NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- To riff on one Forrest Gump: Web 2.0 is as Web 2.0 does. And for absolutely no good reason, Web giants such as Google (GOOG) - Get Report, Yahoo (YHOO) , LinkedIn, as well as sexy startups, have deigned that old-school Web-based questions and answers -- that is the webish trick of matching a questioner and someone with an answer -- is the hottest thing since e-mail.
"Pretty much everyone has a Q&A play right now," says Bill Mano, co-founder of
, a New York-based social media startup that develops tools for small businesses. "Connecting that end user to an answer is seen as very valuable."
Q&A would be just another short-shelf-life tech trend, except that offering intelligent answers to questions potential customers post or read online can be as effective a way of developing high-quality leads as any Facebook page, blog or Twitter feed. If you can help potential customers see you as a trusted source, odds are they will do business with you. So as numbing as it is to consider, keeping one's small-businesses thumb on Q&A is a smart end-of-summer bet.
Here are my three top picks for getting paid with questions and answers:
Quora is probably the leader in next-gen Q&A, and with good reason. With a slick Facebook-like log-in and Twitteresque superfast response time, registered users doubled in one month, from June to July, to 30,000. Basically, the service infers which topics you are schooled in from profile data, information posted on social media such as Facebook and your own questions about topics being discussed. You can dive in to look for threads with potential leads, like traditional Answer sites such as
. But Quora goes deeper in that it attempts to match good questions with good answers. And reward those who provide quality content with quality discussions. Done right, Quora can generate solid business relationships. If you're looking for the onramp to Q&A, start here.
Google gobbled up Q&A startup Aardvark earlier this year. The Borg then jacked the software in its Google Apps office suite platform. The conceit here is that Aardvark can send your answers back to interested questioners via Google Chat. You ask a question online and, in a few minutes, in pops a response via IM. Slick. But chat is certainly a pest after a while -- it pops up everywhere your IM is set up -- and I found the answers to be only of average quality. (The stock advice I got was to buy small caps --
!). But the network is solid enough to develop a reasonable discussion about whatever it is your business does. Done right, it can generate leads.
Basically the cold-call killer, the Linked Answers section is a serious networking tool. Simply click over to the Answers page in your account -- it's in the "extended options" bar at the top -- and see who is talking about your topic. Then comment intelligently and welcome some leads. Oh, can time be wasted here! And you will really need to get your LinkedIn presence together; a bad bio or dumb blog will hurt. But keep in mind that every Q here is linked directly to potential leads or contacts. With that sort of entree, what exactly is your excuse for not generating some business?
Let me know how your Q&A trial goes. I will be knee-deep in this trend for the foreseeable future.
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Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on Fox News and The WB.