By Steph Jones

Social Media Theory

August 1st, 2023
8 min read

Relatively speaking, social media is still a new field in the world of marketing. Because of this, there is still a limited amount of theory on the subject; in a more academic sense, at least.

Given the amount of time and resources the modern-day business is spending on platforms like Facebook, X, TikTok and LinkedIn, you’d expect them to be using some kind of social media marketing theory, to provide them with some direction.

Social media has developed so quickly, the theory has simply not been developed quickly enough.

We can, of course, scrape a lot of data from social media activity and we can analyse it all day long. It gives us some insight into how businesses might shape their strategy to maximise engagement but what about the human side of social media? After all, that’s what makes it so unique as a marketing tool. What about the more subjective elements? Arguably this kind of analysis is more valuable to marketers.

Social media theory

Note that in this piece, we’re not focussing on the theory of how and why humans use social media. There is a lot of material available that looks at why consumers have an addictive relationship with social media and the overall psychology of social media use. We’re going to focus on the business and marketing side.

This is a taster of some of the fundamental models.

The role of social media for business

Social media plays a major role in the scope of digital marketing. Digital marketing plays a more or less significant role in the overall marketing strategy depending on the nature of the business, its sector and its target audience. Over the years, there has been speculation as to which role social media marketing should play within a business’s outward-facing presence.

Certainly, social media has at time been seen as a tool to increase customer loyalty and increase repeat purchases through customer retention. But there are clear examples of when social media is used to generate brand awareness through viral content or paid advertising on Facebook, for example.

Not seeing the potential of social media as a sales tool or to reach new audiences overlooks three key features;

  1. great content with a viral nature, making the most of the algorithms,

  2. paid promotion, and

  3. active interaction and outreach.

As people’s relationship with social media has evolved, we’re increasingly seeing brands use social media to leverage the power of influencers and achieve or amplify PR coverage.

Social Media Algorithms

Algorithms are crucial in the functionality of social networks. There are few platforms that share unpromoted content completely indiscriminately – Twitter being the best example; posting every piece of content to your feed in chronological order.

Much like the Google search algorithm, social media algorithms are searching for content that is relevant to its users. Whilst Google attempts to match relevant content to the search intent of the user, platforms like Facebook are using personal data and behaviour patterns to determine what is relevant content.

Algorithms are at the heart of social networks because they help make the platforms as engaging and addictive to its users as possible. For businesses, leveraging these algorithms is how to generate maximum reach and influence. Facebook, in particular, minimises the organic reach of business page’s content, forcing them to pay for coverage.

We’ll never know exactly what the algorithms of social networks like Facebook are. They’re complex, dynamic, and it’s crucial that they’re kept secret (otherwise everyone would start gaming them and manipulate their content, rendering them useless). There are, however, ways we can get some insight into them and tips we can glean from it

Understand that social networks are trying to make their understanding as human as possible, which is great news for us because it gives us an insight into the algorithm – think logically about what content is relevant to you and why. Your human understanding is what these networks are trying to achieve.

Social media theory: content

Content forms the backbone of social media for commercial use. Having strong content contributes to many goals of social media marketing and is the key to leveraging those all-important algorithms.

Broadly speaking, social media content comprises of three different elements. Every piece of content shared on social media has a varying degree of self-promotion, value-adding, and interaction:

Self-promotion – something directly selling goods or promoting the brand to its audience

Value-adding – entertaining the audience in some way; creating a positive reaction

Interaction – aiming to make an actual two-way conversation with individuals online

The very fact that something is being posted to a social media site means these three factors will be at play.

We can, therefore, place any piece of social media content (anything posted on a social network) somewhere inside our social media content matrix. We explain it in more detail on that page, but here it is in its simplest form:

Taking the principles of this rather simple model, we explored how it could be derived to develop the social media theory still further. The derivation of this matrix forms what looks like a symmetric Venn diagram consisting of three overlapping circles. The content matrix is a simplified ‘Reuleaux triangle’, which is formed in the centre of the Venn diagram (an example of such a Venn diagram/Reuleaux triangle is seen below!). The circles represent value-adding, interactive and self-promotion and, therefore, show what kind of communication would fall outside the central social media content matrix.

Content targeting

Producing great content takes time, skill, and creativity. It’s not just about making an engaging infographic or enlightening 2000-word blog post, social media is incredibly noisy. The key to gaining traction is ensuring your content is accurately targeted.

This doesn’t just mean that your Facebook ad is targeted to a very specific audience (although that is part of it!), it means making the content absolutely perfect for a niche audience in the first place. The more your content resonates with a unique audience, the more likely it is to grab their attention and build a relationship.

Social media theory: strategy

We also developed a model for strategy creation. Confusion surrounds what a social media strategy looks like and how this differs from a general marketing strategy and how it differs from what we call ‘tactics’.

The model for social media strategy development is built on the three contributing factors; the social media goals, the brand and the audience.

There is, of course, a number of factors determining and ways of deriving all three of these component parts. The combination of the goals, brand and audience give rise to three other vital elements of an effective social media strategy; your ‘hit list’, what your value-adding content looks like and what your interaction strategy should be.

Social selling and interaction theory

Social media is such a unique marketing channel because of the transparent, two-way potential of interaction. Rather than broadcasting corporate messages, brands have the opportunity to engage consumers on an individual basis as well as generate leads in a very targeted fashion.

Using social listening tactics can help you to locate potential consumers online. Beyond the concept of listening, however, social platforms like Twitter and, increasingly, Instagram give us the opportunity to sell to consumers quite directly. Furthermore, LinkedIn lead generation is a powerful tactic in the B2B world and very much utilises social media to make sales.

Putting theory into practice

Putting all of this theory into practice is an entirely different challenge for marketers. How all this translates to the content and communication we see on Facebook, X, TikTok, Instagram, LinkedIn and more, is complex. That’s why a social media agency like us has a role to play in bringing everything to life for some brands.

Depending on your circumstance, outsourcing to an agency won’t be the best option. Learning more about social media through reputable sites and articles on our blog is a great start. Perhaps booking some training or consultancy is what you need to get you going. Either way, your learning and social media journey doesn’t stop here.

Steph Jones.
Steph Jones

Head of Social

A hands-on Head of Social, with extensive experience across Charity, Retail and eCommerce, both agency side and client side, with brands such as WWF, Virgin Pure and Purity Brewing. Steph considers all facets of the customer journey through social and paid media, as well as creating engaging content in line with the business goals to capture attention and convert audiences.