Persuasion design: principle of reciprocation

May Marketing Madness Usability Week, Post #23

By, Todd Follansbee President, Web Marketing Resources

As persuasion designers, we recognize that one of the most powerful principles is reciprocation. Research shows that every society in the world subscribes to the rule that we are more likely to comply with someone who has done us a favor. Proper use of this principle on the web has increased compliance by 300%.

Enhance Perceived Value!

Every business offers free subscriptions, discounts, and trials so how do I make mine effective/stand out? A key piece to successful implementation of the reciprocation principle is this: the higher the perceived value of the gift, the greater the feeling of obligation. Frame your offer to enhance the perceived value to the recipient. Focus on what's in it for them. For example, instead of a free subscription, offer a subscription worth X dollars that will save them money and make life better because of XYZ. A free trial is good, but a free trial of software that will help them work smarter, valued at $175, is better. I'm not suggesting that you mislead people with arbitrary values, but rather that you substantiate your claims to improve credibility.

The 1st Goal of Persuasion Design = Engagement

You must first engage your visitors to influence behavior, and a valuable offer can engage visitors. It is important to be able to measure the impact of a "gift". Recognize that a sale (other than an impulse sale) usually requires several visits and occasionally the approval of others. One of Clicktale's greatest strengths is its ability to help me observe sequential visits by the same person. I can track and observe:

  • How the gift affects visitor behavior
  • If visitors are searching the site and, if so, what for? (Visitor Recordings show how they use site search and FAQs)
  • What visitors are looking for on the return visit and if they are finding it easily (see Click Heatmaps and Visitor Recordings)
  • If there are common issues among their return visits that reveal site shortcomings?
  • How I can revise the information architecture to improve the user experience and better achieve my goals?

It's OK to Ask

When she next gets an ice cream cone, guess who'll get a bite?

Don't hesitate to ask for something in return once your visitors have accepted the gift. Even asking for the relatively small action of "liking" your gift via social media has a surprisingly high value to you. The powerful persuasion principles of commitment and social proof start here. I encourage you to look for a way to reward and affirm this act. To maximize "liking" results, review the recordings to ensure that the "liking" widget is positioned properly (try placing several on the page). Use "event tracking" and segmentation to track and review the "attention" behaviors both for the individuals and groups that accepted downloads. Your first goal may simply be to gather contact information and permission to market to them. Whatever your goal may be, if they accept your valued gift, ask for something and track it.

Ways to Use the Reciprocation Principle On Your Website

  • Provide research or analytical tools, then ask for permission to email related offers or information. When I spot a persuasion or UX (User eXperience) issue on a prominent site, I often present the issue to the site owner along with a solution. If you can find ways to present your product or service in a helpful way, you'll be surprised how often they return the favor.
  • Reach out to a well-known resource by Tweeting or Blogging positively about them, and then suggest they share your message.
  • Work the forums with helpful answers, which include your contact information; track your results here to avoid wasting time.
  • Deliver even small gifts is a sample chapter from a book, a regular newsletter or just useful information - you may expect something from your customers in return.

Measure the Impact of Each Gift

You may discover that offering something other than a virtual gift, such as a hard cover book or a T-shirt can bring a significant ROI. With the abundance of "virtual gifts", you may stand out by offering something "real'. Whatever your gift, virtual or real, track the results and watch visitor behaviors. Start modestly if you are spending real dollars. Hopefully you'll begin to see a gift that generates a positive ROI and then it's time to invest more. Good Luck. :-)


  • Can you pass this short quiz on being Persuasive? Learn more about persuasive design.
  • Learn from expert led on-demand video training. Classes run several hours, include exercises and direct access to professors at the Online User eXperience Institute .
  • Try The Dudley Tool to review and grade your site. It reveals problems and offers solutions for new and existing sites under $30.
  • Any time you can give a visitor something of value, your chances of converting them to a customer increase. In one study on the sale of raffle tickets, people who received a can of Coke, without obligation, bought twice as many raffle tickets as those who did not. (Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 7:627-639 - 1971 D. T. Regan)
  • Read Yes! By Noah Goldstein, Robert B. Cialdini Ph.D., and Steve J. Martin.

This post is one out of Clicktale's month long May Marketing Madness series. Each of our daily posts will highlight and explain today's best practices, useful tips and smart tools to measure and improve your online business performance. This week's theme is usability. Make sure to stay tuned in for more!

About the Author

Mr. Follansbee's sales and marketing career spans over 30 years. He is currently the usability and conversion columnist for the nationally known eNewsletter "Web Marketing Today", which reaches over 140,000 web-marketing professionals every week. Mr. Follansbee focuses on persuasive architecture and usability testing. His approach combines usability, psychology and a thorough understanding of web marketing strategies and the web sales experience to build a clear and compelling online presence to improve site results. For much more about Mr. Follansbee and his work, have a look at Web Marketing Resources.

Talk to us to explore how customer experience analytics can improve your business