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.

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