According to Nielsen’s latest ‘Global Trust in Advertising’ report word-of-mouth recommendations and reviews, either from someone they know or a stranger’s opinions online, are the most trusted sources of information for buying decisions. In contrast, trust in paid advertising is reported to remain on the decline.

I guess, as a social media researcher, the finding that online word-of-mouth recommendations and reviews are so highly regarded should be the most interesting aspect of this study because it adds weight to what I do.

I guess it would equally be easy to jump on the power of ‘online word-of-mouth’ bandwagon too.

However, the thing that really struck me reading this study, was how dated it made the traditional survey look.

Of course, people like to believe they’re savvy and rational beings who can see through any cynical attempts to persuade them to buy products. An “advertising doesn’t work on me” attitude prevails.

And yet the same study finds that global ad spend increased 7% from 2010 to 2011, driven by a 10% rise in that written-off and decried medium of TV advertising.

Why are companies spending more on a tool of persuasion that is increasingly viewed by the general public as unpersuasive?

As Duncan Watts states in his book ‘Everything is Obvious (Once You Know the Answer)’ not only are we poor predictors of our own actions, we’re also poor at explaining our own situation.

A study by Joel Cohen and Marvin Goldberg highlighted more than 30 years ago that post-purchase rationalisation is a cognitive bias whereby someone who purchases a product or service overlooks any faults or defects in order to justify their purchase.

In an age where information is so readily accessible online, we’re arguably more likely than ever before to believe that any decisions we make are entirely rational and informed.

A survey essentially captures our subsequent rationalisation of our past behaviour and, as these studies have shown, we’re pretty poor at reflecting on the reasons behind the decisions we’ve made.

One of the advantages of using social media to research opinions is that we’re able to capture opinions expressed in the moment which, not being conveyed in a research environment, are less likely to suffer from any post-rationalisation.

An analysis of social content can reveal what statements made during more structured research don’t always reveal.

Qualitative analysis has always relied heavily on the researcher’s interpretation of the unspoken, but the advantage of using social media as a source of insight is that it enables us to take a more evidence-based approach because the spectrum of willingness to reveal appears greater.

I don’t believe social media research is in a position to replace surveys and I don’t believe it ever will be. However, I do believe that using it in conjunction with more traditional forms of research puts a researcher in a position where he or she is able to provide more informed and, ultimately, more illuminating insight.