A systematic study on the surface-enhanced Raman scattering (SERS) for 3,6-bi-2-pyridyl-1,2,4,5-tetrazine (bptz) adsorbed onto citrate-modified gold nanoparticles (cit-AuNps) was carried out based on electronic and vibrational spectroscopy and density functional methods. The citrate/bptz exchange was carefully controlled by the stepwise addition of bptz to the cit-AuNps, inducing flocculation and leading to the rise of a characteristic plasmon coupling band in the visible region. Such stepwise procedure led to a uniform decrease of the citrate SERS signals and to the rise of characteristic peaks of bptz, consistent with surface binding via the N heterocyclic atoms. In contrast, single addition of a large amount of bptz promoted complete aggregation of the nanoparticles, leading to a strong enhancement of the SERS signals. In this case, from the distinct Raman profiles involved, the formation of a new SERS environment became apparent, conjugating the influence of the local hot spots and charge-transfer (CT) effects. The most strongly enhanced vibrations belong to a1 and b2 representations, and were interpreted in terms of the electromagnetic and the CT mechanisms: the latter involving significant contribution of vibronic coupling in the system. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.