The Ascent of Q&A as Community

Q&A communities have become grown in popularity in recent years with consumer and business offerings being developed at a blistering pace and established players emerging with their own offerings.

The Q&A interaction model has existed for years, as long as search engines have been around and this is not a coincidence. Q&A takes advantage of a common behavior that web users exhibit through search engines, they query in the form of a question.

Early generation Q&A sites existed as consumer grade services and an outgrowth of these services are expert based where the person responding to a question is a vetted expert on the subject matter and is compensated for answering. More recently Q&A sites have morphed into a variant of social network where users build profiles and interact with other members and topics by following them and cross posting to Facebook and Twitter.

I am most interested in the generalized Q&A communities, not the expert networks.

Search and Q&A are Different

While no data is publicly available, it is generally accepted that a significant percentage of search queries are in the form of a question, and it is this behavior that has created the opportunity for a raft of Q&A sites to emerge. Search is often Q&A but Q&A is not well suited for search and in an attempt to differentiate from Google several search engines, Bing most significantly, have invested heavily in advertising campaigns that highlights the shortcomings of search for answering questions.

The problem with search for Q&A is the methodology for serving search results. When answering questions, the volume of inbound links to a given web page, the accepted search technique for ranking web sites, does not tell you the site with the best answer; it just tells you the most popular page with relevant information.

Text matching, another useful technique for serving search results, is also inadequate for Q&A because the text in a question is rarely found in the best answer. Similarly, click through analysis on search result links to determine site relevance is ill suited to Q&A because presenting the answer to a question requires no click through to measure.

Source: Ask.com

Finally, the nature of questions presents quite possibly the biggest hurdle for search engines attempting to accommodate questions as well as keyword searches. Any given question can represent degrees of complexity and subjectivity, as well as be time based.

Why Marketers are Taking Notice

Brand companies today are already monitoring Q&A communities as a normal part of their social media monitoring and response systems, it is not unreasonable to speculate that companies will seek greater participation in Q&A communities for the same reason that they are participating in social networks and in customer communities:

1)     Exert brand influence by demonstrating expertise in topic areas. Q&A communities, such as Quora, prominently display company information associated with a user profile and this is a powerful signal in the community as it relates to specific topics.

2)     Gather honest and detailed feedback. Q&A communities that allow for multiple members to interact with a question provide the equivalent of a micro focus group for a company interested in gathering feedback. The nature of Q&A communities has thus far not proven appealing for trolls and bad actors, ensuring that the quality of feedback is high.

3)     Social media integration is a bonus for brands interacting in Q&A communities, cross posting in many cases to Twitter and Facebook.

In addition to brand to customer interactions on Q&A communities and in some cases the ability to populate web assets with widgetized content, brands also have the ability to do something in Q&A communities that they cannot do in any other forum, which is the ability to support an entire product category through a Q&A community.

I already do a form of category support now on Quora, replying to questions concerning social media, customer communities, and community support. This is a powerful market facing activity that projects industry expertise and builds confidence in the company brand.

It is foreseeable that Q&A sites will sell sponsorship of topics to brand companies much in the same way that Google sells search keywords today. With the strong SEO that sites like Quora exhibit the value of keywords on the site would be considerable and they could in fact implement the same auction methodology that pervades search making it a natural extension for online advertising initiatives.

Will Q&A Encroach on Customer Community Platforms

The short answer to this question is that there are too many variables to project what the point of intersection between Q&A and customer communities will be, however it does seem plausible to forecast that there will be a convergence in these two closely aligned sectors over time.

Business.com released a research study in December 2009 (which I apologize for not being able to locate online now) that revealed surprising closeness in the perception of broad based communities vs. Q&A sites. With 1,200 people surveyed across a spectrum of functional roles, the participation rate in online communities and Q&A sites was virtually identical at 51% and 49% respectively. This study is one data point and to be clear it reflects how business users view each type of community for professional use, however the fact that little sunlight separates the perception of each reveals that the definition of community is very pliable.

Q&A and customer community platforms are complimentary for the time being and for a small cross section of customer community platforms there exists an opportunity to build out a Q&A community that weaves in and out of customer communities.

3 Classes of Q&A Companies

The first generation of Q&A services were consumer based and highly generalized in nature, allowing for virtually any question to be asked and, hopefully, answered. These sites are often advertising monetized therefore the primary objective is traffic with quality of answer a distant second.

Interestingly, the generalized consumer grade service remains a primary offering for many “answer sites” and is even being re-imagined by newer entrants with large user communities, Facebook Questions being the most recent example.

The other end of the spectrum is the curated expert community, such as Mahalo Answers, where the objective is both traffic and quality. In the case of Mahalo a virtual currency is used as a form of compensation which incentivizes quality contributions. This approach takes advantage of a primary weakness in search engines, an inability to provide quality answers for open ended questions.

More recently Quora has emerged with a compelling model that takes advantage of a primary social network characteristic related to social graphs. Quora, and LinkedIn Answers, both rely on the likelylihood that a member’s social graph will have collective insight on topics that the member finds interesting. By following topics and people, as well as posting Q&A content in a newsfeed the Q&A community drives the participation and quality dimension.

Facebook Questions

This recent service from Facebook has not disrupted the market because it is poorly surfaced and to my knowledge not even available to all users. It’s unclear what Facebook’s commitment is to Questions but the ability to drive their own organic search at the expense of 3rd party search engines is interesting to consider.

Questions is also not integrated with Official Pages and that hinders brand companies ability to get behind this initiative in parallel with their Fan management and online advertising initiatives.

LinkedIn Answers

LinkedIn has been building Answers since 2006 and the service was conceived to focus on business intelligence rather than general purpose Q&A. The quality of content on Answers is impressive and the categorization options they present as part of the posting process clearly indicate a bias to specific categories of business topics.

LinkedIn does offer category (topic) sponsorships to advertisers.

Quora

This is perhaps the most watched Q&A community and for good reason, the quality of content is very high and the network behaviors for following of people and topics as well as sharing of content to Facebook and Twitter are pronounced.

The user experience of Quora reflects a strong understanding of how people use networks and the social signaling that drives participation. I’m not aware of their revenue focused initiatives but it’s not hard to imagine what they are.

It’s interesting to note that Quora may be entering the phase where they are legitimately mainstream… as indicated by the degree which Silicon Valley pundits turn on them. I have a few complaints about Quora, like the hyper aggressive manner by which they connect via follow topics and people to me, but in general I’m a fan of this service because I discover great content on it.

Sponge

This is a white label Q&A community that represents a specialized form of customer community. From a product standpoint Sponge is most like Get Satisfaction but that also means their challenges in building community are well defined. Sponge will attempt to position themselves as “Quora for the enterprise” is my bet.

Opzi

Like Sponge, Opzi is a white label Q&A community for business customers… another “Quora for the enterprise”. Their challenges and threat status are identical to that of Sponge.

Market Opportunity

This is a real market opportunity, that much is clear, because of the way it forks search behaviors, enables co-creation of content, and has well understood revenue models that can be played. The explosion of companies in this space also foretells a future collapse as consolidation shrinks down the viable options and forces other companies to become highly niched in their delivery. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s a focusing phase that all successful categories go through but in this case I would speculate that we are at least 18 months out before that begins to happen.

Community Manager Appreciation Day

The call to action among leading companies in recent years has been that customer service is the new marketing. This is true but it has always been true, companies as diverse as Southwest Airlines, Avis, Lexus and Johnson & Johnson have been at the forefront of the trend to use great customer service as a competitive differentiator and a way to attract that best employees that the market has to offer.

If an appreciation of customer service is not a new thing, then what is? Clearly it is the ability to technology to efficiently connect companies with consumers and with social networks the number of channels that companies have to maintain in order to connect with customers has been blown up to a daunting number.

The role of Community Manager has quickly evolved from a new age social ambassador, a supporting player, to being conductor of the orchestra. Today more than ever before companies are relying on individual customer engagement to cement brand loyalty and leverage word of mouth marketing, The Community Manager has the daunting but essential responsibility of keeping the various resources of the organization in sync and playing to the same sheet music, ensuring that customer needs are met, concerns are addressed, and their product and service ideas and suggestions are brought into the process in order to shorten product lifecycles and better map to needs. If customer service is the new marketing then the Community Manager is the new CMO.

I support Jeremiah Owyang’s quest to make the 4th Monday of every January a time to honor the dedication and hard work of community managers. Today is Community Manager Appreciation Day and at Get Satisfaction there is no group of professionals more important to our success so we put together a survey of community manager insights for you to enjoy, and hopefully learn from as well.

3 Tech Products I’m Really Happy With

Here are 3 products I use everyday that I am exceptionally happy with:

1) My Evo mobile hotspot… yeah the Evo is a great handset and if the batter life were better it would rise to the level of amazing but for me the mobile hotspot feature that Sprint enables through this device is the clear slamdunk winner. I use it multiple times a day and the availability of having a data connection pretty much wherever I am has redefined how I look at data connections in general.

2) Logitech H760 wireless headset. I bought this to use with Skype although I find myself using routing calls to Google Voice (using the Voice Chrome extension to route outbound calls through Google Talk) now that I have discovered it works so well. In fact I even did a roundtable conference call a week ago using this, judge for yourself the sound quality. I use it with Pandora while I am sitting at my desk as well.

What makes this product a clear winner in it’s class? The sound quality is amazing, it’s hassle free wireless connectivity, integrated volume controls are easy to use, and the headset itself is super comfortable. The only thing that would make this better is if I could use it with my mobile phone, but the USB wireless connection that makes this so easy to setup precludes it from being used as a Bluetooth device.

3) 13″ MacBook Air (2nd generation). I initially had a lot of hesitance about replacing my trusty 15″ MacBook Pro with the new Air but I’m glad I did. The obvious immediate benefit is the light weight and small size of this laptop, and it’s really something that doesn’t wear off in appeal. For me it is the battery life that is the biggest game changer because if you dial down the screen brightness a few notches you can get battery life that gives you freedom to not have to worry about bringing your power supply and/or looking for the wall receptacle.

The instant on is pretty amazing but the more appreciated benefit of the solid state storage is that the machine in general seems to run a lot cooler than anything from Apple with a hard drive in it. I miss the extra storage that the bigger MacBooks deliver but with more and more options for storage in the cloud and a wireless hotspot wherever I am (see above) extra storage isn’t a primary concern.

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Bad UI – Shoppybag

UPDATE: I thought about this a little more this morning… in the first dialog box they say they won’t contact any of my google contacts without my permission but in the second dialog box (captured below) the implication is that I am giving them permission to do so. If my interpretation is correct then the UI goes from simply being poorly designed to purposefully misleading.

I finally got tagged in enough photos on Shoppybag to give it a try… here’s the problem, their user experience leaves so many unanswered questions that I simply gave up.

The signup process is pretty straightforward until the 2nd step and it is an entirely self inflicted wound. I fought back my initial hesitance about connecting my Google account contacts to the service but this 2nd step is so poorly presented that I abandoned the process. Nowhere on the UI is there any explanation of what they mean by “connect with friends” and this comes despite a note on the first dialog box that they would not contact anyone without my permission. So if they are not going to contact anyone what is meant by “connect with friends”.

They have clearly mined my Google contacts list and I gave them permission to do that but I simply don’t know what they are going to do when I click “connect” therefore I won’t do it. This is a great example of how poor UI decisions drive new user abandonment in applications that depend on access to a social graph. It’s a leap of faith to give anyone access to my contacts, it is essential that at every step in the process the UI reinforces my confidence that I won’t regret doing so.

Video and A Love Story

We have been doing a lot of work with videos for marketing purposes, which is a new area for me. Couple of things I have learned:

1) Short is better.

2) Video engagement metrics are evolving but in general web site visitors really like video content.

3) Generalize as much as possible because changing existing video is as expensive as creating new video.

4) Video done badly amplifies the negative much more profoundly than when video done well amplifies the positive.

Year of the Electric Car

When I hear people say “this is the year of such-and-such” I am reminded of the mobile industry. Since at least 1999 people have been saying that, finally, this was the year of mobile and sure enough, 2009 may have finally been legitimately the year of mobile… which only proves that it is best to say the “year of” without actually pinning oneself down to a specific year.

Will 2011 be the year of the electric car? No, I don’t think so… eventually it will be but not this year.

Here’s the major problems:

1) Cost: These vehicles depend on taxpayer subsidies to make them more appealing and it’s doubtful those subsidies will continue. Aside from the purchase cost there are many many issues that will cause prospective buyers pause. For example, these vehicles require 240v hookups for overnight charging, how much will it cost you if you don’t have one in your garage? I can tell you that it isn’t an inexpensive proposition but let’s say it’s a couple thousand dollars by the time you cover permitting/fees and have an electrician do the work. It all adds up.

2) Range: I don’t care what people say about “well you can drive to work and home on a single charge”. That simply does not reflect how people use their vehicles and when you are paying insurance, licensing and registration fees that, at least in California, amount to a serious amount of money each year, having multiple vehicles becomes difficult to justify. Ironically, electric vehicles are most appealing to people who, on a relative basis, do very little driving.

3) Unproven: There are still a lot of questions about the life cycle of EVs and given the numbers are so very small (Nissan delivered 10 – yes 10 – Leafs in the 4th quarter) reasonable people will hold back before dropping $25-40k on what is really a special purpose vehicle.

5) Recharging: What do you do if you live in an urban area and park on the street or in an apartment complex with shared parking? These are the kind of details that get glossed over by proponents but these are also the kind of details that become barriers for prospective purchasers. Another irony for EVs is that the logical buyers are urban dwellers who are the least likely to have a dedicated garage. 1/3 of San Francisco parks on the street every night.

Hybrids have overcome most of these objections and they are collectively less than 5% of the auto market sales and the thing that prevents hybrids from dominating the compact car category is on a relative basis they are much more expensive than comparably classed non-hybrids. A Honda Civic is considerably less expensive than a Prius yet delivers fuel economy numbers that are not far off (at least not so much so that the payback period for the Prius would be under 10 years). A Mini Cooper puts up mileage numbers not far off that of most hybrids and it’s premium priced compared to a Honda Civic, yet pretty much in the same range as a Prius and so much more fun to drive.

We can argue about the ideological merits of EVs but even Apple failed miserably with the Newton 17 years before they were ready to come to market with a completely different product that did work for the market.

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