Application lets customers ask and answer their own questions

Away.com is using a new service that leverages user-generated questions and answers to provide extra product detail.

The trust of the user community is a major factor in the success of Away.com, part of the Orbitz.com online travel...

network.

The site provides advice and assistance for users in the planning stages of a trip.

"Web users who come to Away.com expect great content," said Brian Hoyt, spokesman for Orbitz Worldwide. "Certainly, in the world of Web 2.0, community is one area we're focused and we're focused on doing it in a smart way rather than a fast way."

Away.com is turning to a new application from BazaarVoice Inc. that lets users themselves pose and answer questions.

The Austin, Texas-based company's Ask & Answer is a service that mimics the popular Yahoo! Answers and encourages online shoppers to ask and answer questions about products they're investigating at e-commerce sites.

"It's tough to write copy that's customer-centric," said Sam Decker, vice president of marketing and research at BazaarVoice. "Product copy fills a void. Ratings and reviews fill a void, but there's something missing."

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It's a void that can be filled by an e-commerce site's own customers. As it does with its product review technology and services offering, BazaarVoice moderates the questions and answers, ensuring accuracy and relevancy. The big benefit is in keeping customers on site rather than driving them elsewhere on the Web as they look for information, according to BazaarVoice CEO Brett Hurt. Amazon.com and others provide similar technology, but BazaarVoice is offering a Web 2.0 phenomenon as a service.

"So far, with Amazon services, you only get the Amazon functionality if you outsource your entire e-commerce platform to them. It's an all-or-nothing proposition," Hurt said, noting that this brings Web 2.0 features to a wider audience. "Clearly the Internet has gone mass market, but there's a lot of interesting stuff on fringes that the mass market is not going to visit."

Away.com considered building out similar functionality itself but decided instead to use the BazaarVoice technology.

"We certainly have the core competency to do that," Hoyt said, "but when you can find a partner with an exclusive relationship that has a reputation and core competency in developing technology, it's easier to work with best-of-breed."

The service offers analytics that drive insight into questions that the buying public has about products and offers the application as a widget that sits on a retailer's own Web site. Also, the questions and responses improve search engine results. BazaarVoice is offered via the Software as a Service model, where the application is housed and operated by the vendor.

Consumers using the Ask & Answer tool can also submit their email addresses so that they can be notified if their questions have been answered. Typically, it takes BazaarVoice 24 hours to moderate a question and 72 hours for answers, but the company is confident people will come back even after they've left a Web site.

"Someone who chooses to email, chat or call has to be pretty engaged," Decker said. "Given that 2.6% of people convert on typical retail Web sites, people are already leaving those sites. If they leave a question, they have a reason to come back that they may or may not have found elsewhere."

Although the new release may not offer as great a potential as its product reviews, it fits a definite need, according to Patti Freeman-Evans, senior analyst for the retail industry with New York-based Jupiter Research.

"There's certainly a growing popularity of these sorts of ask-and-answer features," Freeman-Evans said. "Our early research shows people want to go to retailers' Web sites directly when they're researching products. They don't want to -- nor do they -- go to lots of other places. Having additional ways of getting feedback right on the retailer Web site is a good option."

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This is a copout. It's akin to all the customer support sites that are actually forums powered by clients who end up solving their own issues through trial and error. Why not actually pay a couple folks to answer questions? Or better yet, if you want to go the 'library' format, have some skilled product managers look at the questions being asked and have them create answers that then live in the library. Do this weekly or monthly to keep things up to date and you'll have a much happier client base.
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Surprised more people haven't chimed in on this. Nobody wants to stand up and say this is wrong? It's the same - and I might have alluded to this - as having the grocery store ask you to check yourself out and bag your own groceries. If you've created products and drive a business, then you are best positioned to answer the questions about your service, offerings and products. Ugh!
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