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3 ways the norm of reciprocity will impact your market research

The norm of reciprocity describes one of the most subtle effects to your market research efforts, and potentially one of the most impactful.

It describes how we experience both social and self pressure to respond to any action by making an equivalent gesture in return.

When someone does us a favor or gives us a gift, we feel obligated to return the favor or be kind in return. This is known as the positive norm of reciprocity. Not bad right?

The negative norm of reciprocity, however, occurs when we feel cheated or slighted; we are more likely to act indifferent or even hostile to that person (or organization) in the future.

It’s a straightforward concept with radical implications for business and market research.

The norm of reciprocity is often used in marketing by offering a small gift of some sort. The goal is to “produce a desire on the part of the recipient to reciprocate in some way, for example by purchasing a product, making a donation, or becoming more receptive to a line of argument.”(1)

The effects of reciprocity in market research, however, often manifest unintentionally. Understanding how this happens will allow you to leverage the opportunities and mitigate the risks.

Here are 3 big ways that reciprocity will impact your market research project

Response rates

Any recent interactions with you or your organization will trigger reciprocity. Response rates will be affected, particularly for surveys not directly related to the recent interaction.

Those with a recent positive experience will respond at a higher rate, happy to do you or your organization a favor. Conversely, those with a recent negative experience will respond at a lower rate. What interactions are you having with potential participants before you ask them to take part?

Some organizations have experimented with prepaid incentives, giving an incentive first and then requesting participation. This is specifically designed to trigger the positive norm of reciprocity. Some studies have shown this actually results in a higher boost to response rates over traditional promised or lottery incentives.(2)


Recent interactions not only affect whether people participate, but they impact how they participate. There are two common scenarios:

While recent negative interactions will often discourage participation, if participation is otherwise compelled with incentives or by making participation mandatory (for employees, group members etc), participants are more likely to respond in a way that is either skewed against your organization or in a random manner fueled with indifference. Both of these will obviously skew your data.

Many strong positive interactions will prime your respondents to provide opinions that favor you or your organization. They will even attempt to anticipate the responses you desire and strive to provide them. It is the market research equivalent of surrounding yourself with ‘yes’ people. Stating the importance of candid answers and not asking questions that lead towards a particular answer will help mitigate this effect.


When running a panel or other similar market research project, you can reduce churn and increase ongoing participation by intentionally creating positive interactions with your organization.

Small, simple gestures will--you guessed it--trigger the positive norm of reciprocity from participants.

Beyond the direct benefits of increased participation and reduced churn, positive gestures by participants can include word-of-mouth and other forms of evangelism, supporting other members of the group or panel, and giving you the benefit of the doubt when mistakes are made.

Conversely, treating your panel poorly will result in negative actions from participants. You can expect the multitude of ills that come with an apathetic group: increased attrition, lower participation, higher support requirements, etc.

responseSubtle understanding and application of the norm of reciprocity can make your market research easier, faster, and more accurate. How have you seen it impact your research?

(sources: 1 |  2

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