DRTV and the “Rule of Reciprocation”

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Scott Ballew
Scott Ballew



rule-of-reciprocationNow more than ever before, advertisers need to give if they want to get. For years, savvy direct response TV (DRTV) marketers have used free gifts and giveaways to improve program response. They close the deal when the viewer is on the cusp.

Unfortunately, some marketers view this tried-and-true tactic as passé — a gimmick that cynical viewers won’t respond to. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, in a marketplace filled with parity products, advertising saturation and comparable pricing, premiums can provide a critical edge: With one included, the program pays out; Without one, it doesn’t.

Why is this? Some may cite greed as the explanation, but I believe the truth is much more complex.

There is a great deal of research available today about what’s known as the Rule of Reciprocation. It is a basic human behavior taught in every culture around the world. In its simplest form, this rule tells us that we are not to take without giving something back in return.

For example, according to Arizona State University Professor of Psychology Robert Cialdini, if a restaurant server brings you a check and does not include a candy on the check tray, you will tip the server whatever it is that you feel the server deserves. But if there's a mint on the tray, tips go up by more than 3 percent and two mints improve tips by 10 percent!

This experiment shows us there is something more to reciprocation — a powerful, learned behavior that compels recipients to give something back. It prompts them to respond in some way when they agree to accept something. And because of the rule of reciprocation, that simple gift to your customer can be leveraged to help drive a sale, which proves to be many times more valuable than the relatively small initial investment that premiums require.

The first step to capitalizing on the Rule of Reciprocation is to determine if a premium can be integrated effectively into a commercial. In some instances, it isn’t appropriate. For example:

You have a “hot” offer that will work on its own, you have a tight test budget and you want to wait until the test is effective before investing in a premium or no premium will work effectively with your particular offer. In addition, some offers involve legal and compliance issues that either prohibit gifts or set a limit on their values.

The majority of the time, however, a premium is a viable option. If it is, then here are three tips to increasing the efficacy of the Rule of Reciprocation:

  • Dovetail the premium/gift with the offer. If you’re advertising an upscale product, for instance, you don’t want to offer a seemingly cheap premium. More than that, you want it to feel organic in relation to the offer. If your DRTV spot is for a high-ticket piece of exercise equipment, then a top-tier exercise mat might be a complimentary item.
  • Position the premium as value-added. In other words, you want the commercial to create the perception that the item enhances the value of the advertised product or service. If you’re running a spot for a bicycle, the premium might be a chain-cleaning kit.
  • Make a convincing pitch for the premium. In other words, don’t treat the gift as an afterthought. I’ve seen spots where the premium offer is made in a hurried way at the end of the spot. Creatively, it seems like a crass come-on more suitable to a carnival barker than a brand-conscious advertiser. Make sure you allocate enough time in the spot for the premium pitch and that you treat it with the same respect as you do the advertised offer.

Following this advice is relatively easy and inexpensive, and it can create the type of viewer reciprocity that advertisers dream about — the type where they feel compelled to respond with a click or a call.

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