vaynerchukIn case you missed it, there was a feature story in the New York Times this week about Gary Vaynerchuk, our own poster boy for social media savvy and hustle. It was inspiring to see a self-made social media celebrity acknowledged through this major story but I also think there is an important lesson here about building power and influence on the web.

The article alternately wavered between characterizing Gary as a foul-mouthed marketing lightweight (“conventional wisdom framed as blazing insights”) to an inspirational savant (his clients include Pepsi and GE). But ultimately the writer gives him credit for creating the conversations, self-promotion, and ubiquity that has led to his meteoric success.

Whatever you think of Gary, the article is a validation that his path to power worked and the path was built with a strategy that is as old as business itself — the profound power of reciprocity.

Let’s take a look at this factor and explore the under-pinning of Gary’s success. The idea of reciprocity may seem familiar … but it takes on a whole new character on the Internet.

A profound power

In his books and speeches, Vaynerchuk emphasizes a simple formula: “give, give, give, give, then ask.” (Or his latest iteration: “jab, jab, jab, right hook.”) This is reciprocity in action — trading in on favors.

Gary’s signature move is constantly asking people through Twitter what he can do to help them  – and he has done some pretty crazy things. Sending a pie overnight. Shipping bottles of hot sauce to somebody who had run out. Delivering a person’s favorite hamburger just because they asked.

This might seem like a random way to run a media consulting business unless you understand the strong need we have to fulfill an obligation. Getting something seemingly for free has such an impact because we are psychologically obsessed to repay that favor, not on what we feel we SHOULD repay, but that we feel COMPELLED to repay.

Yes, some people may take advantage of Gary’s apparent generosity, but most of the time, the odds of reciprocity are in his favor because we become obligated to the future repayment of favors, gifts, invitations … and even tweets. So typical is it for indebtedness to accompany the receipt of such things that a term like “much obliged” has become a synonym for “thank you.”

The rule for reciprocity and the sense of obligation that goes with it is pervasive in human culture. It is so widespread that sociologists such as Alvin Gouldner reported that there is no human society that does not subscribe to the rule.

A backwards approach to selling

Another of the web’s great entrepreneurs, Michael A. Stelzner of Social Media Examiner, told me when I interviewed him for Return On Influence (which covers reciprocity and six other “weapons of influence”) that he came to a realization that his early career in sales and selling was all wrong.

“Long after I had cut my teeth in sales and marketing,” he said, “I discovered a better way to sell. I realized that if I simply did great things for other people, I didn’t really need to ask for their help. If I did for others precisely what I wanted them to do for me, I discovered that most people would respond and help me at an even greater level.

“My thinking was all backward,” he said. “Rather than looking for people who would bend to my will, I needed to bend my will to people. Instead of asking, ‘What have you done for me lately?’ I needed to ask myself, ‘What have I done for you lately?’

But here is the big difference between doing favors for people in real life and doing favors on the web. In real life, to do a favor, we generally have to “get our skin in the game”  – actively helping an unemployed friend, caring for a sick relative, recommending a colleague. But on the web, a favor is often just clicking a button. The effort behind the favor is almost nothing, yet the expectation of reciprocity stays the same!

A constant state of obligation

So, the expectations of reciprocity are amplified on the social web. There is a quid-pro-quo economy that drives a CONSTANT state of obligation. When you get down to it, you are creating authority that isn’t really earned — you are bargaining for it.

It’s not authority based on skill or how good you are at creating content, or the depth of your thinking — it’s an authority created by implied shame and guilt.

In the New York Times article, Vaynerchuk mentions that after doing a favor, he asks the person if he or she has ordered his book. How can you say no after getting a favor from The Man?

Put bluntly, Gary claims his strategy is to “guilt people into buying stuff.” Can that work as a long-term strategy? Is that building loyalty? A community? Is he building long-lasting relationships that lead to real business, or a house of cards built on stunts?

Gary’s brilliant move was to capitalize on the theater of his personality to build an agency, VaynerMedia, which already has nearly 300 employees. He no longer has to jab, jab, jab his way into fame and fortune because he has a team of talented people delivering creative paid media and social solutions. His new empire is no longer built by sending people hot sauce. It’s built on exceptional creative value and speed of execution as he pushes his team to react to micro-market opportunities for his clients. That’s smart. Really smart!

Is guilt the best strategy?

Gary found a way to monetize his short-term stunts and guilt trips by building something that can last. But sometimes breaking the cycle of reciprocity also has its place. Being selfless has a powerful multiplier effect on the social web because good deeds are not just experienced by the recipient, but potentially countless others who observe the act, or perhaps hear about it.

In the “real world,” selflessness creates legends. And legends wield tremendous influence. Legitimate influence.

Sometimes in business it makes sense to just give without asking, right? Is there room for that on the social web too?

Let’s hear your thoughts in the comment section …

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