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What are you doing unto others? The importance of reciprocity on the social web.

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Guy Kawaskai is on record: He doesn’t care if your cat rolled over.

Catroll 1467

Kawasaki, an entrepreneur and aggressive Twitter user (so aggressive that he works with four ghost writers), cites the cat example often as a way to explain how he feels Twitter should and should not be used. It gets a big laugh from every assembled audience I’ve heard it delivered to, probably because it speaks directly to the bafflement many folks feel about the activity that takes place on social networks like Twitter and Facebook where millions of people share the mundane details of their day.

Twitter asks only one thing of its users: What are you doing?

There is, of course, a good share of the global population who simply doesn’t care what strangers are doing and are incredulous that anyone would.

Yet millions of users respond daily with details about how they’re commuting to work or making dinner or brushing their teeth. Some respond up to 20 times a day. (According to HubSpot 22 tweets per day might be optimal.) Some more.

Social media coach Leah Jones identifies these seemingly meaningless posts as phatic conversations -- small talk that keeps the door open for more conversation -- and argues compellingly that they possess value in part because they provide a bridge to subsequent, more meaningful exchanges.[1]

Not all tweets are mundane, of course: Twitter has been broadly recognized as a hub for distributing news and information in a hurry. Twitter’s VP of Operations, Santosh Jayaram, recently told c|net of being in Twitter’s San Francisco offices when engineers noticed that the word "earthquake" started trending upwards in the tweetstream. Several seconds later the building started to shake. “The earthquake had been in Morgan Hill, 60 miles south of San Francisco, and the tweets about the shaker reached the office faster than the seismic waves themselves.” [2]

Regardless of whether or not we understand why, many of us are drawn to social networks like Twitter and Facebook (full disclosure: I tweet as @suttonhoo); so many in fact that the predictable tide of online traffic patterns has undergone a profound behavioral shift that we’re still trying to map and measure.

According to Nielsen Netratings, “Americans have nearly tripled the amount of time they spend at social networking and blog sites ... from a year ago.  In August 2009, 17 percent of all time spent on the Internet was at social networking sites, up from 6 percent in August 2008. Tellingly, Jon Gibs, Nielsen’s VP of Media and Agency Insights, attributes a strong component of this growth to “the desire of online consumers to connect, communicate and share.” Not unexpectedly, advertising dollars on social network sites have climbed 118% during that same time frame.

Year-over-Year % Change in Online Ad Spend by Industry (U.S., August 2009)

Estimated Spend on Top Social Network Sites Year-over-Year Percent Growth
Industry Aug-08 Aug-09 On Social Network Sites* On All Sites
Entertainment $1,097,700 $10,012,800 812% 40%
Travel $473,700 $2,198,200 364% -11%
Business to Business $683,400 $1,941,700 184% -8%
Automotive $1,110,200 $3,085,800 178% -26%
Health $1,131,500 $2,754,900 143% 8%
Web Media $11,231,800 $26,855,700 139% 30%
Software $526,400 $1,202,500 128% -29%
Financial Services $3,233,900 $6,415,900 98% -10%
Public Services $6,836,500 $13,203,100 93% 13%
Telecommunications $12,449,500 $23,550,300 89% -1%
Consumer Goods $1,913,400 $3,349,200 75% 8%
Hardware & Electronics $654,000 $1,022,900 56% -47%
Retail Goods & Services $8,101,400 $12,556,800 55% -12%
Source: The Nielsen Company

*Estimated spend on social networking sites is based off of data for the top ad-supported member community sites ranked by unique visitors in August 2009. Read the full press release.

Won't you be my neighbor?
Research has revealed that our self-selected network neighborhoods have a particular potency, because site visitors are more likely to browse and comment on the content offerings of their known associates (friends, followers, contacts) than they are to browse other available content on the site. This activity has come to be known as “social browsing” [3]. We are also three to five times more likely to be influenced by individuals within our chosen network neighborhood than we are by folks who are simply like us demographically because they share our age or lifestyle. [4]

Anyone can set up an account on a social network: the real goal is to make the most of these powerful associations by developing a social graph that commands a meaningful following and deepens reciprocal relationships over time.

Your Social Graph
Simply stated, your social graph describes who you know and how you’re connected to them. This term has long been used in the offline world; online it’s grown to mean the aggregation of your activities and relationships across social network sites. It’s through your participation on social networks, whether personal or professional, that you convey your values, tell your story and build a network neighborhood.

Comment-flow-in-social-networks Illus: Greg Kolb, New maps of influence – 10 visualisations of the social graph

When you post photos to Flickr, tweets to Twitter, videos to YouTube, or links to your Facebook page you are making a contribution to your social graph and telling the world about what matters to you. But the act of posting doesn’t end with sharing content to your social streams or through your profile -- at least it shouldn’t.

When you indicate that you like a friend’s post on Facebook or use the @reply syntax on Twitter to have a conversation with another individual on the network, you’re still posting content and contributing to your social graph. You’re also giving something away: your opinion, your appreciation, your time.

Research suggests that these points of participation -- when you stray outside your stream and engage with others one-to-one to deepen online relationships -- may be one of the most important factors in developing an influential social graph. That is: In order to become an online personality that others look to for compelling content to act on and share with others, you also need to appreciate the content posted by others.

You need to share the love.

The Reciprocity Principle
Sociologists call it the reciprocity principle: The feeling of obligation that accompanies a favor, and the compulsion to repay that kindness with an act in kind. This compulsion to repay the debt is so pervasive among we humans that the sociologist Alvin Gouldner has concluded “there is no human society that does not subscribe to this rule.” [5] The rule of reciprocity is so powerful that individuals have been shown to reciprocate out of obligation even when they didn’t request the initial favor that was granted, or found the favor that was done for them to be undesirable.

BJ Fogg put the reciprocity principle to the test in his Stanford captology lab studies and concluded that human beings feel the same sense of obligation toward “helpful” computer systems that they do toward helpful people, and in return feel compelled, almost unfailingly, to “[repay the] favor the computer had done for them.” [6] In the exchange between the human and the computer, repayment generally translates to responding favorably to requests that are made of them. (This research may also explain why some highly usable websites can perform shockingly well: not only are barriers removed but assistance is offered by the user interface, and in exchange the user is more responsive to requests made of them. In short: they are more inclined to convert because of these combined factors.)

Social networks are fueled by countless acts of reciprocity -- you comment on my status and I'm prompted to visit your stream and gush over the adorable pictures of your children. My gushing is genuine but it was driven, at least in part, by my sense of obligation to return your kindness. This behavior is hardwired in human beings, but it’s utterly unfamiliar for a business to behave this way. For example, it would be highly inappropriate for an apparel brand to visit your stream and comment on the skirt you wore to your high school reunion. Or even worse: to recommend a more flattering one.

And this is where many brands working to establish a presence on the social web are falling down. No: they’re not trolling the networks and making inappropriate remarks to poorly dressed fans. But many are representing themselves in the social network space as a brand entity, rather than putting their people forward and bringing a human face to the exchange. In effect, they’re using social networks like the bullhorn of email marketing to convey broad messages, rather than lowering the pitch to the more conversational tone that dominates the networks, and engaging in one-on-one exchanges in the public sphere.

The kinds of exchanges that open the door for reciprocal actions are the ones that succeed in the social network space.

Tony Hsieh’s management of the Zappos Twitter stream is an excellent example of a brand with a human face. His twittering is pitch perfect, and even though his icon is the Zappo’s logo, his Twitter wallpaper background includes his photograph, so everyone can connect a flesh and blood person to the narrative that unfolds in his stream. He sprinkles business news with personal thoughts and encounters -- at this writing he’s just returned from Calgary where he met the Dalai Lama.

ZapposTwitter 1466

PacSun is an example of a retailer who has navigated the human facet of the social network space beautifully. Engaged across several different networks and attentive to the different kinds of individuals those networks attract, PacSun has introduced a simple but powerful convention into their tweeting. Staffers share responsibility for the stream and when a new staffer takes on her shift, she replaces the avatar of her predecessor with her own. Each avatar shares the same PacSun logo backdrop to identify the brand and establish continuity, but it also identifies the individual by name. The team reports that followers have their favorites and will inquire after staffers that they haven’t seen for a while.

PacsunTwitter 1464

So what's a brand to do?

Get real. As you build out the social graph for your business consider carefully how you’re representing your brand. Is yours a faceless robot like Amazon’s presence on Twitter, sharing links and information that are all about me me me? Or are you shaping out a more human representation for your brand, like PacSun’s healthy mix of marketing links along with the retweets and @replies that build relationships. Etsy and American Apparel also provide excellent examples of brands that participate like human beings.

Empower your people. The brands that thrive in the social network space are the ones that trust their employees to be brand ambassadors, speaking directly with customers to troubleshoot problems or share news and information about the merchandise assortment.

Draft a social media policy. A solid social media policy makes it clear to all employees what their responsibilities are when they’re participating in the online space -- whether on or off the clock. It sets boundaries about information and behaviors that should be kept under wrap, and provides them with permission to evangelize about the brand they care about.

Engage. When appropriate reply to customers who comment on your Facebook page and in your Twitter stream. Don’t be shy about replying to product reviews directly on the site when a customer raises an issue -- reviews are another form of social network and another point at which to engage with your customers. Seek out new followers who have an affinity for your brand but haven’t discovered you yet -- Leah Jones calls these people “comps” or “comparables” because they like things that are like you, but just don’t know about you yet. Whatever you do, don’t just blindly follow anyone -- that’s called spam. Have a reason for adding someone new, especially if you’re initiating the invitation.

Since e-commerce first came online in the mid-90s the rule of the game has been to attract visitors to your site and keep them there until they convert. Shopping cart abandonment has been a core metric for just that reason: because we’re concerned that once they’ve left we’ve lost them. But smart marketers have known for a long time what recent research has confirmed: Just because they’ve stepped away doesn’t mean they’ve forgotten us. If we manage the relationship right they’ll be back. Social networking provides one more tool to ensure that your brand and your offering are unforgettable.

Dayna Bateman is a Sr. Strategic Analyst for Fry, Inc.

[1] For more on phatic conversations and Twitter see Leah Jones' post: Pretty Hot and Tweeted.

[2] Twitter Search to dive deeper, rank results, Rafe Needleman, cnet, May 6, 2009

[3] Social Browsing on Flickr, Kristina Lerman and Laurie A. Jones, submitted to the International Conference on Weblogs and Social Media, 7 Dec 2006.

[4] Network-Based Marketing: Identifying Likely Adopters via Consumer Networks (PDF), Shawndra Hill, Foster Provost and Chris Volinsky, Statistical Science 2006, Vol. 21, No. 2, pp. 256–276

[5] Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert B. Cialdini, Collins 2007, p.18.

[6] Persuasive technology: using computers to change what we think and do, BJ Fogg, SF: Morgan Kaufmann 2003, p.109. Captology is used to mean "computers as persuasive technology."


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Thanks for the good/educational read. As I step in as the corporate liaison in world of social networking for my company I am finding fundamental information like yours to be very helpful in structuring my goals as a Web Marketing Director. I hope to utilize information saturated blogs such as yours so I can be effective at my job.
Thanks Again,

I think you nailed it, Paul -- empowering *all* employees to speak for the company is a frightening prospect for many brands, because historically the bullhorn has been tightly controlled.

that control stems in part from access to the mouthpiece -- it's never before been possible for everyone to have their say about anything in a space as public as the web. social media changes all that.

I recently met with an online retailer who, when asked who on his staff would have access to posting social content on their core domain, said "everyone." my jaw dropped because this approach is so rare, but I think he's heading in the right direction. Zappos promotes a similar philosophy by streaming their employee tweets prominently: http://twitter.zappos.com/employee_tweets (note how all Zappos employee avatars bear a Zappos badge.)

some organizations have shaped social media policies that 1) acknowledge the ubiquity of the social web and 2) underscore the responsibilities of the employee who chooses to post online -- with the expectation that their responsibility extends to their personal participation in social networks, in addition to activity that represents the brand. this first step exercise is a great way for businesses and brands to start the conversation about what social media means for them -- IBM provides a nice example: http://www.ibm.com/blogs/zz/en/guidelines.html

Interesting, thought provoking. The one point I feel gets overlooked often is this:

"The brands that thrive in the social network space are the ones that trust their employees to be brand ambassadors..."

I'm curious how others have handled scenarios where all Tweets and social media endeavors are routed through a handful of people versus empowering company-wide participation. The main deterrent to the latter, from my experience, is legal (or, "We can't fit a disclaimer into 140 characters!") - wondering if this is the case for other organizations.

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