The Persuasion Knowledge Model and the Effect of Reciprocation

Welcome to the second in a series of posts translating an academic article on marketing to something that the average human can use and apply. We call this "Hard Science in Laymen's Terms."

A stranger on the street offers you ten dollars. What’s your first thought?

For a 5-year-old, maybe it’s:

Ten dollars! Thanks!

For most adults it’s along the lines of:

What’s the catch?

At some point, we learned that strangers offering gifts often expect something in return. Maybe it’s something we don’t mind giving—a five-minute survey, for example. Or maybe it’s something we don’t want to give—our email address, our credit card, or thirty minutes to listen to a sales pitch.

The stranger handing out ten dollars knows that starting with a gift is more likely to grab our attention and make us feel compelled to listen; but we know that waiting behind that ten dollar bill is the second ask, the “reason” for the gift. These competing mindsets are the dueling dragons of “reciprocity” and “persuasion knowledge.” Studied together, they can tell us a lot about how businesses can work to gain customers’ favor, without igniting suspicion of a “catch.”

And not because we’re hiding the catch, but because there is no catch. But more about that later. First, let’s take a look at the social science behind reciprocity and persuasion knowledge.

What is Reciprocity?

Reciprocity is a fundamental social norm which dictates that people repay positive actions such as gifts, favors, or concessions (Gouldner 1960). Reciprocity is often exploited in marketing, from the flowers unexpectedly forced into the palms of potential donors by Hare Krishnas to enclosing a cash gift with surveys to boost response rates (Cialdini 1985).

What is Persuasion Knowledge?

Persuasion knowledge is the counterweight for our feelings of reciprocity. In short, it's our general awareness that other people will use tactics on us in order to persuade us, and that we need to be on the lookout for those tactics. In the academic article I’m “translating” in this post - “The Persuasion Knowledge Model: How People Cope with Persuasion Attempts,” Marian Friestad and Peter Wright argue that persuasion knowledge develops over time, as a resistance against those who use reciprocity as a sales tactic.

This article asserts that consumers aren’t wide-eyed tabula rasas, arriving at each new purchase opportunity with zero preconceived notions or inhibitions and evaluating each pitch as a brand new experience. Throughout life, humans develop and hone a culture-specific “Persuasion Knowledge.” This knowledge is an accumulated understanding of the various techniques used by salespeople along with a perception of how those techniques affect the consumer.

How Can Understanding Persuasion Knowledge Help Us Better Connect With Existing Customers?

In the famous 1994 article, Friestad and Wright outline persuasion knowledge from a consumer’s point of view. Recipients of advertising messaging, or “targets” use persuasion knowledge to evaluate messages from salespeople and marketers, or “agents.” Understanding where these evaluation resources originate and how they’re interpreted by consumers can help us relay the most effective messaging, without danger of the dreaded “change of meaning.” Change of meaning is the what’s the catch? moment—when a supposedly positive tactic begets a cynical response.

As marketers, it’s our job to keep the positive moments positive, an even more daunting task than it was when Friestand and Wright wrote their study. Twenty years later, consumers are all the more aware and all the more cynical about marketing messaging (Helm 2004) and Nielson reports demonstrate a decreasing trust in traditional advertising.

But the basic psychology behind persuasion knowledge remains the same. According to Friestand and Wright, persuasion knowledge:

  • Is variable, based on culture, current trends and changes throughout the consumer's life.
  • Is developed from personal experiences as well as anecdotes from others.
  • Is not just about the message, but is also about the target's interpretation of the message and WHY the message was chosen.
  • Is about CONTROLLING a situation, even if they’re aware that their knowledge of the topic area isn’t as thorough as the agent’s.

Retention marketing is all about establishing trusting relationships with our customers. We don’t want to manipulate; we want to establish a rapport based on respect. But thanks to growing consumer cynicism, even the most transparently developed reciprocity campaigns can be skewed by consumer perception.

How Can Businesses Offer Gifts Without Igniting the What’s the Catch? Response?

There are a number a ways to avoid this response. Let's visit a few of them.

Know Our Customers’ Response to Reciprocity Campaigns Before Widespread Launch

Different demographics can have completely opposite responses to the same exact messaging. Friestad and Wright explain that the more knowledgeable and mature your customer is, the more persuasion and coping ability she will have.

When we’re considering reciprocity-oriented campaigns, we think about our customer demographic’s traditional response to gift-giving. Are our target customers more likely to respond to emotional appeals, or be wary of them? Do they tend to tune out to “sales-y talk”? Will they see a gift and a later request for a “Facebook like” as a fair request or as manipulation?

If we’re not sure how they’ll respond, we can test them by sending the gift to a small percentage of our mailing list and gauge the response. Using A/B tests, we can evaluate gift-recipients’ likelihood to follow through with other desired actions, such as that Facebook like or website click-through.

Know How Our Competitors Are Using Reciprocity before Launch

Not just because we’re being compared to “the others guys” (though that is a component; we don’t want to give away $15 of free merchandise if they’re giving away $25 and a free snuggie!). But it’s also important to study our competitors because they may have already jaded our customers.

Remember - persuasion knowledge is not just about the message; it’s about the consumer’s interpretation of the message. If we’re offering our customers a free trial of a new product line, but our competitor already did this a few months back, and then continued to charge customers after the end of the free trial, our customer’s persuasion knowledge will be affected by this experience and may lower the effectiveness of our offer.

Give Like There Is No Catch

Because, ideally, there isn’t one.

Yes, a business needs sales to keep the lights on. But today’s consumers’ persuasion knowledge is too savvy to accept the ten dollars, and the strings attached, for long. Especially for retention marketers, when a long-lasting relationship with our customers is the goal, gifts should be given with hopes (and eventual numbers to back up those hopes), but without expectations for any individual customer.

And certainly without an unannounced billing of anyone’s credit card after the “free trial.” No consumer’s persuasion knowledge schema is okay with that surprise!