How Prototype Theory Influences A Social Media Strategy

Social media experts, typically self-appointed, trumpet their belief that social media marketing (SMM) “throws out the rules” and is a “game-changer.”

However, the extent to which SMM can change the rules depends very much on how thoughtful its practitioners are, and how well they understand the connection between the various ways people associate things and ideas, even at a neurological level. One scientific approach involves mastery of a new approach to linguistics, called Prototype Theory.

Prototype Theory: The Basics

The generally accepted thesis about how we put things in category buckets and how we decide whether some object falls into a specific category involves a yes/no examination of characteristic attributes of the thing being described.

For example, we would identify some big animal as a cow by evaluating whether it meets the criteria that defines a cow, like “four legged,” “has hooves,” “does not have feathers,” “has a second stomach,” etc.

In recent years, this method of categorization has been criticized by philosophers on several technical grounds. Although several alternatives are now vying for primacy, a leading contender for a revised approach to categorization is Prototype Theory. In its simplest form, PT is a system of graded categorization that evaluates how well a given term coheres with a term under review.

Less rigidly logical than Aristotelian categorization, PT admits to regional and cultural variation and remains more sensitive to how functional synonyms affect how people associate different concepts.

For example, a sweetened carbonated beverage is called soda, pop or a coke, depending on the speaker’s region, and use of a regional term outside of the region can lead to delayed recognition of what that sweet, fizzy beverage may be.

True to its name, PT emphasizes a “prototype,” or a method of identifying the typical members of a category based on the most frequently associated terms associated with it.

For example, for the category of “domicile,” prototypical terms may include house, apartment, or condo – but other terms that lack prototype status may include houseboat, castle and thatch-roofed hovel.

Response Times, Priming & Exemplars

Because some members of a category enjoy a special privilege over others – just as more people think of house instead of houseboat as a leading example of a domicile – prototype theory carries several important implications, most significantly delineated by Eleanor Rosch, in her 1975 paper, Cognitive Representation of Semantic Categories.

  • Response Times
  • Research conducted by Rosch and her colleagues revealed that prototypical terms are more quickly associated with a category than a non-prototypical term. Consider a game of Pictionary, for example. If the key word is “furniture,” a person will draw a table or a chair to prompt the right word – instead of drawing a “lesser known” piece of furniture, like chaise or an armoire.

  • Priming
  • When comparing two potentially equivalent terms, people can more quickly identify if the terms are the same if the test subject is “primed” with a higher-ranking category. For example, if a person is given the category of fish, a person will more quickly identify the equivalence of trout=trout than microwave=microwave.

  • Exemplars
  • Rosch found that when a person is asked to identify a few exemplars of a particular category, common items – the prototypical ones – occurred most frequently.

Prototype Theory & The Pepsi Paradox

So what’s the point of prototype theory? Why does an intellectual approach to classifying and associating things and ideas matter? For an answer, ask the folks at Pepsi.

Remember the Pepsi Challenge of the 1970s? Pepsi sponsored blind taste-tests between Pepsi and Coke, and then trumpeted the fact that more Americans preferred Pepsi to Coke. Yet, strangely, Coke continued to outsell Pepsi. Neurophysiologists with the Baylor College of Medicine even re-created a cola taste test, using an MRI to study the brains of people taking the test.

Turns out that Pepsi did a better job of stimulating the pleasure centers of the brain. When the test was repeated, this time with the labels on, the subjects professed that they preferred Coke more – and a different part of the brain kicked in, overriding the pleasure-sensing part. The subjects actually believed that the Coke tasted better only when they were aware of the brand they were drinking.

The lesson is clear: A person’s perception of a thing can color or even alter his sense perceptions of it. Coke did a better job of branding itself, so people thought they enjoyed Coke more, even though they preferred Pepsi in blind taste-tests.

The era of neuromarketing has begun.

Prototype Theory & Its Implications In Social Media

The major message of Rosch’s development of Prototype Theory and the Baylor MRI taste test is that it’s possible to affect a person’s sensory reaction to stimuli through a well-crafted branding program.

When a given product or service becomes so ingrained as a mindshare leader that it transforms into an exemplar of a category, like Coke for soft drinks or Kleenex for facial tissues or Xerox for photocopiers, then a person’s favorable abstract opinion of the company or product or service — her brand loyalty — will color her perception relative to the nearest competition.

Like the auto buyer who loved Ford cars because his dad worked the line in Dearborn, he finds ways to continue loving his Ford even though, absent the emotional connection, he may find more to like in a Mazda or a Chevrolet. The power of brand loyalty, reaching even into brain chemistry, proves surprisingly strong.

Hotel brand loyalty fell 20 percent in 2010, according to TripAdvisor. A spokesman for the company believes that the fall-off is related to customers having more options, although customers have always have had options—the Internet only made them more accessible in a shorter amount of time.

So what was the major hotel-related story of 2010 that may have caused the drop in hotel loyalty? Bedbugs. It didn’t matter what hotel, or what city, was under review; the traveling public became paranoid about the spread of bedbugs.

Which is more likely: that in 2010, customers magically found out that they could stay at different hotels, or that the bedbug story soured them on hotels in general, and thereby diminished the brand loyalty industry-wide that keeps travelers coming back?

The challenge for social media, then, isn’t just to pitch a product or service. That’s what advertising is for.

Instead, a savvy social-media platform will attempt to influence a person’s positive mindshare of the targeted company, product or service.

Comcast’s @ComcastCares Twitter account, for example, generated more positive coverage for the company than any advertising could have done and helped to deflect concerns about the cable giant’s customer-service deficiencies.

How Can Prototype Theory Be Used With Social Media?

Harness Rosch’s observations shrewdly. Use a social media platform to earn positive mindshare, and use techniques like priming to associate a brand identity with a core set of categories to reinforce the linkage.

Don’t waste the emotional capital of brand loyalty – take a page from Coca-Cola’s playbook and build a second-choice product into first-place market position.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Social | Search & Social


About The Author: is the Senior SEO Manager for the agency, Red Door Interactive.

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  • John Lincoln

    I agree with your views on brand loyalty. And social media marketing is an excellent way to increase brand reach online and stimulate that connection with a company. It is a natural counter part to SEO, which in many cases, focuses more on technicalities and traffic opposed to the inner authenticity of a company. Together, the two balance each other out and result in a well rounded online marketing strategy, when executed correctly. As the world becomes more and more detached due to technology, it is nice to have a medium which can promote a more human quality online. Nice piece. Thanks – John E Lincoln


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