Lifestyles are real in social media, and worthy of marketing research

Social media are breathing new life into the academic study of lifestyles, says Lynn R. Kahle, the Erhman Giustina Professor of Marketing in the UO's Charles H. Lundquist College of Business.

In a newly published book, Kahle and co-author Pierre Valette-Florence, a marketing professor at the Ecole Superieure des Affaires in Grenoble in France, argue that academic researchers should be paying attention to how people with similar interests come together on websites like Facebook, and that businesses should be priming their marketing pumps to reach those people.

"The study of consumable goods and services is tied directly to lifestyle," the authors say in Chapter 5, and they cite a recent study by researchers at the National University of Singapore. Through the development of specialized profiles of people involved in social media, the Asian scholars explored lifestyle "from the perspectives of quality of life and personal satisfaction."

The book — 328 pages from cover to cover — is "Marketplace Lifestyles in an Age of Social Media: Theory and Method." It was published by M.E. Sharpe Inc., a New York-based publisher of works in the social sciences and humanities. The book is aimed at scholars and serious business operators.

"Lifestyle is worthy of respect," says Kahle, "There is something here."

For young people — 20s and younger — social media are part of everyday life, he says. However, academics in recent years had retreated. The book's introductory sentence is a line written by an academic in 1979: "Lifestyles are dead." The authors, however, quickly reload by writing that "more than three decades later, lifestyles still seem to be thriving."

It isn't until Chapter 9 when the impacts of social media are brought to the forefront. The first eight chapters, Kahle says, lay out the "historic point of view," as well as a potential methodological roadmap for reigniting research on the often-maligned study of lifestyle and its connections with marketing.

Lifestyle studies historically have followed two paths, the authors argue: One is that attitudes determine consumer behavior; the other says personality drives purchasing decisions. The early chapters focus on definitions of attitude, from within social sciences and business, in the U.S. and Europe, especially France.

"Lifestyle is often identified as attitudes, interests and opinions," Kahle says. "It is very clear that attitudes are important to both lifestyles and social values. The concept of lifestyle should be brought back to life. Lifestyle can be an organizing theme for observation."

From a business approach, the authors note in Chapter 6, information pulled from lifestyle studies can impact product distribution, the conception and development of new products, marketplace segmentation, new market trends and advertising strategies.

A large portion of the book is devoted to methodologies — past, present and future — for studying the components of lifestyle.

Past research relied on randomly posed questions that when answered and analyzed gave results "that don't seem to have anything to do with anything," Kahle says. As an example, people who like to have a lamp in the front window also like dogs — "a statistically artificial group."

In social media, people really do aggregate into real lifestyle groups, albeit virtually, but the online interaction often leads to narrow communities of people with shared — and statistically relevant — interests and who turn to each other for purchasing recommendations. That, he said, has business implications that can see product popularity rise and fall based on group dialogues.

"I think that a lot of things that go on in marketing tie into lifestyles," he says. "Advertising informs us about lifestyles. Products can be an accouterment of a desired lifestyle. Social media have changed the direction and dynamics."

The authors devote 53 pages in Chapters 8 and 9 to their new proposals and methodologies for lifestyle research. They conclude that: "Social media have opened new realms and reasons for lifestyle research. Progress will depend on understanding social media through quality research. We believe that understanding social phenomena is difficult but well worth the cost."