Social Media and the Reciprocity Theory

rec.i.proc.i.ty / [res-uh-pros-i-tee] / n.

mutual dependence, action or influence


Newton’s Third Law of Physics
I constantly contextualize and visualize information; it makes digesting that information easier.  Thus, I often think of social media in the context of Newton’s Third Law of Physics (for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction).  And, I refer back to this image of two ice skaters pushing against each other.

So long as the force that each skater is acting upon the other is equal, they maintain a balanced relationship. But, as soon as the force of one exceeds the other, the relationship is thrown off balance.  In other words, the skaters’ relationship is mutually dependent, or, reciprocal.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the core motivators that drive participation and action in social media. What is influence, really, and why the desire to become an influencer? What drives a piece of information or content (the two being synonymous on the social web) to go viral? And, how can a brand leverage social media to reach its audience and see a real ROI?

This notion of social reciprocity has struck a cord with me, leading to the development of what I call the Reciprocity Theory.

The Reciprocity Theory

At its core, the Reciprocity Theory believes that social motivation is based on each person’s desire to

  1. be recognized as an individual, and
  2. belong to a community

It’s the yin and yang of the social being. Why do we join a social network like Facebook or Foursquare? To be part of a community – even if that community is just connecting online with your offline friends.  Why do we share content on Twitter and YouTube?  To share in common interests and knowledge. Of course, as I was thinking about this, I had to visualize it, so I drew a venn diagram:

Taking a step back, I immediately thought: here’s the root of influence – at the intersection between the individual and the community. Influence is earned by being a valued member of the community. And, how does one become a valued member of the community? I backed into this answer…

The Valued Community Member
In their study “Content- What Drives Consumption?”, AOL concluded that audiences want valued original content. And, the equation for valued original content is:

Unique Content + Quality (trusted, fresh, relevant, authentic) Content = Valued Original Content

Thus, in order to be recognized as a valued community member, an individual must produce or curate valued original content. Provide value to the community, and your influence will grow. It’s reciprocal.

And, here lies the essence of the Reciprocity Theory. Whatever you give to a community, you earn in return.  It’s reciprocal and, potentially, infinite – as long as you continue to provide value to the community. So, the reciprocity venn diagram became an infinity loop of sorts.

Simple enough, right?

But, what about brands?
Looking back at the reciprocity venn diagram, another thought occurred to me: where does a brand fit into this? How does a brand reach their target audience?  If a brand interjects itself with traditional, antiquated messaging and advertising, then it will throw off the balance and the individual and community will retract. The individual and the community will continue their relationship, but the brand won’t be a part of it.

So, how can a brand earn a seat in the conversation in a world where the individual wields more power than the brand? The brand must do exactly that: earn it – by respecting the relationship and becoming a valued community member.

In my next post, I’ll be discussing how a brand can become a valued community member and start to see a real ROI for its participation. If you’re interested, please follow me on Twitter for updates.



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