There is social media as a research tool for professionals and then there is social media as a research tool for personal use. These are two very different beasts.
I remember when I would think about something that I wanted to research and would need to leave the ‘comfort’ of my computer and go to my local Vancouver Public Library, often relying upon a liberian’s expertise for conducting research.
Now, nearly anything I think of that I want to know about I can find out about on the internet, usually in a matter of minutes.
I use Rotten Tomatoes when deciding what movie I want to watch. It’s user-driven based on individuals reviews. In my mind, I think that if at least 100 people reviewed the movie, the aggregate opinions are statistically significant and I’ve been able to watch a lot of fantastic movies that way.
I subscribe to Consumer Reports and use it when I make certain purchases. The idea is that unbiased researchers test the products on the same factors and come up with a score that ranks the products depending on how they perform. I’ve found this site consistently reliable.
The list goes on and on.
On a professional level, I used to work for a very large, international research firm. The company helps its clients test and evaluate brands, products, promotions, advertising, etc.
The company conducts interviews through telephone interviews, face-to-face interviews, and online survey panels. They continue to rely more and more on online survey panels because everyday more and more people use the internet and internet surveys are significantly cheaper than other survey methods.
People sign-up to receive surveys and answer screener questions that let the company know if they qualify for the survey. This allows the company to target a market, even if it’s quite specific / a niche market.
Survey panelists receive instant win opportunities, sweepstakes entries and prize giveaways as incentives to fill out surveys.
People who participate in online surveys often don’t represent the demographic being tested. For example, it can be argued that people that respond to financial incentives might fall within a lower income bracket. Also, people often do not take enough time and care to properly fill out a survey. Many people probably rush through surveys that aren’t very interesting to quickly finish it and get the incentive, so accuracy could be an issue.