Nothing as pragmatic as a good theory

When I sat out to write “Social Media Marketing: Theories & Applications” the question I often got was how I could write a book about theories in social media marketing, implying that social media was brand new (at the time!), and that absolutely no theory could exist that could apply to such a disruptive development.

Of course, being critical when it comes to theory isn’t something that I only encountered as part of writing books. Often students, or even parents, ask quite rightly what they would learn when taking a university degree. And very often, they add: “In practice. Not just in theory.”

Such questions are interesting because they imply a disconnect between a theory – and something that can be used or is useful, in practice. The issue here is: many people, even if they have been to university, have a fundamentally wrong idea of what a theory is.

What is an actual Theory?

At least in an academic context, theories have to fulfil all these three criteria:

Firstly, they must be based on existing data. So someone has gone out and done lots of surveys about what people want to buy, written up volumes of case studies to compare them, talked to lots and lots of people about their motivations to do something – or analysed cash register records to figure out if advertising in a particular way influences sales….

Secondly, a theory must be able to predict, i.e. based on the theory, and you must be able to make some prediction of what will likely happen in future. Remember: it can’t just be a loose prediction; it’s a prediction based on the data from requirement one!

Thirdly, a theory must be falsifiable (and measurable). That means, it is continuously open to new developments, and future researchers can always falsify the theory. For example, when they find better explanations in future..

Theories are aggregated observations – like 100 case studies rolled into one!

So, what does that mean in relation to social media marketing? It implies that theories are basically aggregated observations, case studies and data from real life, that have informed and modelled in such a way that the theory can, from a completely practical perspective, be used to predict which behaviour is likely to follow. For example, based on a classic theory called the Persuasion Knowledge Model from the 1990s, we can predict how social media users will react towards seeing us advertise our products using social networks. We can predict that some will share the posts and augment our advertising. On the other hand, others will try to avoid the message. We can also predict who these people will be, … and much more.

You can guess what people will do. Or you can predict what people will do.

Being able to predict this all is immensely useful when planning a campaign. Not surprisingly, developing a campaign that is based on hundreds of studies that have validated the theory before, will always “know” more than someone who is trying to guess. Of course, the guesser may be lucky. But more often than not, the guesser probably isn’t. The same goes for someone who guessed once correctly and then applies that model over and over again. That person may be lucky next time around. Or maybe not. Whichever way, knowing what thousands of consumers did in similar circumstances is undoubtedly the most convincing way to take the guesswork out of the problem!

And if you know want to explore more about how classic marketing and communication theories can not only explain, but also predict what people do on social media – and how to engage potential customers there? I suggest you have a look at my book. New edition coming out soon!

Published by Dr Stephan Dahl

Stephan Dahl is Adjunct Associate Professor at James Cook University. His research interests include social media, marketing ethics and social marketing, and he has published in national and international journals, including the Journal of Advertising Research and Journal of Marketing Management. He is an editorial board member of the International Journal of Advertisingand the Journal of Consumer Affairs. He published the books Social Media Marketing: Theories of Digital Communications and Marketing Ethics & Society (both Sage) and is also the co-author of Social Marketing (Pearson) and Integrated Marketing Communications (Taylor and Francis).

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