Activating the Law of Reciprocity in Social Media

By Melonie Dodaro

Has anyone ever returned a favor to you after you have you done something nice for them? This is known as the Law of Reciprocity, and it can be an incredibly powerful force in social media.

When people talk about reciprocity, they often discuss the human need (and tendency) to want to give something back when something is received. People feel a sense of obligation to do something for you when you’ve done something for them.

And while this is certainly a result of reciprocity, I want to share why the law of reciprocity in social media is so powerful.

In their journal article “Reciprocity: Understanding Online Social Relations,” authors Etienne Pelaprat and Barry Brown define reciprocity online as “a symbolic exchange, where the function of giving and reciprocating is not to benefit, but to recognize in order to be recognized. Reciprocity in these cases is a return–action of recognition to one who has generously acted to recognize us in the first place.”

They go on to say that “reciprocal recognition is the social mechanism by which we draw others into a social relation and are drawn into social relations by others.”

What they are essentially saying is that reciprocity is about our need to be seen and recognized by others (to feel important) and that through this action (recognizing and being recognized), we build relationships.

This is an important notion as the most successful B2B businesses today are those that focus their efforts on building real relationships with their leads, prospects and clients. They are building those relationships, whether they realize it or not, through reciprocity.

In this article, I show you how you can incorporate reciprocity into your digital strategy to effectively build more relationships on social media with your clients, prospects and community.

No gimmicks

Before I dive into how you can activate reciprocity, I need to clarify what it is not.

Reciprocity is not a marketing ploy, device or tactic. One of the biggest mistakes you or your business can make is to treat reciprocity like a marketing gimmick.

Reciprocity must be authentic and genuine to be effective. Remember that reciprocity is a gesture that expresses a desire to draw others into a social relationship. It is also worth noting that while you may make a gesture, those on the other side of that gesture have no obligation to either accept or reciprocate it.

Further, Pelaprat and Brown state that “it is the symbolic nature of the object gesture given and returned that is critical to forming social relations…” and that “…without this symbolic repetition — without the ability to demonstrate a desire to recognise the other and solicit it in return — the relationship can fade.”

That means every gesture of reciprocity you make must be not only genuine and appropriate but also repeated consistently in appropriate ways to build and maintain the relationship.

Listen and observe before you engage

To ensure you are gesturing appropriately to the community you wish to build a relationship with, it is important to first take the time to engage in social listening to get to know the people you want to connect with, to discover their challenges and desires, and to  understand the language – or gestures – they use.

If you engage in a manner different from theirs, they will at best overlook you and at worst actively ignore your overtures and potentially label you as a spammer.

Observe and learn how the community you wish to join engages with other members and the topics important to them. This will give you vital information on how to naturally have conversations with the members of that community to build relationships with them.

Be genuine and appropriate

I can’t stress strongly enough how important it is to be genuine in your engagement.

A lack of sincerity will be easily spotted. And the repercussions of being regarded as a phoney are long-lasting and potentially brand-killing. Social media users are tired of fraudulent accounts, inauthentic posts and the general lack of transparency, especially in influencer marketing.

And while a gesture might be genuine, you must also ensure it is appropriate — both for the situation as well as for the platform. Inappropriate gestures can be insensitive and disrespectful or annoying and forgettable.

When you make a gesture and engage with your community, say what you mean, and mean what you say. Start by asking yourself these questions. Is this gesture: genuine; appropriate; in resonance with the target audience; in alignment with my goals and brand values?

Online gestures of reciprocity can vary greatly, taking many forms. For example, you can engage with your customer’s posts or introduce them to someone they would benefit from meeting.

Reciprocity done properly is not a marketing gimmick or fad. It is an ongoing give-and-take conversation between you and your community. It allows you to build real relationships, based on mutual recognition of each other’s need to be seen and acknowledged — to feel important.

Most businesses either don’t understand reciprocity or treat it as a gimmick. This leaves a large gap that can be filled by businesses (and individuals) who know and understand how to activate the law of reciprocity with their online interactions to build powerful relationships, ultimately resulting in more sales and profit.

The law of reciprocity in social media comes down to three things: kindness, being a go-giver and building authentic relationships. Those three things are the cornerstone of an effective and successful business.

Melonie Dodaro is founder of Top Dog Social Media that helps brands and businesses, use social media marketing and social selling to boost visibility, attract new customers and increase revenue. Dodaro is also the author of ‘The LinkedIn Code’ and the recently-released ‘LinkedIn Unlocked’. To learn more visit

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