Social Exchange Theory

The Social Exchange Theory appeared in 1958 and was developed by George Homans, an American sociologist and economist. In his article, Georges Homans explains his theory with three main concepts, which are based on (1) reciprocity, (2) mutual interests, outcome, and (3) comparison levels.

To begin with, Homans (1958) explains the principle of reciprocity. He argued that individuals expect a return in kind for their actions. In other words, if one person provides benefits or positive actions to another, there is an inherent expectation that similar actions will be reciprocated. This norm of reciprocity forms the foundation of trust and cooperation in social relationships.

The second principle is about the mutual interests. Homans (1958) emphasized the significance of mutual interests in social exchanges. Individuals are more likely to engage in interactions where they perceive a balance between the benefits gained and the costs incurred. The theory asserts that individuals strive to maximize rewards and minimize costs, contributing to forming and maintaining social relationships.

Last but not least, Social Exchange Theory also introduces the concepts of outcome and comparison levels to explain individuals' assessments of their relationships. "Outcome" refers to the rewards and punishments individuals receive, while "comparison levels", as Homans (1958) explains, are the standards against which individuals evaluate the fairness of these outcomes. Satisfaction or dissatisfaction is determined by whether outcomes meet or fall below comparison levels.

To resume, Homans (1958) explains his theory very simply, similar to a mathematic formula: “Profit = Reward – Cost”. This equation reflects the rational calculation individuals make in social interactions. It suggests that people engage in relationships and exchanges, anticipating rewards that exceed costs. Social Exchange Theory emphasizes reciprocity, mutual interests, and the assessment of outcomes in shaping social behavior. It serves as a foundational principle, illustrating how individuals seek positive outcomes and strive for mutually beneficial interactions in their social exchanges.

Social Exchange Theory was also used by other authors, who went deeper in their explanation and how to use it in marketing and advertising.

Blau (1964) highlighted that social interactions often have a practical side, where people aim to get the most benefits while minimizing costs. This idea is crucial in advertising. Advertisers can use it by creating campaigns that show consumers the practical advantages and rewards of choosing a product or service. They focus on how the product is useful, cost-effective, and valuable. This approach connects with people, showing them the mutual benefits. Blau's theory gives advertisers a strategic way to craft compelling campaigns that appeal to the practical side of consumers, helping them make choices that optimize their outcomes in social exchanges.

Hayes et al. (2014) studied how ads spread in social networks. They found that viral content works through specific mechanisms, especially social ones. Their research gives important insights into how social dynamics boost the reach of ads through sharing among peers. Advertisers can use these findings to guide their strategies. They should create content that not only grabs attention but also motivates users to share the ads with their friends. Knowing the details of social exchange in viral ads helps marketers create campaigns that connect with audiences and take advantage of the social aspect of online content sharing.

Kim and Kim (2021) explore how influencer marketing affects trust in the digital world. They look at things like transparency and authenticity that impact how much people trust influencers. This is important for advertisers who want to use influencer marketing well. The study suggests that advertisers should focus on being genuine and clear in their strategies, building real connections between influencers and their followers. Understanding the details of trust in influencer marketing helps advertisers deal with its complexities and create honest brand partnerships. This article is a useful guide for marketers who want to make the most of influencer marketing and build sincere relationships with their audience.

To conclude, the Social Exchange Theory, created by Homans (1958), is a key framework for understanding how people interact. It focuses on give-and-take, shared interests, and evaluating results. In advertising, this theory guides advertisers to create effective campaigns by emphasizing practical benefits, using viral content dynamics, and ensuring transparency in influencer marketing. This approach helps advertisers connect meaningfully with their audience. In essence, the Social Exchange Theory provides a useful framework for advertisers looking to achieve positive outcomes and establish authentic relationships in the constantly changing world of human interactions and consumer engagement.


Homans, G. C. (1958). Social behavior as exchange. American Journal of Sociology, 63(6), 597-606.

Blau, P. (2017). Exchange and power in social life. London, UK: Routledge.

Hayes, J. L., & King, K. W. (2014). The social exchange of viral ads: Referral and coreferral of ads among college students. Journal of Interactive Advertising, 14(2), 98-109.

Kim, D. Y., & Kim, H. Y. (2021). Trust me, trust me not: A nuanced view of influencer marketing on social media. Journal of Business Research, 134, 223-232.