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Sometimes, the topics we cover are so powerful that I must begin with an ethical disclaimer. That’s right. It’s time for another discussion about Marketing Psychology. Today we will talk about reciprocity.
The principles of reciprocity are so powerful that people can use them for good or evil. Please, use these principles to make other people’s lives better. Reciprocity will help you sell more books, but it will also help you make the world a better place through your marketing.
What is reciprocity?
Most people have an innate sense of justice. If someone punches you in the face, something deep within you wants to punch them back. Likewise, if someone does you a kindness, something inside you wants to return that kindness to balance the scales.
The innate sense of reciprocity isn’t taught. My one-year-old son can’t talk yet, but he already has a sense of justice. If he sees his big sister doing something fun, he wants to do it too. Humans have an inborn desire for judicial balance.
When a person expresses gratitude with the words “much obliged,” they’re communicating the feeling of indebtedness. They owe you. According to anthropologists, the reciprocal exchange of favors and gifts is the foundation of all known human cultures.
To understand how you can use reciprocity to get strangers to want to buy your book, we will examine it from two perspectives. The first perspective comes from a biblical parable. The second comes from a famous scientific study.
In other words, this marketing technique is both cutting edge and ancient.
The Wiley Business Manager
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells a story about a business manager. (Listen to the podcast episode to hear Christy Hall of Fame author and audiobook narrator James L. Rubart read the story from the New Living Translation.)
“There was a certain rich man who had a manager handling his affairs. One day a report came that the manager was wasting his employer’s money. So the employer called him in and said, ‘What’s this I hear about you? Get your report in order, because you are going to be fired.’
“The manager thought to himself, ‘Now what? My boss has fired me. I don’t have the strength to dig ditches, and I’m too proud to beg. Ah, I know how to ensure that I’ll have plenty of friends who will give me a home when I am fired.’
“So he invited each person who owed money to his employer to come and discuss the situation. He asked the first one, ‘How much do you owe him?’ The man replied, ‘I owe him 800 gallons of olive oil.’ So the manager told him, ‘Take the bill and quickly change it to 400 gallons.’
“‘And how much do you owe my employer?’ he asked the next man. ‘I owe him 1,000 bushels of wheat,’ was the reply. ‘Here,’ the manager said, ‘take the bill and change it to 800 bushels.’
“The rich man had to admire the dishonest rascal for being so shrewd. And it is true that the children of this world are more shrewd in dealing with the world around them than are the children of the light.Luke 16:1-9
Here’s the lesson: Use your worldly resources to benefit others and make friends. Then, when your possessions are gone, they will welcome you to an eternal home.
Doing favors for your acquaintances makes them want to do favors for you.
But does it work on strangers?
Researchers conducted a famous scientific experiment to find out.
The Coca-Cola Test
In the experiment, researchers asked participants to evaluate works of art. As you might expect, art evaluation was not the point.
Researchers wanted to know how participants responded to “Joe,” the participant’s art-evaluation partner, who was actually working with the researchers. Joe and the participant would evaluate the art, and after a while, Joe would leave for a two-minute break and return with two Cokes.
He told the study participant, “They said I could buy a Coke during my break, so I bought you one too.” Then he offered the Coke to the study participant, and they always accepted.
At the end of the art evaluation, Joe would ask if the participant wanted to buy some raffle tickets. In nearly every instance, participants spent more on raffle tickets than Joe would have spent on the Coke.
Joe did not offer a Coke to the control group of participants, and that group bought far fewer raffle tickets from him. The number of tickets they did buy was closely linked to how much they liked Joe.
Participants who received a Coke bought a lot of raffle tickets even if they didn’t like Joe.
Even in versions of this experiment where participants overheard Joe being rude on the phone, participants still bought a lot of his raffle tickets if they first received a Coke. That is the power of reciprocity.
If you feel like people generally don’t like you, reciprocity can make them want to buy your book anyway.
Principle #1: Sow First
If you want someone to want to do something nice for you, like buy your book, you must first do something nice for them.
It’s important for the person to feel like you are giving them a gift, not preparing for an exchange.
When you buy a can of Coke from someone, you don’t feel indebted because you paid for it, and you’re already even. That’s why discounts don’t trigger reciprocity. If a Coke is normally $1.00, but you buy it on sale for 50% off, you don’t feel like you owe the store. You feel like you got a bargain.
Your readers must feel you have given them a valuable gift.
Buying your reader a Coke probably won’t do the trick. So, what should you give them instead?
It depends on your brand, your audience, and your book.
Here are some ideas to get your creative gift-giving gears turning.
Instead of making your website all about you, think of it as a gift for your readers. That change in thinking will transform your website into a place people want to visit and recommend to their friends.
If you need help transforming your website into a gift for your readers, I have a gift to help you! In my course, How to Build an Amazing Author Website, I will first walk you through the technical aspects of building a website yourself.
Then I’ll teach you about six kinds of visitors who will come to your website and how to thrill them. People look for different things when they visit an author’s website. If you can thrill those people in the way they prefer, you will have a powerful (and popular!) website.
The course is my gift to you.
Free Novella or Short Story
For fiction, the most obvious gift is a free novella. A novella can introduce readers to your writing, characters, and story world. If you write well, readers will want more, and they will be happy to pay for it.
Many readers are willing to exchange an email address for a free novella, but this exchange turns the novella into a reader magnet. It also makes it less of a gift since people have “paid” for it with their email addresses. But if you give them a stellar and lengthier story, it will feel more like a generous gift.
Don’t give away the first short story you ever wrote because it’s probably not stellar. Each time you write a short story, you improve your craft. The carpenter doesn’t just build the house. The house builds the carpenter.
Give away your best work. Hire a professional editor to polish it, and contract with a designer to create a great digital book cover. If your reader feels like you have given them a valuable gift, they will spread the word to other readers. Because of the power of reciprocity, readers will want to do something nice for you.
Authors who take our 5 Year Plan course are prepared to give away novellas because, throughout the course, they have written a lot of short stories. It takes practice to learn how to write a short story that readers will love. Practice improves your writing, and it is worth your investment of time and creativity. You’ll see the returns when you complete a fabulous novel.
For more on short stories, listen to the following episodes:
Authors can also bless their readers and trigger reciprocal feelings by writing a helpful email newsletter.
To trigger reciprocal feelings, you must write a helpful or entertaining newsletter. Your emails need to cover what your readers want to hear about. You’ll know you’ve sent a helpful email newsletter when subscribers reply to say thanks or forward it to their friends.
What do you write in an email newsletter?
Give your readers reviews on similar books. Book summaries and commentary can be particularly useful for nonfiction. As you read your competing books, write a review with your thoughts and comments. Readers are always looking for their next great read. Reviewing books in a genre they love is an opportunity to become a trusted source for recommendations.
If you don’t know where to start or what to include in your email newsletter, get to know your readers and ask what they want from you. If you still have a small list, call your subscribers on the phone or take them out for coffee. Get acquainted (and do something nice!) so you can thrill them with the content of your email newsletter.
For more, listen to Episode 57 – What to Include in an Author Newsletter.
We also have over a dozen other episodes on email newsletters here.
Helpful blog posts on your topic can be a great way to bless and thrill your readers. Writing blog posts can also help you hone your craft and message.
Blogs can contain the same kind of content you use in your email newsletter, but they have two advantages over email.
Blog posts can:
- appear in Google search results, making them permanently easy to find
- contain rich media like video and audio.
For many authors, the blog and the email are fairly similar. At Author Media, our weekly emails are a quick summary of that week’s blog post with a link where you can read the whole post. When each blog post is valuable, the emails also become valuable.
I’ve noticed that authors tend to work harder to create a helpful blog post because they know anyone on the internet can read it. We are used to dashing out a quick email, and it is easy to do the same with an email newsletter. Take the time to craft an email that summarizes the benefits readers will get from reading your blog post.
You can also create a feeling of reciprocity through a podcast. Readers engage with podcasts differently than they engage with emails and blog posts. While they tend to skim emails and articles, they listen to podcast episodes from start to finish. A podcast allows you to explore a topic thoroughly and potentially add value.
The downside is that podcasts are slow-growing. People don’t often talk about the podcasts they listen to, and podcast episodes don’t rank well on search engines.
However, blog posts do rank. Consider creating a blog post companion for each episode. Your weekly email can include a summary of the podcast and a link where readers can read or share the blog post.
If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because that’s what we do at Author Media. We use the same main piece of content as the basis for all three distribution channels: podcast, blog, and email newsletter.
The blog post must be more than a transcript of the episode, and the podcast must be more than me reading the text of the blog. In a blog post, you can include photos, videos, and visual aids. If your podcast, you can give deeper insights, provide more examples about your topic, or share relevant case studies and stories.
If you’re considering starting a podcast, the following episodes will be helpful:
In some ways, YouTube is a cross between blog posts and podcasts. People don’t watch videos as carefully as they listen to podcasts, but YouTube videos can rank in search results almost as well as blog posts.
The same principles apply to video. Provide value, and people will want to return the favor.
Adam Curry calls this “value for value,” and it makes the world go ’round.
Think Outside the Box
You could also bless your readers by hosting live events or offering live coaching sessions. The best ideas are formed where the reader’s desires and the author’s abilities intersect.
Get to know your readers, ask them lots of questions, and listen for ways you can make their lives better.
Principle #2: Reap Second
You will only reap a harvest from the gift-giving seeds you’ve sown if you ask. Yes, this means you must be willing to ask people to buy your book. It’s much easier to ask if you’ve already blessed the person with a gift. When a reader has enjoyed your blog posts for a while, they already know and like you. They may even trust you.
They might even be waiting for you to offer something they can buy.
That is what happened with my blog. I started blogging on my personal blog about dating and relationships. One of my posts went viral, and over a million people read it. Many readers commented, “Please write a book about this topic.”
I didn’t want to write a book about dating and courtship because it had nothing to do with my day job. I didn’t want to become the relationship advice guy. But I kept blogging about courtship, and the requests kept coming from friends, strangers, and even a Catholic priest.
So, I put the book on Kickstarter, and my blog readers spread the word. We raised over $10,000 to help produce the book. Many of the Kickstarter backers only knew me through my blog. They enjoyed the blog so much that they were willing to donate dozens and sometimes hundreds of dollars to fund it. My biggest backer, who donated over $2000, is someone I have never met.
Most of the book’s content was first published on my blog as free content. If I hadn’t sown the free-blog-posts seeds, these people wouldn’t have known me and therefore wouldn’t have funded the book. Giving away the free content helped my book sales.
Reciprocity is such a powerful force that people will be willing to pay for something they already have for free.
For more on the importance of asking, read the book Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success (Affiliate Link) by Adam Grant.
Principle #3: Don’t Be Manipulative
Reciprocity can turn into manipulation if you use it unethically. Avoid being manipulative by doing the following:
Give Readers What They Ask For
Reciprocity can and has been abused. Robert Cialdini points out a classic example of manipulation in his book Influence (Affiliate Link). Members of the Hare Krishna religion used to give people flowers they hadn’t asked for and then immediately ask that person for a donation in return. The Hare Krishnas raised millions of dollars that way, but it felt icky to most people.
It felt icky because the Hare Krishnas insisted on giving the flower, sometimes pinning the flower on someone’s suit without permission and refusing to take the flower back. Such manipulation is a high-pressure abuse of reciprocity. Just because it works doesn’t mean you should use it.
While you can’t force someone to read your blog or listen to your podcast, you can send them an email they didn’t ask for. No one likes a spammer. Just because they gave you their email in exchange for a novella doesn’t mean they want to receive your emails. Or maybe they wanted to get your emails at first, but now they have changed their minds.
Avoid being manipulative by making it very easy for readers to unsubscribe from your email newsletter.
Don’t Keep Score
Reciprocity is also abused when coupled with a “you owe me” attitude. Keeping track of who “owes” you a favor may work, but it is a miserable way to live. It doesn’t lead to a happy marriage, family, or friendship. Don’t maintain a tit-for-tat attitude with your readers. You’ll only become angry and repel your readers.
Instead, cultivate a generous spirit. Trust that what comes around goes around and that you’ll reap where you sow. Not every seed will bring forth fruit, but not every seed needs to bring forth fruit.
For example, the majority of our podcast listeners don’t support Novel Marketing on Patreon.
The few who do support us donate enough to keep the podcast on the air. The patrons provide enough for me to cover my podcasting expenses and bring home a little extra to provide for my family. I couldn’t support my family from Patreon alone, but it helps.
Some Novel Marketing listeners give back by telling fellow writers about the podcast. Others make an effort to use my affiliate links. Speaking of which…
If you are a generous writer, you don’t need to hide your affiliate links or trick people into using them. In fact, you can do just the opposite. Label affiliate links clearly, and people will seek them out. Using your affiliate link doesn’t cost your reader anything extra, and it’s a way they can thank you for doing the research and making good recommendations.
Most readers who download your free novella won’t go on to buy your book. Some will download it and never begin reading. Some will begin but won’t finish because they didn’t like it. And some people are welchers, looking to freeload on handouts and giving nothing in return.
If your writing is strong, people will read and enjoy your gift, and then they’ll want to pay to find out what happens next. Keeping score will just make you sad and resentful.
From one perspective, nothing in this episode is groundbreaking. I have been recommending all these tactics on the Novel Marketing podcast for years. But, changing how you think about your website or email newsletter can change everything. If you view them as blessings for your readers rather than marketing obligations, you will have loads of ideas about what you can give, and your readers will want to return the favor.
Instead of asking, “How can I get more readers?” ask, “How can I better bless the readers I already have?” Bless your readers, and the word will spread, and that will bring you more readers.
If you want to learn more about reciprocity, read:
- Influence (Affiliate Link) by Robert Cialdini
- Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success (Affiliate Link) by Adam Grant
You can also listen to my episode What Queen Esther Can Teach Authors About Platform Building.
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Well, maybe. When an acquaintance published a book some years ago, I used my influence to get some publicity for her. Now, I have published a book and she has shown no interest in it, not even to say, “congratulations.”