Online recommendations are powerful. New data from Nielsen’s Global Online Consumer Survey reveals that 90% of consumers online trust recommendations from people that they know, with 70% trusting the opinions posted online by unknown users.

Despite the findings supporting the case for organisations to increase their exploration into the possibilities social media offers, the information also reveals other positive findings – especially the fact that brand websites are trusted equally as much as anonymous online user opinions.

Jonathan Carson, Nielsen’s President of Online, International says that:

The explosion in Consumer Generated Media over the last couple of years means consumers’ reliance on word of mouth in the decision-making process, either from people they know or online consumers they don’t, has increased significantly… However, we see that all forms of advertiser-led advertising, except ads in newspapers, have also experienced increases in levels of trust and it’s possible that the CGM revolution has forced advertisers to use a more realistic form of messaging that is grounded in the experience of consumers rather than the lofty ideals of the advertisers.

Without doubt, the massive growth we’ve seen of social media recently has played an enormous part in generating this trend. Universal McCann emphasises this in their When did we start trusting strangers? report, which explores the connection between the growth of social networks (such as Facebook and MySpace) in correlation with how users are beginning to trust online opinions to a far greater degree than those found within traditional media. 

However, online has found certain barriers in this sense – in 2006, Facebook tried to exploit user recommendations by allowing users to see what brands their friends were engaging with. “Beacon”, as it was known, highlighted the shaky ground between marketing, trust and user experience, consequently dying a painful public death. 

Nevertheless, nearly three years on, the advice of others is apparently now statistically proven to be increasingly trusted by users, which shows a huge change in online behavior. 

From an analyst’s perspective, the services that exist today are just the tip of the iceberg, with elements such as online reviews and ratings, the likes of Amazon’s recommendations and eBay’s seller voting more than likely to become integrated into other digital channels, such as search or affiliate marketing. 

Negatively, it’ also worth highlighting that the report reveals some forms of digital advertising are trusted less than ads appearing in traditional media (such as radio, terrestrial TV, magazines and newspapers) despite advertisers generally beginning to shift their focus away from these mediums in favour of online channels during recent months. 

Online consumers trust real people, not companies

Text ads on mobile phones (24%), online banner ads (33%), online video ads (37%) and ads in search engine results (41%) are the forms of advertising least likely to elicit a degree of trust.

I guess a TV ad – which attracts 50% more trust than an Adwords ad – isn’t going to dupe you or sell to you beyond its 15 or 30 seconds. You might buy a product and be disappointed, but that happens well after you see the TV ad. Conversely, the low trust score assigned to the lowly search ad might be linked to the immediacy of a poor experience, which happens seconds after you respond to the ad with a click. What else could it be?

The survey doesn’t cover other important elements of marketing, such as conversion. I can’t believe that a newspaper or TV ad will engage and convert a user anywhere near as quickly as a paid-search or even an online video, and I’m certain I’m not alone in thinking this. 

The separation between a marketing channel having a high level of trust against its effectiveness in delivering the core objectives needs to be explored in more depth before any real conclusions can be made in this area. As Mark Twain famously said, “There are three kinds of lies… Lies, damned lies, and statistics”. 

All data needs to be looked at objectively – but for the most part, this study shows that online marketers need to be embracing and engaging with online recommendations, branded websites and social media in order to keep building confidence and trust within consumers. 

The survey was completed by more than 25,000 individuals across 50 countries.