Science Makes it Better – Using the “Rule of Reciprocation” to improve your DRTV program

For years, savvy DRTV marketers have used free gifts and giveaways to improve program response. Premiums and gifts help facilitate the transaction – and have long been recognized as good ways of closing the sale or order.  In many cases (including many from my own personal experience), premiums have been what I call the “tie-breaking” element for a DRTV campaign: with one included, the program pays out. Without one, it doesn’t.

So, why is this? Many in the DRTV community may cite simple greed as the driver. Essentially, that consumers just want more before they’ll commit themselves to a sale, or provide their name and address for further follow up. But I believe the truth is likely much more complex.

There is a great deal of research now about what’s known as the Rule of Reciprocation. It is a basic human behavior, taught in every culture around the world. In its simplest form, this rule tells us that we are not to take, without giving something back in return. 

For example, according to Robert Cialdini, Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University, if a server brings you a check and does not include a candy on the check tray, you will tip the server whatever it is that you feel the server deserves. But if there's a mint on the tray, tips go up 3.3 percent.

This experiment show us that there is something more, a powerful, learned behavior that compels someone to give something back – to respond in some way – when they accept something. And because of the rule of reciprocation, that simple gift to your customer (such as a $1 deck of large-print playing cards) can be leveraged into a sale or learning many times more valuable than that small, initial investment.

Finally, one of the best learnings on the rule of reciprocation is that it is universal. There is no group or population where this behavior isn’t taught and heavily socially reinforced. There are simply no audience segments that can deny their own nature and turn off this response.

There are certainly cases where gifts or premiums may not be as viable or advised. But wherever possible and appropriate, a simple gift of some kind should at least be considered. Their use can help drive incremental performance and value for your DRTV campaigns.

Scott Ballew is a Management Supervisor at A. Eicoff & Co., one of North America's largest DRTV agencies.