For Social Q&A, the payday comes from shopper engagement

September 24, 2012 by George Eberstadt

If you know customer reviews, you know that half of the value – maybe more – is in the insights you can extract.  So you might think the same is true for Social Q&A, since these are the two main sources of user-generated content on product detail pages.  But you’d be mistaken.  For Social Q&A, engagement is the key, which means that if your Social Q&A system isn’t delivering massive customer interaction, it’s falling short.

In a recent talk I gave to a gathering of e-commerce execs from major brands and retailers, I asked the audience for a show of hands on this: if they were forced to turn off part of their customer review system, which part would they chose?  The options were:

  • Turn off the back end.  Visitors to their sites and storefronts could see all the reviews, as could search engines, but all the analytics would be gone.
  • Turn off the front end.  All the analytics would be available, but none of the content would be visible to shoppers or search engines.

The room split exactly in half.

At the Summit last week in Denver, the CMO of a fashion brand told me he had just run a rigorous A/B test on their customer reviews.  He was new to the brand, and even though they’d had reviews for a while, he didn’t want to just assume it was working.  He tested the overall, site-wide effect on conversion (not just whether items with reviews did better than items without, or whether high-scoring items sold better than low scoring items).  His discovery: negative lift!  Overall, sales dropped a bit when reviews were turned on.  So I asked if he was going to turn reviews off.  He said that hadn’t been decided; the insight value they got from reviews was important enough that they would probably keep them after all.  (There’s neat recent story on how stores are using the insights from customer reviews to steer their businesses in the Wall Street Journal.) n.b. Fashion brands seem to have a stormier relationship with customer reviews than many other retail segments.  Your mileage may differ…

If you have had this sort of experience with customer reviews, you might  think that the value equation is about the same for Social Q&A.  But it’s not.  While Social Q&A can also deliver valuable insights, it is first-and-foremost an engagement tool.  You are not going to make up for poor Q&A engagement with analytics.

To put it simply: an unanswered question is a real downer, whereas no one ever knows about the review that was never written.  Unanswered questions on your product detail page scream “nobody home”.  First, there are the disappointed shoppers who asked questions and never heard back.  Then there are the shoppers who come later and see all the unanswered questions stacked up.  Sure, you can hide unanswered questions, but that makes it even less likely they get answered, and it doesn’t help the person who asked.  You can have your staff answer all the questions, but then you’re probably better off with a live chat approach, and you’re missing out on all the benefits of getting your real customers to interact with your shoppers.  In short, if your Social Q&A system doesn’t quickly and reliably get lots of customer answers to shopper questions, you’re probably better off not inviting shoppers to ask.  It’s better not to create expectations if you’re not going to be able to fulfill them.

On the other hand, if you get Social Q&A right, the massive customer engagement it generates effectively drives top-line growth.  One fashion merchant that uses TurnTo for Social Q&A sees 1100% conversion lift from those who ask questions or read dialog from others.  And it’s not an isolated effect – about 25% of their orders come from shoppers who interact with Q&A before purchasing.

Further, there are the SEO benefits;  Social Q&A done right produces 2-4 times as much user-generated content (UGC) as customer reviews, which is great for driving organic search traffic.  If your Social Q&A system is not delivering enough customer engagement to produce UGC at scale, it’s under-performing.

So the next time someone tells you that engagement isn’t important for Social Q&A – that it’s the analytics that matter, just like for customer reviews – start by asking what sort of customer engagement their Q&A system produces.

TripAdvisor’s new Facebook integration shows the future of social commerce

July 14, 2010 by George Eberstadt

If you sell online and haven’t seen TripAdvisor’s new Facebook integration, check it out.  It’s a great example of what the future of social commerce is going to look like.  Go to any destination page on and look for the blue box to the right of the image.  Here’s what it looks like for me for Zurich:

There are three aspects of this application that point the way to the future.

Context.  You could get the information displayed here – which of your friends has been to a place you’re researching – by going to the TripAdvisor Cities-I’ve-Visited app.  But would you?  Here, TripAdvisor is delivering the social information in the context of your normal research path, rather than forcing you to detour to get it.  That makes you much more likely to consume this influential content.  For online merchants, context is just as important.  Shoppers do product research on product sites, not on social sites.  So it’s more powerful to bring the social references into the normal shopping path than it is to bring product information into the social environment.

Data source integration.  This tool combines two data sources – one from TripAdvisor and one from Facebook.  TripAdvisor has a database of places that many of their members have been.  It comes from a popular app they built a few years ago called “Places I’ve Visited”.  These data are combined with Facebook’s who-knows-who data, enabling TripAdvisor to tell you which of your friends have been to a particular place.  (Note: this has nothing to do with Facebook’s “Like” functions!)  As a merchant, you have a database just like TripAdvisor’s that you can leverage in a similar way: your purchase history data.  A mash-up between this data set and friend lists from Facebook (and other sources) is the key to delivering socially-enhanced shopping experiences.

Message-based communication.  The backbone of social commerce, to date, has been customer reviews.  Though highly effective, they’re not really all that social.  The shopper who posts a review never knows who will read it.  The shopper who reads a review can’t reach the person who wrote it.  There’s no direct communication between shoppers.  But in this TripAdvisor app, a visitor is offered a channel to connect directly to people with knowledge of the topic.  This is not passive Q&A where questions just hang around waiting for someone who can answer to happen by.  This is a message-based model where shoppers can actively reach out to one another.  My question about Zurich is not just posted on the Zurich page, it’s sent to the inbox of people who have been to Zurich.  That deepens and extends the engagement of the current visitor, who is called back each time their question is answered.  And it re-engages the past visitor who receives and answers the question.  This direct, message-based communication is also in the (near) future of social commerce.