Getting answers from third-party experts usually costs good, hard money. Sites like Quora, LinkedIn Answers, and Fluther remove this pain and let you get the answers to things for which Google just isn't going to give good results. If I actually want to know about search engine optimisation (SEO), for example, I'll ask an answer site before Google because of the spammy results I'd get out of Google from that query.
The same goes for any product you're thinking of purchasing including software or a Web service. Answer sites can give solid, unfiltered feedback from other real people rather than from marketing machines.
Earlier this year, I set up a profile on Quora, a site purpose-built for you to ask and answer questions. Being a writer, I'm in the business of answering people's questions, and a good way to get ideas for articles is to see what people want answers for. I was impressed with the people who turned out to answer questions - often high-ranking experts in their fields, with excellent, succinct answers.
Answer sites are nothing new. Yahoo Answers has been around for years, but it's been doing nothing more than clogging up search results in Google with nonsensical twaddle. Quora's model is attractive in that it attracts higher caliber answers than what you normally find from an anonymous "Yahoo"-er.
To run an informal test of how well question-and-answer sites handle a business question, I posted an identical query to Quora, LinkedIn, and Fluther. Having the time management skills of a butterfly collector, I asked about something I'm actually looking for: time management software. The question was:
"Does your business use time management software for keeping track of hours employees spend on projects? If you do, which package would you recommend? I'm looking for packages for small to medium-size businesses rather than an enterprise solution."
Quora gives me the finger
I started with Quora since it seemed to have the most potential. I tagged my question in the appropriate areas and fed it into the wild, checking back on the status of the answers throughout the day. I figured it would take a day or two to get some responses. Instead, my question and got tagged as a survey question either by Quora itself or by a Quora user, as the image below shows.
That reads as a giant stake in the heart of the theory that Quora could be useful for answering the kind of questions business owners are likely to ask. Such questions are apparently anathema on Quora, and also likely go a long way towards helping to fight both question and answer spam. So if you have a very detailed question, ensure that it doesn't address the user directly or ask for multiple responses, and you can put it on Quora.
This isn't necessarily a bad policy, but if a business wants a question answered quickly, Quora clearly is not the solution.
LinkedIn answers gives me the answers
I asked the exact same question on LinkedIn's Answers section. This was clearly where the people I was hoping to meet were, judging from the 10 remarkably well thought-out and helpful responses my question got. While roughly half were clearly from the purveyors of various time-management software, a few extremely helpful entries came from people who had been using the software in question. In the end I checked out Active Collab, Basecamp, and Paprika based on the recommendations that I got from LinkedIn Answers.
The pace of the users' responses was remarkably fast, as well. I got one response the day I posted my question and the rest followed shortly thereafter. (If you want to leave a question open longer, you have the option to extend.)
Next page: Fluther...and the best answers to my question?
LinkedIn Answers has an honor system. A few of the people answering my question had come up with "Best Answers" in other categories. I'll get the opportunity to pick a best answer when my question closes, which means that if you spend a bit of time answering questions, you're bound to get some props from peers at some point.
You can also report an answer as an advertisement, which I won't do with any of the answers I got, since they were all relative to my question. However, this does mean that you're skirting a bit of a line if you're a company answering questions from people like me who may be thinking of buying your product.
To ask your own question, log in to your profile and visit the LinkedIn Answers home page. It has a handy learning center.
Fluther answers a little, and warms my inner geek
Fluther is a great site that lands firmly in the middle of the space occupied by LinkedIn Answers and Quora. The vibe on Fluther is decidedly hip, relaxed, and non-corporate. If you're a designer, creative, programmer, or something else that involves sweatpants at the office, Fluther may be more your milieu.
I again asked the exact question with the exact wording on Fluther, and got three very helpful responses. I'll be checking out Harvest for time management, based on the recommendations I received.
Fluther's honor system is "lurve", the hipster misspelling of "love". The more times you log in to the site, receive "Great Answers" from other users, have other users add you, and ask "Great Questions", the more your score will increase. The geeky sense of community is enough to keep you on the site for an unforgivably long period.
Specialty answer sites
If you're in a specific industry or need answers on a specific topic, you may have an equally specific answer site. LawPivot is an excellent resource for any small business, which gives you answers to legal questions from those in the know in the legal industry. Every small business should have it bookmarked. Tip'd is its counterpart in the accounting industry, which deserves a spot right under LawPivot on your bookmarks list.
In the end, the best gin joint to get your corporate-type questions answered is LinkedIn Answers. Fluther is a lot of fun, and has a great community feel that less corporate types will enjoy. I still love Quora, but I think its policy is too broad, making it less accessible to the average user.