The Purpose Economy, Part 1: The Reciprocity Theory

Charlie Bit My Finger

Back in 2010, I left the movie business to work in digital and social media. I was fascinated by the accelerated growth of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, and how they were disrupting the content industry. In the movie business, reliable A-list talent weren’t driving people to the box office anymore. But, Charlie Bit My Finger was getting millions of views on YouTube. Seemingly overnight, what was once our audience had become the talent. They’d become the celebrities themselves. And so, as I made a career move into social media marketing, working with bloggers and vloggers and other content producers and startups like BuzzFeed – and working with brands like General Motors and Colgate Palmolive to make sense of it all – I became fascinated by human behavior online. And, I thought deeply about the core motivators that drive participation and action in social media and online.

Newton's Third Law_Ice Skaters

As I thought about these core motivators, I kept thinking back to Newton’s Third Law of of Physics, reflected here with two ice skaters. 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 relationship is mutually dependent, or, reciprocal. Similarly, reciprocity in social psychology refers to responding to a positive action with another positive action, or a hostile action with another hostile action.

This notion led me to a model I call 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.

Reciprocity Theory_Individual, Community

And, this is what makes social media so sticky: you get to define yourself and showcase yourself as an individual, while belonging to a bigger community. And, so long as you are contributing some definition of value to the community, you will earn an equal value in return. Like the ice skaters, the relationship is reciprocal.

Now, when I took a step back and looked at this model, a few things occurred to me. At the intersection of the individual and the community lies the individual’s purpose. It asks the question, what unique value can I, as an individual, contribute to the community – to the world?

Reciprocity Theory_Individual, Community, Purpose

It is also the basis for influence.

Reciprocity Theory_Individual, Community, Purpose, Influence

If you are truly contributing value to the community, you develop some level of influence on them. In marketing, we talk a lot about influencers. Not just how to engage them with your brand, but also how the brand itself can become one.

And, so I asked: where does a brand fit into this? How does a brand reach the individual – or the community of people?

If the brand interjects itself with traditional, antiquated 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 at the table in a new world where the individual wields more power than the brand? By becoming a valued member of the community as well. By being purpose-driven and enrolling customers into their community.

In this series on what I’m calling The Purpose Economy, we’re going to discuss why The Reciprocity Theory and being a purpose-driven brand is so essential. What are the fundamental shifts in our economy that make this community, purpose-driven approach so critical? And, how a brand can do it. How does a brand operationalize this – institutionalize this? We’ll do this in the following posts on Foundational Human Behavior, Technological Revolutions, Socio-Economic Evolutions, and Business Transformation.

Click here for the next post, where I discuss foundational human behavior.

The Purpose Economy, Part 2: Foundational Human Behavior.

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