In the earliest days of the internet, there was a wonderful air of generosity. If a woman in Des Moines had a problem with her computer, a stranger in New Jersey would be willing to take the time to explain the solution.

Spam and commercialism did their share to diminish this spirit of giving, but it didn’t go away altogether – it’s alive and well in social media. And it is one of the most powerful forces in influence.

Marcel Mauss was a sociologist whose 1923 book The Gift presented a wide range of thoughts about gifting and reciprocity. In the context of the primitive cultures Mauss observed, reciprocal gifting is a driving force in how people build relationships with one another.

There is a power in the giving of gifts, and, as Mauss wrote, “The unreciprocated gift still makes the person who has accepted it inferior, particularly when it has been accepted with no thought of returning it.”

The world of nonprofit fundraising has been leveraging reciprocity for some time. Whether it’s a Moonie pressing a flower into your hands at the airport, or Easter Seals sending you a solicitation accompanied by a sheet of gummed address labels, the gift significantly increases the chance that you will make a donation.

The immense power of the impulse to reciprocate was the subject of a 1971 study by Dennis T. Regan. In the experiment, subjects were ostensibly asked to participate in a study on aesthetics.

There were two main test conditions. In the first, a confederate of the experimenter joined the subject in the lab as they waited for the study to begin. The confederate then left the room and returned with two bottles of soda, giving one to the test participant, unsolicited.

In the second test condition, no gift was given. In both conditions, the confederate slipped a note to the subject, asking him to buy some raffle tickets. In cases where a soda was offered, the chance of a subject buying more than a single raffle ticket more than doubled.

We live in a world of reciprocity. As Robert Putnam says in Bowling Alone, this reciprocity is the touchstone of social capital. The notion of social capital is that there is value in social connections and the giving that occurs in those networks. This value permeates the fabric of society all around us.

As marketers, we can practice generosity within the communities we hope to influence. We shouldn’t act generous, though, with the goal of direct reciprocity, but rather to help create an environment of giving.

If people get the feeling that your generosity is tied directly to your need for marketing return, it will backfire. Instead, your generosity must be tied to your underlying principals.

People are constantly giving little gifts to one another. When someone clicks the “like” button or the “+1” Google Plus button, or retweets someone’s tweet, he’s giving a very small gift, as all of those little gestures help to show social proof and have potential additive benefit for search engine optimization.

In his 1979 classic Lewis Hyde explores the connection between creativity and the "gift economy"

Such gift giving isn’t necessarily completely altruistic – there might be a sense of, “Hey, I’m liking what you just said, so notice me back, okay?” – but for many people, this exchange is simply made with a sense of community and sharing.

But the truth is, when someone comments on my company’s blog or shares something we’ve posted with her friends, she is giving us a gift. The content building up on our pages increases our digital footprint with the search engines and, hopefully, helps to create a community in which others will want to participate.

That is our gift to the community. And when a gift has been given, there is a strong compulsion to reciprocate—in our community’s case, in the form of comments and sharing.

As a marketer, you might consider starting a random gift program—pulling up lists of the people who are interacting with your brand, selecting a few, and sending them each a gift. Don’t ask them to tweet about it or share with their friends – you don’t want the random gift to engender any sense of obligation.

Send along a nice handwritten (and friendly!) note. Just imagine being the person who receives a small crystal ornament from Steuben accompanied by a handwritten note from the head of marketing simply saying, “Thank you for your joining us in our online community – just wanted you to know how much it means to us.”

This excerpt, adapted for Sparksheet, is from Social Marketology: Improve Your Social Media Processes and Get Customers to Stay Forever by Ric Dragon. Copyright © 2012 by McGraw-Hill. Used by permission.

Related