Thursday, December 21, 2006

Answers Arms Race: Amazon Launches Askville Beta

Well, no sooner do I finish with one answers service when another rears it head. I just received an email from Amazon announcing the launch of Askville, a new beta service that provides...yes, another community service for asking questions and providing answers. While demonstrating lots of best practices - good user interface, discussion boards to expand discussions on answers, the ability to view similar questions and their answers, tagging of questions - overall this is not much more than a well thought-out clone of other services. That said, it's a good clone, one that takes advantage of some unique Amazon strengths. Login to the service can be accomplished via one's existing Amazon account, while an icon on the top navigation bar tells me that I have already earned one "quest coin." This icon links to a placekeeper "coming in 2007" page for Questville, a service that appears to be a planned rewards center for Askville community members.

The Questville twist is by far the most interesting aspect of this new service. Other social media sites are using cash payments and other forms of recognition to encourage loyalty, so that in and of itself is far from new. But here is an interesting example of Amazon building community content as a way to translate that community loyalty into loyalty for its other online brands. One assumes that Questville will provide rewards points towards purchases via Amazon, with the ability to promote content and goods available via Amazon that match an Askville's question activity - an Amazon speciality already. In a way Askville content becomes a great market research tool for learning about the interests of Amazon shoppers and matching them up with merchandise from their network of online stores. Why bother with external advertising when you can put the right goods in front of a captive audience for their choosing?

This could be a particularly strong motivator for users with focused expertise to settle in to Askville and to have Amazon pump trinkets their way from their online store via Questville that match up with their interests. If you're, say, an expert on a certain kind of music, why not answer a few questions now and again to get some downloads or CDs from your favorite artists? Or if you're an expert on HDTV, you can build a franchise that will build points towards your purchase of the next hot model in Amazon's store.

In the 1930's the Montgomery Ward department store chain devised a a brand-new character for a promotional story booklet: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Millions of kids scooped this up as their parents came into their stores for the holidays through the years. It became a huge loyalty factor in its time. Here is today's online department store coming up with year-round promotional content that not only drives traffic and brand loyalty but, if we can assume what Amazon will do with Questville, targeted sales. Yet again, content to the rescue of a sagging retailer.

This interplay of questions services and online ecommerce is in its very infant stages at this point, but it is going to be a huge opportunity for content services providers over the next few years. Matching expertise from users, vendors and retail outlets with the curiosity of potential purchasers is creating a new level of online reference services that will act not just as searchable bookshelves but as confidence-building services that will facilitate the trust required to conduct transactions with a given party. Expect Q&A services to spring up like weblogs in many different kinds of venues in 2007, leveraging not just everyday users but the expertise available from local merchants, corporate help desks and other sources of insight that can support knowledge seekers.
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