A marketing lesson from Benjamin Franklin himself

A marketing lesson from Benjamin Franklin himself


Cognitive biases are sets of mind frames, contexts, and tendencies that impair our ability to draw logical conclusions. In this article you will learn about one particular bias: the Ben Franklin effect.

Have you heard of the book “You are not so smart”? Please don’t get offended by the title, it’s a truly great read. David McRaney, the author, takes you through a heap of your beliefs and… debunks them, one by one.

You Are Not So Smart – David McRaney
You Are Not So Smart
by David McRaney

It turns out that us human beings don’t think as independently as we’d like to assume. Our lives are ruled by cognitive biases – sets of frames, contexts, and tendencies that impair our ability to draw logical conclusions. I’m sure you’ve experienced some of them. Such as the “bandwagon effect” – you’ve wanted something badly just because a lot of other people did.

Today we’ll take a look at one particular bias, that has a lot to do with marketing. It’s called the Ben Franklin effect. In his autobiography, he wrote the following words:

He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.

Benjamin Franklin

Beautiful words, but what exactly does it mean?

Basically, if someone has done something nice for you before, the person is more likely to do it again. And, more surprisingly, if it was you who did the favor for the person first, they would actually be less likely to return that favor. What is the reason for that? Is it us being such a social species? Not necessarily. We assume that we would have helped the person we liked. But because our minds aren’t that good at separating causes and effects (actions from perceptions), we assume the opposite is also true: we should have liked the person we helped. And we should like that person even more than a person who has helped us.

Let me show you some tricky (or surprising) implications of that effect. If you think your mother-in-law is the worst nag, do something nice for her. You might just trick your mind into believing she’s not that bad and make those Thanksgiving dinners a bit easier on yourself. But what about marketing?

All this time, we’ve been fed the reciprocity principles: do something for your client, so in return, he’ll do something nice for you. We gave away cheese samples, offered free consultations, and built unpaid bonuses around our products and services. All great strategies, but it’s time to step up our game and use some Franklin wisdom to do it.

How do you get your (potential) client to first do something for you? As always, keep it simple — ask. Here are a few examples to get those brain cells of yours moving:

  • have your Facebook audience help you pick out your book cover
  • poll your Instagram followers on an outfit choice
  • interview your co-workers for pediatrician recommendations
  • ask your business partner to hold your briefcase while you’re getting coffee

The opposite effect also appears to be true. We tend to like the people we wronged a bit less. Perhaps it’s our effort to justify the wrongdoing. Nevertheless, keep that in mind before you work yourself up too much.

Did I inspire you? It just seems that there are no losers in this principle: everybody wins. So why not implement it today? Do you have any ideas already?

One more thing. Could you please click one of the share buttons below? You will like me even more 😉

Written by
Paul Skah