The Q&A industry may appear to be just questions and answers, but over time, genuinely different models are emerging.
The first is the fact-based model, which covers questions requiring a precise, fact-based answer, like, “How do you determine GDP?” A second approach is the opinion-based model, represented by questions of sentiment, not fact, — like “What do you think of the Color app?”
Both fact-based and opinion-based Q&A fill important roles in the ecosystem. However, because fact and opinion require a different user experience and serve different purposes, there’s a deeper, long-term divide.
Fact-based services are the more mature form of Q&A today. Players such as Yahoo Answers, AnswerBag, and ChaCha led the early charge into the space. Recent entrants like Quora have succeeded by making fact-based questions more social and accurate than their predecessors. Think of fact-based Q&A as a way to build an accessible collective intelligence –- a living encyclopedia. Users often compete to provide the best answer, strengthening the content quality and instigating invites, but this can sometimes impede social connections within the community.
Fact-based Q&A services share a similar organizational structure, which marries them closely to search. Search functionality is critical on sites such as Yahoo Answers and Quora, ensuring that credible answers are linked to the correct questions, and that people seeking these answers can find them. Search allows these services to compile massive databases of knowledge.
But dependence on search creates some challenges as well. One of the largest problems is redundancy: Repeated questions often make navigation and ranking difficult. Additionally, because of the extensive navigation required to filter down through a large topic and sub-topic set, fact-based services tend to be Web-based rather than mobile. While the mobile consumption experience may improve, the long-form answers and charts often seen on Quora are much easier to produce and read on a desktop.
There are two main paths to making a profit with a fact-based question and answer service. First, there’s search-stage advertising. Accurate question and answer content may drive users directly to Q&A services for more precise results, potentially capturing search engine ad revenue. These services can tell what types of content people are consuming and deliver advertising based on context.
Another avenue to revenue is implementing expert advice. People who use services like Stack Overflow are already searching for the best possible answers. By enabling users to pay for answers from credentialed experts, fact-based services can turn their existing users into a source of revenue.
People ask opinion-based questions everyday, but opinion-based services are just starting to really separate from fact-based counterparts. Two services focused on opinion-based questions are Facebook’s question service, which allows users to poll of friends, and niche, topical services like Fashism, which is focused on fashion questions. Instead of search, opinion-based services tend to be organized in more general categories. Responders provide opinions in categories that are relevant based on their own values, beliefs, or experiences. People generally have many more value- and sentiment-based questions throughout the day than factual questions. This behavior has the potential to produce larger mindshare on the opinion-based side of the splinter.
While opinion-based services may not be the best place to find the proper mixture to make concrete, issues of redundancy are mitigated because the questions are highly personal and timely. The same questions can be asked, but they will all have a different meaning and context based on the asker, responder, and the environment at the time of the question. This creates an environment with many similar, but temporary questions, and a high volume of sentiment rich data to anticipate trends and events.
Opinion-based Q&A lends itself to mobile devices more readily, ensuring users can ask the question at the point of their decisions in real-time — such as when shopping. Because mobile phones are primarily communication devices, sharing of opinions (and the underlying beliefs and values that drive them) can lead to social discovery as users find more users like themselves. Anyone can have an opinion despite level of expertise, instigating social connections form within the larger community based on value, belief and interest.
There are two principle ways to monetize an opinion-based service. The first is market research, which fits naturally into the flow of asking and answering opinion-based questions. Brands can ask for opinions, view aggregated sentiment-based responses and collect profiles of preference data. All of this insight can be tapped into in real-time — for example, if you wanted to see the sentiment towards BP right after a press briefing or a new commercial during the oil spill.
Late-stage advertising is also an attractive long-term strategy to generate revenue. According to the McKinsey Quarterly, 74 percent of final purchase decisions are made as a combination of in-store factors and consumer-to-consumer interactions including opinions and advice. While search and fact-based services may touch a number of users when they are researching products, opinion-based services provide faster feedback and are generally more accessible at the crucial point of final purchasing decisions.
Because of the relative youth of the question-and-answer space, influencers and investors often pressure services to capture both the fact- and opinion-based users. To succeed moving forward, companies must create business models that build on the strengths of the two segments, rather than diluting their message by trying to encompass everyone. Much in the way people are using multiple social networks on a daily basis to reach people in different ways, people will have the opportunity to use a combination of fact-based and opinion-based services to find the best answers to their questions.
With the large market and multiple revenue opportunities available, the path to success over the next year will be a continued divergence into more and more specialized products. This specialization, however, will lead to better answers for all our questions.
Dan Kurani is the founder and CEO of opinion-based Q&A service Opinionaided.