“Every problem has a gift for you in its hands.”
- Richard Bach (American writer)
I am fairly certain the author I quoted had another gift in mind than improved business. The quote however, is dead on when it comes to just that. This gift can come in many – perhaps unexpected – ways, which I will elaborate on shortly:
Photo credits: MarcinMoga / Lolek
The internet is full of places with people in desperate need of your knowledge. These places range from ultra-specific websites covering only a tiny range of questions, to websites covering about everything in this universe. For your convenience, I have split up the range in two sections: general and specific.
Pretty much any subject will work here. To show the range of acceptable questions, I've viewed the front pages of several of the major players in this section and found the following set of question:
Major players in this section are: Yahoo Answers, AllExperts, Answers, Maholo, AnswerBag and ChaCha. Each of them has a slightly different approach and targeted audience, so take some time to find the website that matches you before you start answering questions.
Websites in this category are targeted to a specific audience. Because the audience is more specific, the questions are as well. Some examples of websites in this category are:
Stack Overflow, which is targeted at programmers. Acceptable questions include:
On Startups, which is targeted at entrepreneurs. Acceptable questions include:
Sports Answerbank, which is targeted at sports fans. Acceptable questions include:
Server Fault, which is targeted at system administrators. Acceptable questions include:
A remarkable thing is that I could not find a specific community driven Q and A site about SEO. There is a proposal for it at Stack Exchange which has received a lot of positive feedback, but I can not locate a live website just yet.
Forums (such as the Joomla forum) are also a great and widespread spot to answer questions. Added benefits of using a forum include the possibility to add a signature (more on which later) and an audience related closer to your product.
Let me be honest, answering questions can be a time consuming and repetitive task. In my opinion however, the benefits strongly outweigh the burdens. Some of these benefits I've outlined below, review them and judge for yourself whether they make the effort worth the while.
By having a constant stream of 'you' on relevant places, people will begin to remember your name. When you make sure this information is largely positive and insightful, people will associate these characteristics with you and your company. Psychological research has shown that especially for new or unfamiliar products, merely exposing people to your brand will increase their liking of it.
Backlinks in your signature
Many forums will allow you to put one or more backlinks in your forum signature. In my experience most of these are do-followed. On sites such as Stack Overflow you can have links in both your replies and your profile, both of which usually are no-followed. However, these links do seem to be generating leads pretty well, as shown in a post on SEOmoz.
Awareness of current issues
This includes both awareness related to issues regarding your own company and to the product you are selling. If a security problem is mentioned by a user online, you will be able to spot it far earlier if you keep an eye on websites related to your product or general market. This also applies to reputation management. When users are posting complaints about your products online, you can resolve these problems fast and personally. I've seen this behavior in person and have to say I was truly impressed by the company that employed this tactic.
Improved problem solving skills
When regularly solving the problems of others, your skills in solving problems will increase. Having learned how to systematically approach and solve a problem will prove invaluable in your own life. The reason for this is that such an approach saves you time and actually prevents future problems from occurring.
Giving back to the community
Aside from all the benefits mentioned above, helping others can be a good thing in itself. The community will greatly appreciate your help, and might give something back when you are in need of anything. This effect is called 'reciprocation' and will be discussed next.
Aside from the benefits mentioned above, helping others can also improve your amount of influence over other persons or the general market. In his classic work 'Influence' Robert B. Cialdini mentions six principles used to gain influence over others. These principles are reciprocation, consistency, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity. Since not all of the principles apply to the topic being discussed, I will discuss only three of them in detail.
If you give something to another person, he or she will feel obliged to give something back. This effect is rooted deeply in our ancestral history. It enable groups to accomplish larger and more complex tasks by promising you a reward in the future for your labor delivered today. The same can apply to the help you give others by answering questions. Whenever you are in need of answers, leads, backlinks, content, information, etc. someone who has been helped by you in the past will be more likely to provide you with what you have wished for than someone you have never had interaction with. Since the answer gave was actually asked for by them, it produces an even strong feeling of guilt to return any favor requested by you.
When doing good for another person, this will probably cause the other person to like you more. As most of you will know by intuition, you are more likely to be helped by someone who already likes you, than by someone who doesn't know who you are. As a side note: try to bring good news, research has shown that an innocent association with either bad things or good things will influence how people feel about you.
By answering questions intelligently, people will slowly start seeing you as an authority in your field. Since people generally place great trust in the words of authoritative persons, this might help you to successfully defend an unpopular opinion in the future or improve your number of followers on Twitter. After all, who wants to miss any of the words spoken by a person that has authority in his field?
As mentioned by the guys of 37Signals in their excellent book Rework out-teaching your competition is a relatively cheap and sustainable way of gaining a competitive edge. Using your knowledge to educate others will prove an invaluable way to stay on top.
Pick a website from the list above, or find one of your own, and start answering questions. In as little as 15 minutes per day, you can improve your business.