Online Q&A sites lack business case

Question-and-answer sites may benefit niche businesses but will be limited as customer outreach and support tool for most organizations, say market watchers.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor

Enterprise use of online question-and-answer (Q&A) services does have benefits such as the ability to address customer queries and feedback, but market watchers express reservations about the use of Q&A sites in the corporate realm.

Online Q&A services, where users in a community post and answer each other's questions, are not entirely new to the Web--pioneers include Yahoo Answers and Hunch. The space has, however, been heating up, with newer players such as Quora and Formspring having received much press and investor attention. Web giants are also eyeing the same space--Facebook launched its Facebook Questions service, while Google acquired social search engine Aardvark.

Despite this, Irene Yu, business analyst at China Market Research (CMR), told ZDNet Asia that Q&A sites are "limited" in their applicability for business users.

There is "no guarantee" that when a company uses Q&A sites, it is reaching the audience it wants to target, she explained in an e-mail interview. In addition, "broadly-targeted sites such as Yahoo Answers can also attract a lot of spam responses", she said.

On "more specialized" sites such as Quora, which touts having qualified and legitimate industry experts, its members "trust" answers provided by other users because these are "individuals responding on their own time, rather than companies seeking to promote themselves", Yu noted.

If individuals represent corporate entities to respond to queries, they will face a tough time convincing users that their answers are "objective", she pointed out. This also raises the issue of which employee should manage the account on behalf of the company, she added.

Online Q&A sites are "aren't very efficient [and] necessary, or at least should not be an essential part of how businesses get the information they need", Yu said, adding that other types of social media can better reach target customers or get them to be more involved. For instance, an organization can post activities and announcements on its Facebook page, she said.

Difficult to justify effort
Similarly, Robin Ng, senior account manager at marketing firm Oasis Interactive, said in an e-mail there is "currently no strong business case" for companies to tap Q&A services. It is also "not necessary [for enterprises] to proactively participate in such sites, he noted.

According to Ng, these services are "not suitable" for enterprises with niche customer segments, particularly for those in the business-to-business (B2B) field.

Q&A sites, Ng pointed out, are "still a peer-to-peer platform" and typically do not officially support enterprise participation. Such sites are consumer-driven, and the basic formats and tools offered make it "restrictive and difficult to build a brand presence and identity", he explained.

Ng also cautioned that an organization's attempt to connect with customers or gather feedback via Q&A sites could "potentially backfire". Businesses may reach out to the "wrong audience" and in turn, receive inaccurate or false information, he said. There is also the possibility that users do not "trust" the company's responses, consider its presence on the site as "inappropriate", or simply not interact with the company at all, he added.

Given the limitations, Ng noted that it would be difficult for companies to "measure success as well as justify the time and effort spent" on Q&A sites.

Christer Eriksson, regional strategy director at marketing firm The Upper Storey, concurred with Ng. Companies that choose to respond to customer queries on public Q&A sites need to "thread lightly [as] one disastrous or insensitive post could spread like wildfire and turn into a PR (public relations) nightmare", he said in an e-mail interview.

Companies, noted Eriksson, must be prepared to commit time and resources to monitor and curate a large pile of customer responses to get the most valuable input, as well as provide "well-worded" answers to users.

Provide support and expert opinion
Nonetheless, Eriksson argued that certain businesses will find it worthwhile to get involved in Q&A sites.

Direct channels of supporting a brand are "clearly important", he reasoned, and companies can also benefit by providing support to their customers in unexpected ways. For instance, a milk powder company could leverage a Q&A site to provide answers and advice for mothers of babies and toddlers, he said.

"In an age where a Google search is our first port of call for any query, it makes sense for enterprises to embrace consumer 'self help'," he pointed out.

Eriksson added that one key benefit businesses can reap from using Q&A sites is that there is less demand on traditional support channels, which in turn reduces costs because companies can now simply get customer opinions at little or no cost.

Ng of Oasis Interactive added that Q&A sites also give businesses an "opportunity to establish themselves as subject matter experts", by addressing consumer questions related to their industry, products or service. In that sense, they can provide direct customer service, he noted.

Companies can quickly solicit feedback and opinions from their customer base, which gives the latter a sense of inclusion in the decision-making process, he said.

Stick to most appropriate platform
Eriksson advised that ultimately, when it comes to customer communications, it is important for companies to "test, learn and optimize before jumping into an activity such as Q&A sites".

Businesses, he added, also need to realize that different Q&A sites may skew toward different audience groups and demographics, such as teenagers or working professionals. To that end, they should consider the "most appropriate environment" to communicate--Facebook would likely have the edge over a Q&A site if a company wants to address its "fans", said Eriksson.

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