Sprouter prunes Twitter-style messages, grows Q&A feature

Sprouter, the social network for entrepreneurs, launched a redesign to its site yesterday to make its service less like Twitter and more like Quora.

The Toronto-based site that offers free online collaboration to entrepreneurs worldwide has dropped its peer-to-peer messaging service that mirrored the functionality of Twitter. The 140-character maximum posts will no longer be a part of the site, nor will the ability to follow other users. Sprouter is refocusing on promoting its Q&A service as the premiere feature. The changes went live yesterday.

“We’ve been running multiple services for the past several months and I think it was diluting our focus and hurting our value proposition,” says Sarah Prevette, CEO of Sprouter Inc. “When you try to do to many things at once, it becomes too confusing.”

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While Sprouter’s question-and-answer feature was buried in a sub-domain previously, it is now front and centre on the site. Along the same lines as Quora or Formspring, the feature invites collaboration to take place around questions put forward by entrepreneurs using the site.

Sprouter has a group of experts that provide answers to questions posed by its users. Users can ask a question that may be answered by any expert, or ask their question to a specific expert. Experts’ online presence is shared, and users can leave comments on the posts made.

Rather than crowdsourcing answers like Quora, Sprouter seeks to curate answers from specific answers, Prevette says.

“Quora launched shortly after we launched our Q&A several months ago,” she says. “We’ve handpicked the best thought leaders in a variety of subjects. Founders know they can come to the site and get the answers they’re looking for.”

Scott Ruthorford, the co-founder of San Francisco-based User Voice Inc., is one of those experts. Contacted via Sprouter’s service, he says he won’t miss the sites peer-to-peer messaging service because he “didn’t really use it.” Most of the users who followed him on Sprouter also followed him on Twitter.

Sprouter’s singular focus on providing expert-crafted answers to entrepreneurial inquiry sets it apart from other Q&A services online, he says. The site has already become a good repository of experience that is collected, stored and searchable.

“I think it’s a good idea actually,” Rutherford says. “I wish something like that had been around when I first got involved in starting companies.”

Mark MacLeod, a partner with Montreal-based Real Ventures, has been an expert with Sprouter since the site launched its Q&A section several months ago. Since then, he’s provided 260 answers, and tries to check in with the site at least once a week. Experts on the site get the benefit of a boosted online profile, he says.

“It’s a pretty interesting solution that Sprouter has here for small businesses,” he says. “It’s an opportunity for small business owners to get fast, personalized advice.”

The user base on Quora tends to be more technical, while Sprouter has a broader user base, MacLeod says. “If I’m someone that’s running a spa, it [Quora] does nothing for me.”

Sprouter’s profile pages will still exist, but will no longer display the Twitter-style messages posted by users. Instead, it will contain the user’s bio, company information, and comments that have been written.

Users interested in downloading their old messages for storage will be able to do so using a widget posted to Sprouter’s blog, Prevette says.

Comments about Sprouter’s new look and focus posted to ReadWriteWeb questioned whether the new format could be monetized.

“Nevermind (sic) that trying to compete against Quora or LinkedIn Answers is a zero sum game, the content would have to be incredibly compelling in order to attract paid subscribers,” writes Justin Kozuch, a lead researcher for the Pixel to Product research study. “Sprouter’s decision to remove the social network component of their platform is a perplexing one, as now they’ve essentially neutered the online community that could have been their bread and butter.”

That social network is described by Prevette has having just “moderate traction” with a few thousand users.

“It’s tough to extract value from the peer to peer model,” she says. “A big focus of this redesign is on quality.”

Sprouter plans to have a guest expert online today to answer questions – Ben Huh, the founder of the I Can Has Cheezburger? blog.

Down the road, there’s a potential to feature experts on video, Prevette says.

Brian Jackson is a Senior Writer at ITBusiness.ca. Follow him on Twitter, read his blog, and check out the IT Business Facebook Page.

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