Activating the Law of Reciprocity in Social Media

Activating the Law of Reciprocity in Social Media

Activating the Law of Reciprocity in Social Media

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 recognise in order to be recognised. Reciprocity in these cases is a return–action of recognition to one who has generously acted to recognise 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.

How to Activate the Law of Reciprocity in Social Media

Don’t be gimmicky

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?

Gestures that invoke reciprocity

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.

Pelaprat and Brown write that social channels:

…offer an infrastructure where diverse, relatively public yet intimate, reciprocal exchanges are the dominant modes of interaction. Contributions, such as updating individual status, are invitations for others to contribute with updates of their own life, or even just clicking ‘like’. A ’status’ is an offer for others to respond, not simply an informational blip that you send out for others to receive. By writing on a friends [sic] ‘Facebook’ wall, a private message becomes a public action that can be seen and reciprocated. Indeed, writing on one’s wall in Facebook is not only information. It is a call for a response, i.e., a form of disclosing oneself that seeks reciprocity, in order to produce or reproduce social relationships.

Here are some common engagement gestures you can incorporate into your social media marketing strategy:

  • connecting, following or friending someone
  • subscribing to someone’s YouTube channel
  • tagging or @mentioning someone in a social post (when appropriate)
  • reacting (liking), commenting or sharing someone’s social post
  • reacting (liking) or commenting on someone’s comment
  • commenting on someone’s blog posts
  • sharing someone’s blog post
  • introducing two people who would benefit from knowing each other
  • providing a testimonial, skill endorsement or recommendation

Another important gesture you can make as a professional or brand is to share your best knowledge and solutions as content with your social media community. Such a gesture not only creates reciprocity but also establishes you as an authority on your topic, creates trust and keeps you top of mind with your target audience.

If you are concerned you will have nothing left to sell if you give away all your best secrets and tips, this is less of an issue than you think.

What you have to sell is your or your company’s expertise. Remember that most people fall into two categories:

  1. those who either want to do it themselves or lack the money to hire an expert
  2. those who lack the time or interest to do it themselves.

The people who fall into the first category would never pay for your product or service anyway, but if they know, like and trust you, they will share your information with their friends, family and community.

Those who fall into the second category either have or will find the money to pay for the services of an expert. And by providing your best knowledge, you establish yourself as that expert.

Do this consistently, and you will begin building relationships that will ultimately result in more sales and profits for your business.

Here are time-tested reciprocity principles, highly effective for prospecting on LinkedIn. Learn more about the psychology behind social media engagement.

Build strong (and profitable) relationships using the law of reciprocity in social media

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.



  • Great article as always Melonie, good Friday morning read which reminds you of the basic approach of give, listen and help first in Social Media.

  • Hi Juan, I’m glad you like the article. The power of reciprocity is so relevant with social media and you are right it applies to all platforms, I was just using Twitter and Facebook as examples. Thanks for mentioning LinkedIn, Google + and YouTube, I wouldn’t want people to think it didn’t apply to ALL social sites, because it certainly does. I was happy to provide your example in the article as you are someone who really gets this and does a great job at it. Keep up the great work!

  • Hi Melonie! I appreciate your article! I have known that social marketing is about relationships, but how? what? Obviously people also want to know what others have to say about you, but the creative juices just weren’t flowing!
    Thanks again!

    • Hi Belinda, thanks for your comment. I’m not sure if those were questions back to me, or just comments?

  • Thanks for your comment Vesna. I’m glad you found this blog post to be helpful and informative!

  • Melanie, thanks for the insight. You bring such clarity to a very talked about subject; but one that is not always understood.

    • Hey Darryl, I’m always happy to provide clarity! 🙂 There is so much information out there and much of it is confusing and overwhelming for people.

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  • Thank you for this list of ways we can practice the law of reciprocity in social media. Coming from 14 years in corporate my experience taught me to protect my knowledge & wisdom so that it wouldn’t get stole by others who would claim it as their own. I bet you will find corporate people scratching their heads asking “What? Give it all away?” Yep this social universe will reward you.

    Lisa Ann Landry.
    Social Media Marketing Trainer.
    Need a light? I’m an exuberant force of light…..let me light up your life!

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