Theory and Application: Advancing the World of Marketing

Both academics and practitioners have long discussed the application of theory. The notion that there will always be a gap between practice and theory dates back to 1793 when Kant suggested in one of his early works that practical judgment by a practitioner is necessary in order to apply a particular theory. Knowing a theory and knowing how to properly apply a theory are two different concepts. The issues lie in transferring knowledge from academics to practitioners in a language they understand, and in a way that is relevant to them. Similarly, academics must see the real value of practitioners in the trenches, acquiring valuable insights into the applicability of an assortment of concepts and theory. Business has changed dramatically over the years, and it is imperative the disparity of theory and application be examined in order for business to harness the power of both for a substantial strategic advantage.

The Relationship Between Theory and Practice
The function of theory is to predict outcomes. Rotfeld (2014) suggests theory must explain existing data, make predictions, and must be falsifiable. The empirical value of a theory can be weighed by assessing if the theory helps in gaining new knowledge about a phenomena, or even helps in the discovery of new phenomena. Further, a theory might be evaluated based on if the theory demonstrates further applicability. Rotfeld (2014) suggests that practical use of a theory would be tied to its ability to predict an outcome in given conditions where there is a decision to be made and new data may not be readily available. Regardless of the impact a theory has made, how applicable it is remains to be of concern to many practitioners.

There is a disparity between practical implementation and research theory. Additionally, practitioners often misunderstand the meaning of many theories presented in academic journals, while also seeing little relevance to the real world of business (Rotfeld, 2014). However, theories are instrumental in guiding decisions by explaining and predicting. In business, theory can help direct decision-making much like it does in the academic realm. Practitioners that draw on their past experiences to make decisions, are in effect using theory. These decision makers are drawing upon conclusions they have made, and making predictions of outcomes. Theory also helps guide values and beliefs while helping practitioners and academics alike reframe their thinking. Conditions, domains, and contexts vary within business, and transferring theory from one context to another necessitates evidence that will still hold true for the newer context. Many ideas and theories within marketing practice are simply not generalizable. This is where we rely on academic research. For example, the copious amounts of data now available from the use of social media platforms will require relevant theories to help interpret this data for marketers. Additionally, appropriate theoretical models could be useful for making sense of the data (Pan & Crotts, 2012). However, the utility of theory for practice can only be assessed in regards to how well they predict and inform decision making if they are actually used and applied (Rotfeld, 2014).

Theories are critical to marketing practice
Practitioners need research for better decision- making, but also for superior understanding of context. Without theoretical context, data generated has very limited utility, or worse, could be considered meaningless (Rotfeld, 2014). Theoretical frameworks may help practitioners in that they can offer a global and abstract view (Pan & Crotts, 2012). Rotfeld (2014) points out those practitioners who do not value or ignore marketing theory development are simply seeking out research that matches a decision they are making rather than seeking out information, and then making a decision based on findings. It is possible to identify evidence applicable to almost any theory, but researchers and practitioners alike should seek evidence that is a compelling test of a theory rather than evidence that is consistent with a proposed theory. Traditional methods of research used in the applied setting are not appropriate to address significant practical issues and questions. This is when scientific and empirical approaches are needed. In order for marketing theory and education to influence practice, academics must ensure practice does not evolve faster than marketing discipline (Harrigan & Hulbert, 2011).

Practice enriches theory. Research initiated to solve practical problems can have immediate applications as well as inform further research. However, Gummesson (2014) believes theory in the social sciences does not take a holistic view and is somewhat fragmented. The author suggests case study research to tackle the complexities of marketing by building on solid empirical evidence and avoiding assumptions (Gummesson, 2014). Simplifying theory through assumptions makes theories become unrealistic, going directly against the pragmatic view of research. Researchers must combine theoretical, methodological, and analytical approaches (McFarland & Ployhart, 2015).

Often academia can look to practitioners for new an innovative ways of thinking that are on the cutting edge of the industry. Given the long process of formal publishing in academia (Pan & Crotts, 2012), some practitioners are able to use low cost of open source publishing to share pseudo-theories. Pseudo-theories are recent conceptual frameworks yet to be tested empirically and are generally proposed by non-academics (Pan & Crotts, 2012). These pseudo-theories can contribute to the understanding of a discipline much in the way a micro-theories or macro-theories can. However, any statement that cannot be tested by observation or experimentation cannot be considered a theory (Rotfeld, 2014). Additionally, practitioners face significant ethical implications in any true research endeavor; they rely on academia for empirical theory development and testing.

Theory and practice work together in a reciprocal and interdependent way

Advances in theory produce advances in practice. Likewise, advances in practice will initiate advances in theory. While theory guides research, it also has the ability to guide practitioners. Similarly, application can guide further research and has the ability to guide academics in their quest to finding suitable research ‘problems’ for empirical studies. Theory guides marketing practitioners and helps to generate knowledge. It helps to describe or explain the discipline of marketing, and importantly theory enables practitioners to know why they are doing what they are doing.

Marketing is based on theory; it is founded on theories of consumer behavior that are drawn from the social and behavioral sciences. Theories applicable to marketing are plentiful, but few are truly relevant to the distinctiveness of social media marketing. Many do not account for more modern social issues and unique situations, and thus may require a more refined approach. However, when considering the act of exchange is essential to the discipline of marketing, focus shifts to theory that can guide research surrounding such relationships taking place within a social media environment.

Theory vs Research: A Symbiotic Relationship for Digital Marketers Part 2

stock-624712_1280Please see part one of this post here. Then, resume part 2!

The Relationship Between Theory and Research
Science occurs in the context of discovery and/or testing (Strong, 1991). Ellis and Levy (2008) suggest a well-defined research problem is an essential starting point for effective research. A well articulated research problem will impact everything from the formulation of hypotheses, methodology, the literature review, and the conclusions. This research problem should integrate both concepts and theoretical perspectives of the existing literature (Ellis & Levy, 2008). Theory driven research allows for the researcher to gather interrelated concepts that will guide research, determining what things to measure, and what statistical relationships to look for. As we construct theory, we rely on research but we also use our own experiences (Gelso, 2006). Theoretical frameworks are important in that researcher must make an implicit framework more explicit in order to not undertake research with preconceived notions impacting processes, results, or even interpretations of findings.

Theory does play a pivotal role in research. Generally speaking, research contributes to theory in several ways: (a) creation of theory (b) validation of theory; (c) to refute a theory. Wacker (1999) believes there are two general objectives of research, theory building, and fact finding. The purpose of the research will dictate the research process and thus identify the undertaking as fact building or theory building. Fact finding research aims to gather facts obtained via precise and specific conditions, where as theory building research develops though an exiting body of knowledge. Fact finding research makes use of evidence to assess if a relationship exists. Theory building research uses the existing literature to define concepts, identify a domain, explain relationships, and then make predictions (Wacker, 1999).

  • Fact finding research plays an important role as it provides facts and empirical evidence that can later be integrated into theory. Additionally, fact-finding research allows for the investigation of new relationships as it is not limited by existing theory based relationships (Wacker, 1999). New theory development is made possible through fact finding research because this type of research discovers differences in data and explains that data. Theory building research, on the other hand, integrates similarities between studies.
  • Harlow (2009) suggests developing a theory involves some form of testing that theory, therefore theory development and testing are intertwined. Theories help researchers generate additional ideas and further scientific exploration and help to integrate constructs into a cohesive view that might otherwise bee seen as incongruent (Gelso, 2006). Harlow (2009) describes a circular process a researcher follows as theoretical ideas are tested against data, ideas are framed, and retests follow until conclusions can be considered trustworthy. The sciences would be a series of untested ideas and biased perspectives without any controlled empirical research (Gelso, 2006). Interestingly, Stam (2007) suggests that the frequent and methodical use of tests of statistical inference has actually impeded advances in (psychological) theory.
  • Gelso (2006) maintains theory and research go hand in hand and work in a symbiotic way. This cycle is on going, theories are being modified based on research, other theories emerge, new theories then guide additional research and are tested, and the cycle repeats (Gelso, 2006). However, not all researchers believe there is a link between research and theory. Gelso (2006) suggests there are some (within the field of psychotherapy research) who maintain that hypothesis-testing research has hindered discovery. However, Gelso (2006) points out theories help generate hypotheses to be tested. Thus, discovery oriented research uncovers relationships that in turn help form theory that can then be further investigated via testing. In fact, researchers use theories throughout the research process. For example, when coming up with ideas, generating hypotheses, and even interpreting the results a researcher uses theory as well as theoretical constructs. In the case of a failed hypotheses, this would prompt a researcher to revise a theory or mini-theory and thus alter hypotheses for further investigation. According to Popper (1957), a legitimate empirical test is designed to disprove theory.
  • Theory-building is paramount as it ensures a framework for analysis, assists in the development of the discipline, and is necessary in order to apply findings to real world problems (Wacker, 1999). Theory building research also helps find recurring themes across related fields thus increasing the theory’s importance and abstract level (Wacker, 1999). Theory building is very dependent on a comprehensive literature review within the research process. This process gives way to accepted definitions, domains of applicability, previously identified relationships, empirical test, and predictions. The literature search ensures all theory-building conditions are filled. Theory building involves defining variables for uniqueness, limiting the domain for generalizability, logically building relationships for internal consistency and abstractness, and giving specific predictions with empirical support for refutability (Wacker, 1999).

It should be noted that both qualitative and quantitative research contribute to theory. Corely and Gioia (2011) suggest that both types of research contribute to theory in terms of originality and utility. Quantitative research tends to offer more generalizability and greater predictability due to hypothesis testing. However, qualitative research is just as important to theory when trying to understand complex social situations (Gay & Weaver, 2011).

The Future for Digital and Social Media Marketing Research and Theory
Currently there are several social media platforms, and each application has its own characteristics that influence behavior. Smith, Fischer, and Yongjian (2012) undertook research surrounding Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube via content analysis. Interestingly, sentiment varied across social media sites suggesting each social media site fosters its own different characteristics. With social media evolving, there will likely be mini theories that are only applicable to certain settings and certain situations (McFarland & Ployhart, 2015).

It is clear that both theory and research are instrumental to the marketing discipline. Researchers must move beyond applying existing theories to the field of social media marketing. Consideration must be made to reflect on the uniqueness of social media as a communication channel. These distinct features should be used to help theory evolve in the context of social media marketing. The cycle of theory and research ensures the body of knowledge advances through testing, and discovery. With the relatively new field of social media marketing, addition empirical research is essential to establishing applicable theory, and building upon existing theory.

Stay tuned as we next explore the relationship between Theory vs Practice…

Theory vs Research: A Symbiotic Relationship for Digital Marketers Part 1

Research within the social sciences is driven by theory. Theory is a fundamental function of scholarly research in any discipline, providing guidance through the exploration of relationships and discovery. While there are conflicting views on theory, and an ever-present debate on theory versus practice, it is undeniable that the role theory plays in research is an essential one.

The Nature and Types of Theory
Differentiating between the formal definition and the informal idea of theory is paramount to any discussion surrounding theory. There are conflicting notions on what constitutes theory, leading to a lack of agreement on a specific definition for “theory” (Henderikus, 2007), a definitive assessment of its nature (Corley & Gioia, 2011), or a an absolute purpose of theory (Harlow, 2009; Southern & Devlin, 2010). Theory does not have a definition or meaning that transcends disciplines (Harlow, 2009). However, Stam (2010) suggests use of the term theory is relatively unlimited. The term is being used for different unknowns and is often used to formalize a ‘hunch’. Three interpretations of theory that have been significant in research are reductionism, instrumentalism, and realism (Stam, 2007).

According to Wacker (1999), academics typically view theory as including definitions of variables, a domain where the theory is applicable, the relationships between the variables, and specific predictions. It is important to note that theoretical definitions are not observable; they are conceptual in nature and can transcend measurement (Wacker, 1999). Wacker (1999) suggests the definition of theory is a statement of relationships that are observed or estimated; theory must include conceptual definitions, domain limitations, relationship building, and predictions. Gelso (2006) suggests theory to be a statement about the relationships under investigation between and among variables. With this perspective, then it is logical to say that there can be a theory behind all research.

While there are several definitions of theory among academics and practitioners, it appears there are many shared beliefs about theory. However, there are varying opinions on the exact nature of theory. Wacker (1999) suggests some academics and practitioners alike believe theory and its application are somewhat limited and therefore not useful in real-world settings in business. On the other hand, some feel that there is very little theory in academia. The literature suggests that theory may not necessarily require application. However, the true nature of theory depends on the definition of theory being considered, as well as what criteria is being used to identify a ‘good ‘ theory.

A “good theory”
Good theory must have a clear explanation of how and why particular relationships lead to specific actions. In order for a theory to be ‘good’ theory, it should be unique from other theories, it should be generalizable, it should be able to generate new models and hypotheses, it should be independent of time and space, it should be internally consistent, and have few assumptions. There seems to be no consensus among the various virtues of a good theory, but there is an agreement as to what they are (Wacker, 1999). According to Wacker (1999), good theory is dependent on uniqueness, parsimony, conservation, generalizability, fecundity, internal consistency, empirical riskiness, and abstraction. A superior theory is one that is more widely applied, predicts the most unlikely of events, and is one that can be integrated into several relationships into a larger theory. Theories can also vary from formal to the informal, informal theories being those that are not stated explicitly (Gelso, 2006). Gelso (2006) suggests mini-theories to be more useful than comprehensive theories that will likely never be disproved. These broad theories rarely generate new research testing their validity, and are therefore not exactly scientifically useful. These mini-theories may be part of a larger comprehensive theory, or they may stand on their own (Gelso, 2006).

Good theory meets all definitions of theory as well as the virtues of good theory (Wacker, 1999). Theories must be descriptive in that they fully describe the phenomena under investigation. A good theory can effectively explain causes, address why occurrences happen, and also place limits on what is being investigated (Gelso, 2006). However, simply because a theory meets the criteria of theory and has the virtues of good theory, it does not make the theory a valid one. There may be cases where a theory under investigation is actually incorrect. For a theory to be of value to the science of research, it should go as far as to address why variables are expected to relate to one another (Gelso, 2006).

Theory or Hypothesis – Theory is distinct from such terms as concept, proposition, or hypothesis. Bachman and Schutt (2007) suggest a concept to be a mental image of sorts that represents the observations. A proposition on the other hand, is a statement that expresses relationships between two or more concepts (Cozby, 2009). Gelso (2006) posits a hypothesis is a proposition that is stated in a specific way so that it can be tested empirically. Hypotheses stem from such propositions, which are drawn from theory; theories tie concepts together.

Theory and Social Media
Ngai, Tao, and Moon (2015) investigated the current research surrounding social media using the leading five academic databases. Forty-six articles were analyzed. The authors found several personal behavior theories, social behavior theories, and mass communications theories used in social media related research. Social exchange theory was utilized only twice for research investigating virtual communities, once by Blanchard (2008), and once by Lin, Hung, and Chen (2009). The author’s literature review found that many researchers have studied the causal relationships of various variables, social influence and social capital were the most common input variables. User intention and user behavior were the most common outcome variables. In regards to mediating variables, the choice of tool was found to be an important variable given it has a mediating effect on input and outcomes. Ngai et al. (2015) provide a collection of research and an assortment of authors that have published work related to the field of study. The literature review within the study gives insight as to how researchers adopted theory, used research constructs, and developed conceptual frameworks for their research.

A Gap in Knowledge- Very limited research exists surrounding social media given how large a role social networking sites play in today’s business world (Chen, 2013). Specifically there is limited research on social media platforms. Most related studies investigate only Facebook (McFarland & Ployhart, 2015), and not the many other platforms used by consumers such as Twitter, Pinterest, branded blogs and more. Thus, we encounter an incomplete understanding of social media without considering the other contexts, such as Twitter, that offer a different and dynamic experience.

There is an absence of theoretical and practical scientific research surrounding social media use within the business sector (McFarland & Ployhart, 2015). Kane, Alavi, Labianca, & Borgatti, (2014) suggest the very nature of social media makes it difficult to apply established theory. Theories originating in non-digital contexts may not truly capture the essence of social media and it is possible new theories need to be developed (McFarland & Ployhart, 2015). Theoretically, social media interactions are quite different from traditional face-to-face interactions while also varying from other types of digital communication such as email (McFarland & Ployhart, 2015). Thus, meanings from traditional theory may change when used in the context of social media. This may require new theories and frameworks to fully understand social media within this context. If scholars simply take existing theories that are more person centric, and apply it to social media, there is a chance that these theories will not address the very features of social media that make them unique in the first place.
Currently there are several social media platforms, and each application has its own characteristics that influence behavior. Smith, Fischer, and Yongjian (2012) undertook research surrounding Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube via content analysis. Interestingly, sentiment varied across social media sites suggesting each social media site fosters its own different characteristics. With social media evolving, there will likely be mini theories that are only applicable to certain settings and certain situations (McFarland & Ployhart, 2015).

Stay tuned for the remainder of this post, coming soon!
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