Ask or answer – Q&A sites can help your business either way

Got a business question? There are lots of ways to find answers online. So many, in fact, that one of the questions you’re scratching your head about might be how to make the best use of the growing number of online question-and-answer sites.

People have been talking a lot about Quora lately. The site, created by a two-year-old Palo Alto, Calif., startup of the same name, is designed for people to ask and answer questions. Questions deal with many topics, organized into categories and answered by Quora users.

While Quora has had a lot of press, there are lots of other sites doing similar things. LinkedIn, the social networking site aimed at business users, began its LinkedIn Answers Q&A section early in 2007. LinkedIn has 90 million members worldwide and three million in Canada, says LinkedIn Canada spokeswoman Danielle Restivo.

Related Story: Make LinkedIn your company’s best friend in 4 easy steps

A homegrown Canadian service, Toronto-based Sprouter Inc., recently narrowed its focus on Q&A by doing away with the ability to send Twitter-like short messages. And Sprouter focuses on a particular category of users, says Sarah Prevette, the company’s chief executive: early-stage technology entrepreneurs, about a quarter-million of whom use the site on a weekly basis, she says. Though Sprouter is based in Canada, its user base is international, with only 35 to 40 per cent coming from Canada, Prevette says.

Sprouter maintains a network of experts to provide answers to members’ questions. Ask a question, Prevette says, and “we’ll find the right person to answer it.” And if you want to ask a question of a specific expert, you can do that too.

Other Q&A sites include Answers.com, Ask.com, ChaCha.com, and Aardvark, this last recently acquired by Google Inc. StackExchange.com operates a series of sites covering specific subject areas, many of them technical. And a number of online communities mix Q&A features with content aimed at particular groups.

Renee Warren, leading lady and co-founder of Sparkboutik, a social marketing consulting firm in San Francisco, says these sites are “a great opportunity to ask questions.” Warren says she found a small-business lawyer to help start her company through Sprouter, and has obtained the answers to a number of legal questions on the site too.

Warren also frequents Quora, though she says she hasn’t asked any questions of her own there. Quora lets its users follow other users and questions as well as searching for questions that have already been asked and answered. “I’ve actually sifted through the questions that are there and found my own answers,” says Warren.
Many other sites let users do the same thing.

“Eighty per cent of the questions you have as a manager are probably ones that others have, and you can find free answers to your problems,” says Russell Mickler, a Vancouver, Wash.-based technology consultant and author who uses Quora. Mickler is also an author, and says he finds expert ideas on Q&A sites like Quora that help with his writing.

Restivo says part of using these services effectively is asking questions that start a dialogue rather than just eliciting a simple answer. Getting a good discussion going means you will learn more.
The more detailed your question, Prevette says, the more detailed and specific an answer you’re likely to get.

Judi Brown, who owns Getting Personal Imprinting LLC in Seattle, is a LinkedIn Answers user who says the service has allowed her to be more efficient and make decisions faster.

“I’ve posted several questions,” she says, “received great feedback and advice in a very short time frame, and made decisions.” Among those decisions, Brown chose an e-newsletter provider and decided on the colours to paint her store. She says she uses LinkedIn Answers three to five times a week to ask or answer questions.

She also sometimes uses Biznik, an online community for entrepreneurs that includes a Q&A feature, and some sites specific to the printing industry.

Asking questions isn’t the only way business people can use these services. “You can look to make new connections or find new clients by answering questions,” notes Restivo.

Dave Maskin runs WireNames, a New York company that makes novelty name badges for attendees at trade shows and other events. He says he has answered more than 36,000 questions on LinkedIn, and “it allows me to start one-on-one conversations with individuals, many times leading to a new client.”

Mickler finds answering questions on Quora “useful from a subtle marketing/PR/networking perspective. Your name gets out there, a backwards-facing link is created, your name is indexed by Google,” he says. “That’s good (search engine optimization) fodder.”

Building your business by answering questions doesn’t mean simply promoting your products and services as the answers to everyone’s problems, Restivo says.

The key is to provide valuable information that helps people. When you demonstrate your expertise and willingness to help, people will start to notice. Then, when they have a need or a problem you might be able to help with, they’re more likely to think of you.

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