The Way We Work
October 18, 2011 by Julia Camenisch

  • Would you consider yourself an expert in anything?
  • Does your expertise relate to your business?
  • Are your potential customers looking online for answers related to your expertise?

If you can answer “yes” to all three of these questions, then perhaps it’s time to use your inner wellspring of knowledge as a marketing tool.

When you're looking for the answer to a burning question, are you more likely to pull out an encyclopedia or to Google for the answer? Yeah, that's probably a dumb question. The Internet IS the encyclopedia for most. While there's plenty of information to be found there, much of it is less than stellar. But several relatively new question-and-answer sites are seeking to change that. They've tapped into the power of both social media and crowdsourced quality control to create a virtual encyclopedia of practical knowledge. From Aardvark to Facebook Questions to LinkedIn Answers, there’s a plethora of truly helpful places to find the solution to almost every problem.

The growing popularity of these sites offers small businesses and entrepreneurs a new marketing opportunity: that of branding themselves as experts and thought leaders by simply answering questions. Here’s some general guidelines on how to go about doing that, as well as a specific look at three popular Q&A platforms, Quora, LinkedIn Answers and StackExchange.

Q&A Marketing 101

The trouble with social media marketing is that there is a fine line between useful promotion and marketing spam. That principle also holds true with question and answer sites. Here’s some guidelines to keep in mind as you work to build your expert status:

  • Determine whether answering questions is a worthwhile marketing endeavor. Yes, it can be mildly addictive and yes, it can be useless. If the people you’re trying to reach aren’t reading your answers, what good is the time invested? So before jumping in headfirst, take some time to browse the Q&A sites. Determine if your target audience is even there, then proceed accordingly.
  • Your answers must be informative and helpful. Marketing spam is useless on these sites. In fact, it’s worse than useless! Most of the sites allow other users to rate your answers and thereby rate you. If you’re obviously trying to sell something, you’ll probably receive low rankings, thus defeating the purpose of participating in the Q&A process.
  • Don’t overtly self-promote. If people feel that you’re just trying to plug your business, they won’t trust your answers. Remember, a good reputation is precursor to sales.
  • Provide complete answers. Yes, you can link to your blog, but your answer on the site must be a sufficient enough summary that your answer can be properly rated. Any included links should be treated as “for further information.”
  • It’s not just about you. Answering questions and gaining traction as an expert allows you to advance causes you’re passionate about. Do you think sustainability is a big deal? Than promote it by answering questions on that topic. Want to encourage social entrepreneurship? Then help out by contributing your thoughts.

Using Quora:

With a Facebook style feed and a Twitter style “follow” feature, Quora can be addictive as you browse the answers provided by a veritable who’s who list of business and thought leaders. Even actor and tech geek Ashton Kutcher is there busily answering and rating questions.

The demographics of the site make it a particularly interesting hangout. Compared to its competitors, Quora’s user base is young, affluent and educated, according to a Compete.com report. And at this point, the questions and answers are by and large thoughtful, serious and geared towards professionals.

Here’s some tips for use:

  • Your bio summary shows up next to your name when you answer questions, so make it good. Also, your Quora profile is a key marketing tool for potential customers to find out more about you. Make sure you fill it out completely.
  • Create different bios for different areas of expertise. This is a great way to tailor your message.
  • If you’re looking for local traffic, then tune in to the city or region specific channels.
  • You can embed your Quora activity on your website. Brent Logan has written a handy tutorial on how to do this.

Using LinkedIn Answers:

This hotbed of business professionals is a great resource both for advice and for connecting. If you’re looking to reach consumers, this probably isn’t the best place to invest your question answering time. But if you’re looking to make some B2B connections, LinkedIn Answers is the place to go. Here’s some tips on usage:

  • Answering questions is a great way to build your network on the site. Leverage that connection power even further by referencing others in your answer. Don’t be insincere, but if there’s someone you’ve been wanting to connect with that gives good advice on the subject, then refer to them in your answer.
  • Keep on top of relevant questions using an RSS feed. Jason Falls over at Social Media Explorer has a helpful how-to post on this.
  • If you have trouble keeping your profile updated, connect your Twitter feed to it. Then when leads look for more info on you, they’ll see an active profile.
  • Asking questions is also a good way to connect with others in your industry. Don’t be so focused on your own know-how that you miss the opportunities that a simple question can open up.

Using StackExchange

StackExchange sprung out of the success of StackOverflow, a collaboration site for programmers and developers. As such, it’s a very focused and intense community. Not much frivolity going on here. There’s 64 different topic communities, many of them geared around tech and science topics.

  • You’ve got to know your stuff here or you’ll be called out on the carpet pretty quickly.
  • The founders encourage you to ask and answer your own questions, if you’ve overcome an interesting or common problem. This is a great way to contribute to the community and to market your expertise.
  • If you're linking to a product as part of your answer, make sure you divulge any business connections. Mentioning your own product isn't taboo, but the community's moderators insist on transparency.

Now here' s my question for you: have you used Q&A sites for business promotion? If so, what were the results and what advice would you give others? Post your answers in the comments section below.


Julia Camenisch

Contributing Author

Julia Camenisch is a freelance technology and business journalist. She also works as an editor and copywriter for a wide range of clients, including national magazines, small businesses and nonprofit organizations. Julia brings to oDesk a passion for empowering small businesses through the innovative use of technology.