than 50 hours reviewing existing research and examining whether that rule would work online. Here’s what I found.

I scoured through 20+ research papers so that you didn’t have to, here are the 14 most valuable insights.

Let’s start!

Understanding why reciprocity may not work online

Cialdini’s rule of reciprocity may not work for your online marketing. Here’s why:

People are less likely to respond in a click and whirr mode

People process information in two ways. One is when we rely on heuristics (mental shortcuts) to make our decisions (eg. a book has many positive reviews, so it must be a good one). The other is when we are more deliberate with our decisions (eg. reading through reviews, previewing table of contents). This concept is known as the elaboration likelihood model.

All 6 principles in Cialdini’s book “Influence” are based on the idea of a click and whirr response (the idea that we take shortcuts when making decisions).

This is an important point that many people have missed in suggesting that you can as effectively apply Cialdini’s principles of persuasion online.

Contrary to that belief existing findings suggests that we are more likely to take the long (deliberate) route if:

Exactly right. We can tick all these boxes for our cyber lives.

Yes, we do sometimes get bombarded with email and notifications, get distracted by our co-workers and relatives. That leaves us with less cognitive power. We also watch sales videos where our focus would shift back and forth from the content of the message to its source.

Most of the time, though, we consume content in privacy. We are able to control our environment (various distractions), what we read, and what topical websites we get it from. Across all generations, blog articles were found to be the most consumed type of content (according to research by Fractl and Buzzstream).

This means that when we are online instead of taking shortcuts, we are more likely to make deliberate decisions about who we reciprocate to.

To make the point clear, let’s consider a couple of examples.

In the book “Influence” Cialdini cites Dennis Regan’s study where a man called “Joe” managed to double his ticket sales by first making a little favor. Before making an offer to buy some tickets he (unexpectedly for the recipients) offered them a bottle of Coke. Feeling obliged they purchased. Well done Joe!

Sam Parr, founder of Hustle Con, repeated the same process. He negotiated a motorbike’s sales price down to 1800$ ($400 saving!) by gifting a $1.99 Coke before starting the negotiation. Here’s what the conversation went like in his own words:

But in the online world, even if you are genuinely trying to help someone, people’s thinking process might look like this:

Me: Wow, what a cool episode. I think that the host of this podcast might also like reading a blog post on a similar topic.

(8 hours go by since we are in different time zones)

Host: (opens the email) Who is he and why is he sending me this?

Host: (an hour goes by, gets some work done, opens the email again) So why did he send it? Is he trying to get something from me? Is it worth my time? Well, whatever, I have got some work to do.

Host: (closes the email, end of the conversation).

In our cyber lives we have more time to think about authenticity of other people’s motives (any reasons to doubt it have been shown to reduce the power of requests).

We have more control over what we devote our attention to and your “gift” might not get that attention. Even if it does, it might not even be considered a gift.

And the recipient may feel fine about not saying “thank you” or suggesting something back in return. Here’s one of the reasons why:

People are less likely to reciprocate when they can stay anonymous

In the book Cialdini tells us one of the reasons why we reciprocate is, “because there is a general distaste for those who take and make no effort to give in return, we will often go to great lengths to avoid being considered a moocher, ingrate, or freeloader.”

Well, when you are just an anonymous user – this won’t happen. For example, you can use Kaspersky online scanner, close it and no one would ever know if you complied with the author’s request to install an offline version of their software or not.

There is no one to apply that social pressure.

But research shows that social pressure matters a great deal. A field experiment (sample size of 180,000+ people) examined the impact of social pressure on people’s likelihood to vote. They found that a mail letter that applied the most social pressure resulted in the highest compliance rate. Here are the triggers that this mail letter included:

Those two triggers resulted in 8.1 percentage-point uplift (29.7% vs 37.8%). (Mailer that only included an identity appeal only resulted in 1.8 percentage points uplift).

The experiment above studied compliance, not reciprocity per se. Researchers did not give anything to people before making a request. So, unless you want to argue that citizens are by default in a reciprocal relationship with the government, we shall look for some further evidence.

Luckily, another study did focus on reciprocity:

(Adapted from Whatley et al, 1999, The Effect of a Favor on Public and Private Compliance: How Internalized is the Norm of Reciprocity?)

People who received a favor and were not required to put their name on the form were less likely to comply with a donation request.

In contrast to our offline lives, when we are online we can easily choose ignoring other people’s requests. Lack of social pressure means that our identities are not at risk. This is particularly true when…

The person you are making a request to is not dependent nor affected by you in any way

When we are interacting in the real world, we can see, in real time, how our actions affect others and how we are being affected by them. When we are online, these effects are not clear. In fact, many interactions we have online are one-off encounters where we are not trying to build long-term relationships. So, we might as well just ignore them.

That’s exactly what Neville (founder of Kopywriting Kourse) does. He clears his inbox from all these one-off shooters to leave space for those who have something important to say:

Neville is not the only one.

Research on social dilemmas shows evidence that this is a general human tendency. Studies show that one-shot encounters encourage selfish rather than cooperative responses. People who only expect a single, anonymous exchange with another person will tend to favor themselves rather than selecting mutually beneficial choices.


That’s why many people who really get a lot of value from the free version of your product would not share it. Unless they see their actions being interdependent with their ability to use it in the future (e.g. many start-ups would cease to exist unless early adopters spread the word), they are more likely to act selfishly.

Similarly, influencers you are trying to reach receive hundreds of similar random emails per day. Most of them are perceived as one-off shots. Unless there is an indication that you might have some business in the future, it’s better for that person to act selfishly and ignore you.

You’re expected to give stuff away. It’s not a favour.

In the book Pre-suasion Cialdini mentions that unexpected gifts are those that will most likely result in return favors. For what we are doing online (e.g. provide a free trial, write useful content, give an ebook away) we are expected to give these things away. Everyone is doing it and you’re no different. That’s why people don’t even perceive it as being a favour, but rather a given.

Perhaps, a free trial might have surprised me back in 1999.

Certainly not today.

There are people who won’t reciprocate anyway unless they see a benefit in doing so

Several papers including this one discuss that there are different ‘personality types’ or social value orientations as they call it. Your social value orientation determines the nature and likelihood of you reciprocating back to others. There are 3 of them:

So, assuming that people consistently belong to one type or another, not everyone will reciprocate regardless of what you have done to them. Individualists take into account only how potential cooperation might affect their own outcomes, so unless you provide them with a good reason to cooperate, it won’t happen. Studies supported the idea that individualists reciprocate less than prosocials.

Understanding why reciprocity will work online

But here’s why it will work (and what you can do to overcome the caveats above)

Many humans will reciprocate regardless

As Cialdini says in the book, “the rule for reciprocation is so deeply implanted in us by the process of socialization we all undergo [eg, we learn it from our parents.]”. With all of the studies above, researchers found that these factors reduced people’s tendency to reciprocate, but none of them found that it eliminated it completely.

It’s not just social pressure that forces us to reciprocate.

As researchers explain some people reciprocate because they have internalised reciprocity as a personal norm. It becomes a part of our moral values and thus failing to reciprocate might create feelings of guilt, even when no one pressures us to repay back.

For example, Mark Schaefer, author of Return on Influence, shares his experience of how he had been thanking everyone on Twitter for sharing his posts. His explanation of why he did this closely resonates the research described above. Him saying “Mom would be proud” clearly shows that this is something we learn from parents. He carried that value to his online communications, too.

We also want to reward and encourage good behavior of others.

Here’s a real-life example of a UserOnboard fan:

Finally, as we have already discussed, there are different personality types. Prosocial people will want to maximise outcomes both for you and themselves, striving for equal benefit for both parties.

One of the very smart people in our industry who I had the privilege to learn from has this quote in his signature:

Likely to be one of those types.

Finally, our tendency to think deliberately about who we reciprocate to does not result in us not reciprocating. It just means that we are less likely to be manipulated and more likely to respond to those who can provide real value.

How to maximise your chances of success?

With that in mind, let’s consider what you can do to overcome the caveats I have just described. We will go through each action tip by considering 3 main use cases for the rule of reciprocity: building relationships with people in our industry, content marketing and user onboarding.

You can provide meaningful gifts

In their books Pre-suasion and Yes! 50 Secrets from the Science of Persuasion, Cialdini and his colleagues mention meaningfulness (or significance) as a factor that increases your chances of making someone to reciprocate. I want to argue that in the online world meaningfulness is a core element, not an enhancer. Since we are more likely to be deliberate about who we reciprocate to, unless we see value in what has been provided to us, we are very unlikely to exchange anything with that person.

I interpret meaningful as something that helps us to make progress in our lives (this would particularly make sense for those familiar with Jobs-to-be-Done framework). Here’s how you could apply it.

Building relationships

When Sam Parr was starting out with Hustle Con, Neville Medhora, founder of Kopywriting Kourse, was on his target list of those he wanted to invite. From watching Bootstrap Live he knew that Neville loved Dave Matthews Band.

Guess what he did to build their relationship.

Yep, he sent Neville a DMB live DVD.

Here’s what Neville’s response was:

Content marketing

Going back to my definition of ‘meaningful’, Jobs-to-be-Done is the core research framework that helps us to understand people’s struggles. By knowing what our customers’ struggles are, we can write that thorough, actionable content that will help them to overcome those struggles.

Gregory Ciotti, content marketer at Help Scout, puts it this way: 

If someone implements your advice, they can’t help but form a connection with you.

Gregory Ciotti

Content Marketer at Help Scout

To give you an example of how jobs have been solved and what effect they produce, let’s consider Brian Dean’s work.

Many people creating content struggle to make their work visible. They struggle despite implementing the good ol’ advice of creating “great content”.

That’s exactly the struggle that Brian addresses in his link building article.

And here are the types of responses that Brian occasionally gets:

This shows the emotional connection that meaningful gifts like this create.


Similarly, SurveyGizmo provides an extra period of trial subscription without you asking them for it. I considered it as a meaningful favour because I wanted to carry on doing my research vs. having to ask them for extending my trial vs. having to build a business case for my management to approve that subscription.

Similarly, Basecamp’s whole onboarding process (or ‘lack’ of thereof) was a meaningful ‘gift’ for its users:

You can exceed expectations

As I have already mentioned, Cialdini’s research shows that unexpected gifts are more likely to make the other person to repay you back.

Building relationships

We have just seen Neville’s response to the DMD live DVD. The second reason why it worked is that it was unexpected, even more so because their relationship shifted from online to real life.

Content marketing

People expect you to produce content, but you can still go beyond their expectations by producing really great content.

For example, another type of comments Brian Dean gets look like these:

His content is so uncommonly actionable, detailed and well-designed that he continuously exceeds people’s expectations.


Similarly, the trial option offered by SurveyGizmo exceeded my expectations because it was not the standard for software industry.

Other SaaS companies like Slack design unusual user experiences, e.g. its slackbot setting you up, another addition to its slick onboarding experience.

You can break anonymity by showing your own face…

One study has shown that reversing anonymity increased compliance rates. A group of people was emailed to fill in a questionnaire. Some received an anonymous email, while others received an email with a sender’s picture. The latter were more likely to comply with the request (57.5% vs. 83.8%).  

Building relationships

This is exactly how Stephen Twomey increased his success rate with cold emails by more than 300%. He used that technique to get press coverage (social proof to boost your conversions!), backlinks from reputable publications as well as to connect with influencers in different industries.

He just added a picture at the bottom of the email. Here’s an example from one of the projects he worked on:

Result: For 50 emails that he sent without the picture he received 3 guest post requests. For 50 emails that he sent WITH the picture he received 13 requests (300%+ difference).

Content marketing

Many blogs still have faceless author contributions, even those in online marketing industry.

Obviously, being able to see the author’s face makes the connection more humane. Example from


For user onboarding, you can use tools like Intercom, so that people know who they interact with.

…and making them to show theirs

This is the most important part. As we have discussed, when our identities are not at risk we are less likely to comply.

Building relationships

The best strategy with cold email is being referred by someone. Not to sell something you want to sell, but being referred to help. In that case the person on the other end knows that you know their right email address and you are part of their in-group, meaning their identity is on the table.

Content marketing

With content you can use platforms such as Disqus. They keep trail of all the previous communications a person had. For example, when I click on Bryan Harris’s comment, I can see the past history of his communications. That means that when Bryan Harris leaves a comment on someone’s website, he does not just leave an opinion, he leaves his opinion.


For user onboarding use Intercom. It integrates with FullContact. FullContact uses a person’s email address to gather all the publically available information on that user. So, when chatting with someone you don’t talk with user #15345, but a real person. You have access to their job title, social profile, etc.

There is one caveat to Intercom. When I am chatting with someone from a support team, I don’t necessarily know if they know who I am.

But if you play it smart you can still build a very personal connection. For example, go above and beyond in your customer service by utilising the information that becomes available to you. Look at what they did here:

And help your customers when they need it. Here’s an example of me asking for extra access to Buzzsumo subscription. To do so I surely needed to disclose my personal circumstances, again putting my identity on the table.

More importantly, (although it’s harder and won’t be perfect) you can still apply social pressure and establish social norms online

For this to work you need to place yourself in a community. So that it’s not you reaching to someone as if you exist in a vacuum. Instead, it’s you reaching out to someone with both of you having a sense that you co-exist in the same community where rules are set and reinforced by the collective mind. Those rules govern who gets rewarded and who gets punished for their behavior.

Let’s consider some examples.

Building relationships

When David Garland, founder of The Rise To The Top, wanted to connect with Tim Ferriss, he did not just send him a bunch of cold emails. Instead, he used a combination of different mediums including Twitter, his personal blog (and email), making his attempts to connect more public.

Did Tim Ferriss start feeling guilty for not replying to any of those comments (consequently creating a sense of obligation)?

I don’t know, but as we have already discussed, publicity increases compliance. It might have had some effect when they connected via email. Ultimately result is all that matters. In David’s case Tim agreed to participate. Twice.

(we will cover other aspects of David’s strategy later).

Content marketing

For content marketing, social rewards can come in the form of likes and upvotes…

…or rankings:

Social costs can come in the form of being ‘excluded’ from a community for not contributing. For example, Moz excludes you from its ranking unless you have logged in the past 60 days.

It can also come in the form of not getting support from others when you need it. Here’s an example from

If building a community platform sounds too complicated, could you build an end of the year wall of fame for users who shared your content (and unexpectedly give them something as a gift)?

Surely you could. Just use Buzzsumo and you will quickly find everyone who shared your posts. It’s quick and easy.


Memrise, a language learning app, applies social pressures to user onboarding, too! They made me feel guilty for not catching up with my class.

They also push me forward by showing to me how I compare relative to my peers:

Even if your SaaS product does not have a community around it, can you assign people to demo classes and tell them that they are not catching up? You should test that!

You can encourage cooperative behavior by sending long-term signals

As we have already said, if people don’t know that achievement of their goals is interdependent on cooperation with you, the chances of them cooperating automatically go down.

To reverse that, you need to send signals that you are staying in the game for a long period of time.

Building relationships

With cold outreach, there are numerous things you can do.

#1. Be persistent.

David Garland from The Rise On The Top has not been just helping Tim Ferriss for a couple of months, but has been providing him with favours for a period of 2 (TWO!) years.

In his own words:

For the past two years I’d been building my platform, helping Tim out to the best of my ability in various small ways, including retweeting his content, writing about him on my blog, mentioning him on the show, reaching out occasionally with an idea, etc.

David Siteman Garland

Founder of The Rise to the Top

As you remember, persistence is what Neville Medhora (and many others) evaluate in you when you are sending them a message.

#2. Show your affiliation with people in that person’s in-group.

Sam Parr who I mentioned previously asked for an intro from his friend Joey Mucha to invite Rick Marini, founder of BranchOut, to his conference. In this particular case Sam was not really making any favors to Rick, he was approaching him with an offer.

BUT! With his follow-up email, Sam made Rick a favor (of some sort) by not being sales-y (many people are), but reaching out to him in a very personalized, caring way:

This made a good impression:

And Rick came to the conference.

I used the following template to reach out to people who I thought could benefit from my research skills:

Content marketing

With content, you can create interdependence by making it likely that people will want to ask you a question.

We have seen it done at GrowthHackers, Moz…

On a standard blog, it seems that by answering people’s comments you can foster reciprocation.

Here’s an example from Brian Dean’s blog:

See this “Added to my buffer” spin by Sam Oh? Nice and subtle use of the reciprocity rule. Obviously, I don’t know the full story, but he might not have shared it unless he needed to ask this question. Thinking of long-term effects I can see that Sam shared Brian’s content at least 13 times to his 7000+ Twitter audience (no causation suggested here, just an observation).

So, provide valuable, detailed advice and make sure people know that you will help them when they need it.


I don’t think this one applies to user onboarding well. You can’t frame it as, “Hey, I gave you access to a free trial, so, could, you, please, complete your profile and set up the integrations, so that you can see how valuable our product is and ultimately sign up?”.

“If you don’t do it now, I won’t give an extension in the future” (creating long-term interdependence).

Despite that, I have a great example for you (at the end of this article) of how one company used incentives and interdependencies to triple their trial-to-paying conversion rate.

You can show the sacrifices you make

Another factor that I did not see Cialdini mentioning in his book is “the degree of sacrifice experienced by the donor”. Researchers suggest that the more person thinks you have sacrificed something substantial to provide a gift, the more they will feel obliged to return something back. In my own interpretation it’s about communicating or showing how much effort you have put into something.

Building relationships

Here’s how I (unknowingly) used it to build relationships with people:

Not only is the fact that I read his book shows my degree of involvement with that person’s work, the rest of the email is a 1028 words “essay” where I provide a new perspective on what he has been working on. It might not always work, but in this particular context I genuinely thought that this type of detail would add a lot of value. In the end, we had a very meaningful exchange around this topic. Moreover, using skills I learnt from copywriting books I tried to make it as engaging as possible, so strike a balance.

Content marketing

When people publish content on their blogs, all they do is hit publish and hope others will appreciate it. However, readers don’t know how many hours you have spent and the number of late-nighters you had before hitting that blue WordPress button. Maybe you should be telling them. At least that’s what the research tells us.

A couple of days ago I saw this post trending at GrowthHackers. From the title I sensed that it’s another collection of random tips, but when I opened it the description below made all the difference.


This has also been successfully applied to user onboarding.

That person has gone at great lengths to explain what she did, what worked and what did not. She included screenshots. I could feel the “sacrifices” she made before getting back to me. This is when I thought that Mailchimp is not actually that bad. I am still feeling obliged to stay with them although I already got all my campaigns working in GetResponse.

Finally, you don’t need to put all your hopes into reciprocity

Many articles out there seem to suggest that you just publish good content, give a free trial to your customers and people will start giving back.

That’s ok, but gets you very little in the way of results.

Reciprocity works for building relationships. Reciprocity works for creating preferences for your product, not your competitor’s (at least one study suggests that).

It sometimes works to get people to enter email addresses into your sign up form.

And it rarely works to get them to enter their credit card details and click “pay”.

This is the key action you want people to take, not just share your content, not leave you comments on your blog, but pay for your product.

That’s where incentives are most powerful though. Give people a good reason why they should purchase your product or enter their email and they will be more likely to do so.

In fact, Optimizely generated more than £3 million in pipeline opportunities using incentives alone. They offered an Apple Watch to a targeted list of high end executives in exchange for a meeting and got an 8% agreement rate.

The rule of reciprocity is one of the many tools you can use and solely relying on it would be plain stupid.

Many big brands follow that strategy on their blogs though. Adidas is one of them:

In contrast, guys at SnackNation, a healthy snack delivery service, offer an incentive for you to join their subscriber list. Free, great content serves the role of establishing the relationship. A clear incentive serves the role of getting them the email addresses. Here’s an example from their wildly popular article, “121 Proven Employee Wellness Program Ideas For Your Office”.

Similarly, when David Garland offered Tim Ferriss to be interviewed on his show, he did not just assume that all their previous interactions would pay for themselves. Instead, he tied it in with an incentive. Tim Ferriss just launched The 4-Hour Body, making the show a perfect opportunity for him to spread the word.

This made it a no-brainer.

Finally, one SaaS company used interdependencies (as well as incentives and an element of gamification) to triple its trial-to-paying conversion rate.

Team at ProdPad, a project management software, cut its trial from 30 days to 14 to 7 days.

Once they cut it down to 7, they decided to allow flexible extension for every important step you complete.

Set up an integration? 2 extra free days. Added a mockup? Another 2 free days.

The reasoning behind it is obvious. The quicker you can get a trial user from “first touch” to “first value”, the more likely she is to become your happy, paying customer.

Instead of leaving it as a 30 day trial, hoping that users will have enough time to make the full use of their product, team at ProdPad set up an incentive-based system where every desirable step is rewarded with a trial extension. They even gamified it (notice the progress chart and green ticks)!

So, now when a user approaches a 30-day trial, she would not think, “I should start being nice to their team, so that they can extend my trial in case I am over the limit”, the user knows right from the start what the dependence is (between her actions and her ability to use the app).

Again, this shows that adding incentives to what you give away for free can substantially increase the power of your persuasion efforts. Tripling your trial to paying conversion rate is not bad at all.


Reciprocity is a powerful persuasion tool, but it comes with its caveats when applied online. Beware of the reasons why it is less likely to work and overcome these challenges with the techniques I described above.

Here’s a full summary for your reference:

Building relationships

Content marketing


Finally, remember that the rule of reciprocity is only one of the many techniques that you can use. For your visitors to progress through the final steps in your conversion funnel, it would be less risky for you to utilise incentives (eg. explain the clear benefits of giving an email address or subscribing for your product) than solely relying on reciprocity.

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