Norms of Reciprocity

Social Marketing Doesn’t Rely on Social Media

Do you believe human beings share certain fundamental traits that define “being human”?

If so, do you believe that human beings tend to behave in certain ways under certain circumstances?

If so, do you then believe since human behavior has these tendencies, it can often be predicted?

If so, then do you think perhaps the study of Psychology and Sociology might provide you some clues to creating successful businesses, campaigns, products, and services?  While your friends and competitors are all iterating their way into oblivion?

On the web, time and time again, we see the same themes repeating.  Yet with each introduction of a new technology, these themes tend to be treated like a new discovery, even though the theme has been well established in the past.

Norms of Reciprocity is a constant human theme.  You may know the expression of these norms as “Sharing”.  Web old timers will probably recognize this idea as “Give, then Take” from the I-Sales discussion list as early as 1995.  In various forms, this theme goes back to the beginning of human history, all the way back to the handshake and other greeting gestures.  This same theme is embedded in countless Religions all over the world: “Do onto others as you would wish them do onto you”.  At least a couple centuries old, this idea.

Norms of Reciprocity simply means this: When you do something nice for a human being, help them in some way, this human tends to feel Gratitude towards “the doer” and tends to do something nice back.  Gratitude drives the desire to Reciprocate, because it’s just what humans do, it’s normal, a “norm”.

Norms of Reciprocity.

The Gratitude cycle doesn’t depend on what the technology is, or if there is any at all.  If anything, technology simply extends the number of humans you can engage in reciprocal behavior with.

I first heard of this theme back in the 1970’s related to the CB radio communities, and it existed before that in ham radio.  Since then, we have been through Compuserve Forums in the 80’s, message boards as early as 1985 with The Well, then e-mail discussion groups, to hybrids like Yahoo Groups, and on into Social Media. 

And in every case, the same rules of successful interaction within these communities always applied, even though the technology was different.  No matter what communications technology the “community” uses, humans find a way to organize it with certain rules. 

And the primary driver of these rules is always Norms of Reciprocity.  Give, then Take.  The rules of successfully participating in any of these communities have not changed at all.

In fact, these reciprocity norms define the meaning of “community”.  If a “Give, then Take” attitude is not present in a message to the community, then what you have is a message called Advertising.

Advertising has no “Give”, only “Take”.

What does all this have to do with Marketing?

In mass Advertising, it’s extremely difficult to measure the effects of a campaign at the level of Individuals.  You can measure the effects on an Audience as a whole, but not on Individuals.

But when you can measure the impact on Individuals, as you can in many forms of Direct Marketing and on much of online Advertising, now you have the ability to step through a doorway and take advantage of human behavior, including Norms of Reciprocity.

And I think this is where people are getting stuck, including the proponents of everything Social. 

These folks are trying to use Audience measurement models to define the success of (Social) Campaigns targeted to Individuals.   “Social Media” is an oxymoron; it can’t be Social and Media at the same time.

The bottom line is, if you are going to embrace a two-way Social model in Marketing, you must measure the success of this effort differently.  Impressions, reach, size of audience, none of that matters in a model where Relationships – driven by Reciprocity – are the goal.

The above metrics are one-way, broadcast advertising measures.  If “Social” or “Relationships” are to be Marketing models, what’s needed is a way to measure a 2-way exchange, a Relationship.  If it’s the Relationship that’s important, why would you use a “media metric” to measure success?  What you need is a social metric.  A  measure rooted in Psychology, one that addresses Norms of Reciprocity directly.

The question you are trying to answer in Relationship Marketing is not “how many people did I Reach”?  “Influence” or any version of Reach is a crap metric in a Social model; it’s measurement for the sake of measurement.  If it’s Reach you are pegging to, then you’re not Social, you are Media, you are All Take.  There is no Exchange in Reach; Influence is a Social metric Paradox. 

There’s nothing wrong with being Reach-based entity, but just stop calling it Social.  You’re a broadcast tower, a magazine, a newspaper.  Un-Social; Media.  Personally, I don’t think it’s a very good business model, as I said several years ago, unless it goes hyper-vertical to provide context.  That means admitting the “Social as Media” business is much, much smaller than everyone thinks it is.

But let’s say you truly want to be a Social entity or use Social techniques to faciliate Marketing.  Then the real question you need to answer in this Relationship Marketing scenario is: What is the state of my Relationships – Growing, Strong, Weakening, or Failed? 


Because unless to can define “state”, your Social Marketing efforts are not actionable and you are simply Media.  What you need to know to make Social Marketing work is this: How likely are people to interact with me in the Future?  Because if you know the answer to that question, then you can take the appropriate action against a Growing, Strong, Weakening, or Failed prospect or customer state.

That’s a Relationship.  It’s about the future, not the past.  It’s about Norms of Reciprocity; what I do for or with you today defines what you are likely to do for or with me in the future.  The past is over with; the most important issue is this: where’s the Relationship going?

The question you need to answer in a Social Marketing scenario is not “did they interact with me”, because that’s in the past and there is no Social Power in the past.  The power of Social, the value of “Give, Then Take”, is in Tomorrow.  Right?  Potential Value.  How much Reciprocity have I earned, what is the Value of this Gratitude in the Future?

The power of Social is not in how many connections you have.

It’s understanding how to make important connections more valuable.

Fortunately, if you use metrics from Psychology rather than Media, the Value and State of your Relationships – Growing, Strong, Weakening, or Failed – are metrics that are not very difficult to measure (example).

Using these Values and understanding Reciprocity, you can then leverage Gratitude and create campaigns that not only Surprise and Delight customers but make a ton of money at the same time.

When you see how well that works, you will want to start segmenting by Relationship State instead of by demographics or other non-Social “Media Metrics” to increase profits by reducing Relationship Friction.

Once you start seeing the cause and effect of true Social or Relationship Marketing, you might even get good enough to see the value of correcting Relationship mistakes before they happen.

Social = Relationship, Relationship = Psychology, not Media.

If you want to do or be Social, then by all means, get on with it already.  There’s already a Model for all this as it applies to Marketing and this model drives profits.  The measurement of success in Social is not unknown and does not require continued mystical thought grazing.  It simply requires you to decide if you are in fact a Social entity and not in reality a Media outlet with fancy new clothes.

If you are starting up a Social entity, the phrase “Norms of Reciprocity” is your gateway to decades of research and testing on humans as Social animals.  This knowledge could save you years of iteration.

If you are already a functioning Social entity, stop gazing into that navel of yours and start publishing quantifiable Metrics from Psychology and Sociology, not Media.  You’ll soon find out whether that Social thing you are doing has Marketing value to anybody or not.

If you are a Marketer trying to leverage the Social in all of us to create and strengthen Relationships, stop looking at Social like Media and demand your vendors do the same.  

Then everybody can skip the million monkey iteration thing. 

Your thoughts on the above?


9 thoughts on “Norms of Reciprocity

  1. Ahh… the Jim Novo oevre applied to Social marketing. Very sharp. I wouldn’t have caught that oxymoron. Makes total sense with your follow up post included.

    Something like a social CRM, (or maybe SRM?), seems definitely on everyone’s mind these days. The question of integrating an individual’s social identities (e.g. their twitter, facebook, blog, etc. identities) with their traditional CRM identity pops up. If possible it would be the connection between traditional RM and this new SRM. Already, vendors such as Radian6 have messages out that read as if this was possible to do. It seems utopian though. Except in the niche case where the interaction happens on your company’s own domain or most contacts use some widget of yours on their blog, facebook, etc.

    I realize you didn’t ask this question. But without this integration it seems the future will have two contact databases running in parallel. Traditional and social RM would run separately from each other. The $ returns that came in from this new social RM effort would not be measured by matching back POS transactions to the “social RM system”. You’d probably have to do some kind of panel based measurement and estimation since control groups would be difficult.

    Agreed though that the forward looking value of the relationships would be much nicer estimated with your method.

    Thanks for another stimulating post.


  2. The statement
    “’how many people did I Reach’? is a crap metric”
    is a bit of an overstatement. In addition, broadcast media is not necessarily all about “take.” One can produce a blog with no feedback loop, effectivley exclusively “broadcasting”, but this broadcast may be all give and no take… or some blend of both advertising and valuable information.

  3. Akin – What’s difficult for me to understand is why people spend so much time “wondering” about SM. Any company with a call center has been capable of “listening” for decades, and if they were capable of listening or it made sense for their business model then they were already “listening” way before SM came around.

    And those that were had no problems measuring the impact. So why is there all this navel-gazing around SM? It’s not exotic or difficult to understand, except when you try to summon all kinds of “implications” that don’t really exist and can’t be measured because they don’t.

    SM just is what it is, and not any more. Communication. And we understand how to measure the effects of communication. If you take your SM more like PR, then measure it like PR. If you take your SM like TV, then measure it like TV. If you take your SM like e-mail, then measure it like e-mail. Or do all three.

    But if you’re going to define SM as something “new”, a 2-way exchange, then for crying out loud, measure it that way. We know how to do that too.

    The power of a relationship is the future benefit.

    Mark – I simply disagree, in the context of SM. Reach is obviously not a crap metric in TV. But if you want to measure SM like TV, then there’s nothing Social about it. There’s nothing “social” about a 1-way communication.

  4. Thoughtful post. (Thanks for the RT, JW).

    * We often use old paradigms to measure things that are new and different. Online audience measurement a la Media Metrix and NetRatings started out as attempts to duplicate what was being done on TV and in radio.
    * Things that we think of as new and different aren’t really new, they’ve just been renamed/rebranded. Communities were the social media of the ’90s. Everything is viral these days but it was often called guerilla or grass-roots marketing in the past.
    * There was so much hype around CRM but did most companies follow through on it? Some did, but I think most didn’t. The same may hold true for “social media”. Many will just use it as another marketing channel in the same way that they’re using email. If we can get past the hype and move beyond old measurement constructs then we’ll be able to leverage what we learn from customers. But this will only work if we’re sincere in our efforts and disciplined in following through.

  5. I concur with Derek, that what is new today is often a rebrand of yesterday. When it comes to CRM, and most marketing efforts in general, I see a great deal of urgency, that unfortunately does not lead to proper due dilligence.

    In short, we forget what we learned in Consumer Behavior. There are a great number of theories that have tremendous impact on day to day operations. The theory of cognitive dissonance, for example, can be put into practical use if a company has a CRM that can generate communications based upon time-driven events. The content of those communications needs to tied directly to the timing of the sale and delivery.

    What I am trying to say here is that Jim is spot on in recognizing that we can pull the theories of old out, dust them off and find new applications for them today and tomorrow.


  6. Thanks for the comment, Greg.

    That really is the point, isn’t it? The very best course most Marketers could ever take is Consumer Behavior, because you get into the guts of why people do the things they do.

    And it ends up these “theories” hold true even when channels and technology change – in some cases becoming even “more true” than ever before, largely because we can measure outcomes with more precision.

    It concerns me when many people in Marketing look at every new tactical execution as a brand new idea, when most of these ideas are already well known and simply using new channels or creatives. Knowledge is being lost in translation out there somewhere, perhaps due to the rise in “self-education” on the web. Or failure in the higher ed system?

  7. So WebsiteA that has 100,000 regular readers and 1000 forum users, has identical value to WebsiteB that has only 1000 regular readers and also 1000 forum users?

    I’d prefer to own WebsiteA, thank you! This is assuming, of course, that all other things are equal such as both websites forum users are equally active, etc.

    I agree that interactivity is an important metric and love your concept… but I think you’ve gone a bit far in your post. Reach IS metric that has value. Social Media is a combination of two words for a reason… there are two components of value, interactivity as you point out, and the reach or “media” component. And just because somebody isn’t interactive today, doesn’t mean they won’t become so in the future. Although it’s not a given, it’s likely that WebsiteA has a lot better chance of soliciting future interactions than WebsiteB.

    Your post seems like it uses hyperbole to make a valuable point… that the social aspect of social media is underated. But if you truly feel Reach and eyeballs have NO value… I’d suggest you go back and consider whether Youtube would have sold for what it did, if only the people that posted videos had watched them.

    I’ve read your blog for over a year. I guess I was worth nothing to you prior to becoming interactive with this post… :)

  8. Media is one-way, Social is two-way. Pick which one you want to be and measure it that way. There is nothing Social about Media. If Reach is important to you, you are Media, not Social.

    From a Social perspective, you are only worth something to me WHEN you post. The fact you have been reading for a year has no value, because I don’t sell advertising, because this blog is not Media, meaning I could care less about Reach. I want the right readers, not the most readers.

    So the answer is website B, because all is not equal – website A failed to connect with 90% of it’s visitors! If Website A is media, it’s (maybe) successful. If Website A is Social, it’s a failure.

    People say the Reach-based offline media biz is dying. So why would anyone hold up that business model as one to follow? Why would you want to Reach 100,000 people if 10% of them care enough to be Social?

    Media is Quantity. Social is Quality. Jamming the two together is a Paradox, which is why the advertising performance in Social Media is so terrible; that biz model was designed to fail from the beginning.

    Because “Social Media” makes no sense from a Marketing perspective!

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