Last week, Hitwise released new data on the increasing popularity of online question-and-answer sites, such as Yahoo Answers, the market leader. While Yahoo Answers has seen its market share drop from 94% to 74% due to the growth of competing Q&A sites like WikiAnswers, Answerbag.com, and Amazon.com's Askville, U.S. traffic to Q&A sites overall more than doubled in the last year. Over the past two years, traffic to Q&A sites has risen almost 900%!
Macro trends like this one are hard for advertisers to ignore, given the open-ended and highly interactive nature of Q&A web sites. Within minutes, a consumer's request for help with a product can easily yield a few to a few dozen highly detailed responses chock full of brand names, model numbers, and emphatic end-user endorsements or criticisms. Just now, I checked the Yahoo Answers home page and found the question below at the very top of the unanswered questions list:
The question reads: "Micro SD Lock Switch? How does it work. [sic] I tried using it but nothing happens! I have a Kingston adapter with the SD [sic]"
Literally, on my first try, I find a question that contains a brand reference to Kingston, the memory maker (Full Disclosure: Kingston Technology is a Bazaarvoice client, although my finding them was completely random). I haven't asked the folks at Kingston, but I'm 99.9% positive that they would relish the opportunity to be the source of the answer to this consumer's question. While that might not be the best (or desired) experience for the consumer, that's not really my point.
Already, Q&A sites are monetizing traffic and queries through the usual arsenal of sponsored links, contextual ads, and banners. Ho hum. In all fairness, not all consumer-submitted questions offer an opportunity for meaningful brand engagement (in the form of an educational response, not a sales pitch). Some questions, like this one (my very own), offer little more than good fodder for your next round of bar trivia, although Smucker's would probably pay good money to resolve my confusion, with a branded answer of course, over the differences between jam and jelly, preserves and spreadable fruit, and marmalade and all of the above.
What Q&A sites do offer brands is an opportunity for meaningful, transparent, and authentic conversation with consumers and the opportunity to observe consumer conversations in action. If you aren't already searching Q&A sites for references to your brand name and product/service names, you should be. It may not be appropriate or wise to enter the fray just yet and not all Q&A sites are ready for advertiser-contributed or branded responses, but that shouldn't stop you from listening to what consumers have to say.
Yet another opportunity is to make your own web site the place for consumers to ask and answer questions. Bazaarvoice clients like The Home Depot Canada, Shoes.com, and Canadian Tire are using our Ask & Answer solution to enable authentic customer Q&A to occur within the context of their branding and shopping experiences. Not only are these companies directly tapping into the conversation, they are equipped to contribute helpful responses at the appropriate time. We encourage Ask & Answer clients to trust in their customers to ask and answer to each other, but if a shopper poses a question about a product warranty or return policy, a timely and authoritative response from you – the manufacturer or retailer – may be just what the shopper was hoping for.
We are beginning to document the behavior and impact of consumers that ask and answer questions on retailer web sites and our early findings are exciting. For one, there is minimal overlap between the segment of customers that post product reviews and the segments that post questions (just 4%) or answers (just 25%). By offering Q&A on your own web site, you are providing value to a very specific and valuable group of customers – those that question before they buy! In addition, products that contain at least one answered question convert at an 18% higher rate. That number rises to 22% when the product contains at least two answered questions. Our research findings make the Hitwise numbers quoted above make a bit more sense – when consumers discover something of value, they want a lot more of it.
In summary, you shouldn't watch from the sidelines while Q&A portals like Yahoo Answers and Answerbag.com continue to grow at triple-digit rates, siphoning shoppers away from search engines, shopping portals, and other sources of information about your brand, products, and services. Your business, if you sell to consumers, is about solving problems for those consumers. Your products or services do half of that job, but consumers will want more of both if you help them answer the questions that precede their purchase decisions!