Bridging the gap between theory and practice

by Shannon Paul on September 21, 2008


Usually, the most recognized social media “experts” are not the people actually doing the work of implementing social media tools and helping build and maintain online communities; and that’s okay.

The temptation is great for those who do the work to dismiss the popular experts as “out of touch” and for the popular experts to dismiss the ones doing the work as people who simply “don’t get it”.

The rift is the problem. The talkers and the doers need each other, or could at least benefit from one another.

Can’t we all just get along?

Almost every discipline (especially in business) has this rift between professionals and academics.

Professionals accuse the academics of sitting aloft in a proverbial ivory tower and the academics resent the professionals for not being in full understanding of their intricate theories.

Social media is different only because our scholars and academics are self appointed, or community appointed, rather than institutionally appointed.

There is no Ph.D. in social media communications, or Web 2.0.

Our scholars are regarded as such because of a body of written work that resonates with those who see the changes that are happening in the way information and experience is transmitted online.

Like it or not, their work is now informing how popular culture, mainstream media and the rest of the blogosphere understand social media’s transformation on information, business and culture.

Self-appointed egotists more concerned with self promotion than promoting good communications strategies and practical advice

Yeah, I said it because that’s what many working in the field are already saying.

As much as so many social media proponents like to tout listening as a rule, they don’t always like listening to the people who work everyday at turning their theories into practice. And, believe me, this is no easy task.

Learning calculus taught me there is a HUGE difference between theory and practice. I can understand mathematical theories quickly, but practice is a discipline that is only learned through more practice no matter how well one understands the underlying theory.

In reality, those working in the field need people that devote their lives to promoting, explaining and studying the evolution of social media’s impact on business and interpersonal communications.

Like academics who are generally paid a third of what those with similar training would earn in the business world, social media “experts” typically write blog posts, speak free of charge and find other creative ways to earn a living to sustain their passionate exploration of the field.

Without them, there would be no stories about social networks or social media tools in the New York Times or anywhere else. And, guess who reads the New York Times… our clients and bosses.

Another useful reminder is that PR Week is only most concerned with stories about PR if they involve a client (hat tip to Bonin Bough for bringing this fact to my attention). The industry is in desperate need of an outlet that lets us work through our challenges without having to mention clients directly.

Social media bloggers may be open to helping us explore our issues in this manner.

They may also be more interested in discussing and promoting our case studies that help prove their theories. Who doesn’t like sweet validation?  Just please, as always, know who you’re pitching…

Industry-types too concerned with numbers and profits, too entrenched in the old-school way of doing things to understand or appreciate the big picture… they just don’t get it…

The ones doing the work are simply asking the same questions that most CMOs and clients will undoubtedly ask.

Even if I “get”, and wholeheartedly agree with, the theory you’re promoting, translating that theory into something that a client will care about is challenging when there is no empirical data to fall back on.

Numbers, data and statistics need to supplement compelling arguments and graphs that illustrate influence or authority or two-way conversations.

Professionals in the field need tactics and data, and eventually, so will the experts. Ironically, the evidence will only come from those working in the field.

Different disciplines

Promoting new methods of communication and implementing new methods of communication are very different disciplines. I think there’s a place for both and that the venerated experts and savvy professionals are more dependent on one another than either would like to admit.

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September 22, 2008 Christopher Penn, Financial Aid Podcast

Nothing substitutes for time in the trenches. At the company I work for, everyone does time in customer service.


September 22, 2008 Shannon Nelson

Right on Shannon! As a person who is actively in the field “doing the work,” I do listen to the “experts” only to gain different perspectives other than my own. However, as with everything else in life, you take bits and pieces and apply that knowledge as it fits. Some things are fluff, some things work effectively.


September 22, 2008 Nikonoel

I definitely agree with what you say in that article! As I am concerned I am more on the “practice” side…

I’m following you on twitter and I’d like to ask you a favor: I’m doing an experiment on twitter (looking for an american friend of mine named Michelle Situ), could you help me, participating the experiment?

My twitter:

The experiment explained:



September 23, 2008 mikemanuel

nice post. i can’t say i agree completely with your observations here, but the spirit of what you’re writing is definitely good; healthy perspective for the various camps.


September 23, 2008 Stacy

Recently I was thinking about my professors in college and my thoughts were somewhat along the same lines as this post, only SMM isn’t quite a college discipline (yet) and I was wondering if any of them have even embraced the concept.

I think we all can agree that SMM is changing so quickly that by the time any of the established “rules” and “best practices” hit the paper textbooks and the communications theory classes, they either will have changed or have become obsolete.

In this case, I think that the “doers” definitely have the upper hand on the academics, but I do realize that I’m talking literally about academics here, not the so-called “self-appointed egotists” mentioned in this post.

It will be interesting to see how SMM develops and what eventually will be taught in the classroom.


September 23, 2008 allan isfan

Great post and good food for thought.

Although not quite simple enough for most web dwellers, I don’t think there is much excuse for an expert not to be actively participating in social media. You can start a blog for free and start experimenting with it to see what works and what doesn’t, figure out the useful tools and so on. If you have a bit more time and energy, you can even start a podcast with an el cheapo mic.

I do agree though that you shouldn’t have to be creating the tools to be an expert in the space and perhaps that is what you meant. You should at least be actively using tools available before you call yourself an expert and advise others.

BTW, I am creating tools in social media and am trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t through that exercise just like many others.


September 23, 2008 Shannon Swenson, Interactive Producer

Nice post. You frame the friction well, yet we need each other.

Working on social campaigns for large brands, I turn to the academics to help justify strategy + growth & engagement tactics. Case studies are especially helpful; I share a few on my site.

I also follow the “egotists” b/c they tend to see trends way ahead of the curve. They position themselves as rapid awareness channels who can generate buzz broadly. Brand managers will naturally promote through them.


September 23, 2008 Chel

I think one thing to remember is not only does everyone need time in the trenches, but that’s how you earn reputation points for putting your work where your mouth is.

That and it’s to our benefit to work *with* each other, not against.


September 23, 2008 Alan Edgett

Excellent post, and so true. It is *very* difficult to quickly translate the latest theories, comments, opinions, etc into tactics. Add to that, large companies historically slow response rates to changing market conditions, and the dearth of real case studies (though they are emerging) and it often makes for a frustrating life as a “doer”. Sometimes wish I could write (er, self-promote:-) better, so I could switch sides…



September 23, 2008 Justin Rasmussen

Shannon, you are completely correct. I also agree with Chris Penn, nothing beats having some time in the trenches. There has to be a good balance of theory and practice, otherwise, industry will grow stale of new ideas and simply become commoditized. There must be a give and take on all sides, the theory, the research, the news stories is what gets customers interested and the delivery of the product is what keeps them satisfied. In order for sustainability there has to be a give and take.


September 24, 2008 shannonpaul

@Chris @Chel I go back and forth on this one. For the sake of playing devil’s advocate; I think this idea of having to *do* something in order to *understand* something is very American. In other cultures, it’s not so important, and sometimes an outsider perspective is more capable of grasping the big picture and identifying problems that go unnoticed by people who are too close to their own processes.

@ShannonNelson I knew you and I would feel similarly about this. You gather your pearls wherever you can find them.

@Niko Your experiment sounds interesting, I’m just hoping you’re not a stalker and that your friend wouldn’t mind being found by you.

@Mike Thanks for the comment, although I’m not sure which points you don’t agree with.

@Stacy @ShannonSwenson I don’t really stand behind the “egotist” label, I’ve just heard the term tossed around and thought it would be better to talk about it openly with civility.

@Stacy you’re right that things are changing too quickly to be added to most college curricula, but they could have workshops and guest speakers address the class — a lot of students I’ve talked to have no idea what social media is — they have Facebook and MySpace profiles, but they don’t know that that’s social media. That’s really where organizations like PRSA should be filling in the gaps.

@allan you’ve brought something else to my attention — what kind of experience equals social media experience? Is it personal engagement in blogging, podcasting, social networks, etc., or is it the experience of implementing these things into marketing strategies? It seems like most people are doing one or the other, but rarely are they doing both… but, I could be wrong.

@ShannonSwenson I agree, case studies are especially helpful and I’m glad to hear that you’re sharing them on your site.

@Alan Large corporations do move very slowly — even with the most compelling data and case studies, but there is a recognition that things need to happen faster in business. I think this too will eventually change. Businesses have to adapt much more quickly to survive these days.

@Justin Yes! None of us wants this industry to become stale. It’s a privilege to do great work and I think we all really want to do great work!


September 24, 2008 Webconomist

Very well written article!

There has always been and I think will continue to be, friction between academics and those in business.

in terms of traditional PR I think pubs like PR Week do talk about clients since that is the “body of evidence” that has been established. Social Media shakes these traditional communications channels/methodologies up.

In the past we explored new continents…now we are exploring new continents of communication!


September 25, 2008 Dr. William J. Ward a.k.a.

Some academics are doing both theory and practice and incorporating in the classroom.
Michael Wesch at Kansas State University, Robert French at Auburn, and Howard Rheingold at Stanford are a few leading the way.
Thank you,


September 25, 2008 PRJack

Really good blog. Thanks for writing it!

There is a lot of truth to what you write. Anyone who has had to try to negotiate the realities of creating and executing a Social Media Marketing initiative within the constructs of the Client/Agency relationship will likely agree with you whole-heartedly.

Talking about the ‘how to’s’ of SM is one thing.
Without the free exchange of ideas SM would… well it wouldn’t be SM! There is considerable truth in equating our SM discussions with that of an Academic discourse.

Engaging in ‘straight-forward’ SM can be tricky enough. But more often than not SM is an individual’s interaction within a community or communities.

The rift of which you speak becomes undeniable when you factor in educating a client about SM, ensuring that you are being true to the spirit of SM while recognizing the constraints of client messaging and ability, and then having to do all of that to a very specified budget with some specific measurement parameters. Suddenly the challenges are glaringly different – not harder or worse or anything subjective like that. Just different. And that’s o.k.! As long as it’s recognized.


September 25, 2008 Allen Mireles

Well done Shannon. I enjoyed reading this (as I usually do when I read your posts and tweets).



September 30, 2008 michaelsavoni

“Self-appointed egotists more concerned with self promotion than promoting good communications strategies and practical advice”

Aren’t all social media “experts” self appointed?

I have to agree, though. A large portion of SM people out there are ego-driven, and simply out there to “brand” themselves and self promote. The best way to get involved in the industry is to listen, much like you learn in any other industry.


September 30, 2008 shannonpaul

@Webconomist Thanks so much! Social media does shake up a lot of the accepted norms in marketing and communications in general. I suppose that’s why we all have so much to say on the subject.

@DR4WARD you’re right, some do manage to move theory forward while engaging in thoughtful practice, but I still think that’s a hard balance to maintain. One almost always wins out. I think that there are theorists who manage to practice and practitioners who theorize.

@Allen – Thank you! I appreciate that very much.

@michaelsavoni – Ooooh, please let me clarify, I didn’t mean to suggest that I think of anyone as a self-appointed egotist… and no, I don’t believe that social media “experts” are always self appointed. I wrote the two statements above to illustrate some of the discourse I have heard throughout social media and PR/marketing circles.

I believe those who are regarded as social media experts are people who first, put themselves out there to share their ideas and opinions. Second, those ideas and opinions must really resonate with others — making them more or less community appointed. The “experts” are merely leading discussions that can’t really take place without a community of participants.


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