Amazon’s Customer Q&A Is Social Commerce Done Right

Feb 25, 2013 8:56 AM  By

Where Amazon leads others follow. No one else has the resources or data that they have to figure out what really works. So it’s significant when they introduce a major new element to the shopping experience.

Rolled out over the last few weeks, Amazon now offers true social Q&A on most of their product pages. And it’s great. (Disclosure: I’m biased. It works just like the social Q&A system that my company provides. Hmm…) Amazon is not the first to introduce this, like they were with customer reviews. But they have leapfrogged the competition with a beautiful execution of the concept.

Amazon’s social Q&A is explicitly designed for shopper-customer dialog about products; they say that they remove questions that are about shipping, availability, orders, and customer service. And they have built a powerful engine for ensuring that questions reliably get answered by past buyers, which provides a great experience for shoppers without creating a massive support burden for Amazon.

They key to making social Q&A work for eCommerce is speed, and Amazon has done all the right things to make their model fast:

  • The question appears immediately on the page when you submit. In the age of Facebook, this is what people expect from a social experience. Not a message that says “We’ll alert you if we decide to accept your question. It may take hours or days…”
  • The question is immediately emailed to a large selection of people who actually bought the product. I just asked questions about 2 items, one of which had only one review, the other had no reviews. And yet within 2 hours I received 4 answers to one and 5 to the other! There’s no way to do that if you don’t email the question to past customers (or limit the recipient list to reviewers).
  • The answers get sent immediately back to the asker. That provides fast reminders about the purchase the shopper was considering – while the shopper is still in the buying moment – and a smooth path back to the product detail page complete it. And the answers appear immediately on the site for future shoppers to use and for the asker to view.
  • Askers can easily submit follow-up questions, or even just send thanks, back to the answerers. That, too, is email enabled, so that it’s easy to have rapid, back-and-forth dialog about products that one knows about the other needs to learn about.
  • To make the whole question-sending-answer-delivering cycle work as fast as this while still protecting their reputation and their customers, Amazon must be automating the moderation. “Optimistic moderation”, where content is moderated after posting, works fine for reviews, but not for Q&A where posts are emailed to real customers. And manual moderation doesn’t even come close to the speed needed, not to mention that it is too much work at any sort of scale.

The result of all these pieces working together is a system that finally realizes the promise of “social commerce”. In the lingo, it’s leveraging the “interest graph” rather than the “social graph”. Which means that the system enables total strangers to actually talk to each other about products in which they share an interest or experience. Customer reviews are great, of course. But they are not interactive. The 2-way dialog that social Q&A enables – when it’s done right like this – delivers a level of user engagement far deeper than what reviews can provide.

Online shoppers are going to find this system incredibly useful. For example, those questions I asked this afternoon weren’t tests. I was buying a whiteboard and I needed to know whether they erased cleanly or left a ghost image. I wasn’t going to trust the manufacturer’s description. And the information I needed wasn’t in the reviews.

Here’s one of the pages – check it out. The information I got back is far more informative for my question than what’s in the manufacturer’s description or what a customer service rep (who would not have had personal experience with the product) could have provided. And since I now know that answers come back fast, the next time I’ve got a question standing between me and a purchase, I won’t hesitate to ask.

The business significance of this utility is huge. It’s not just that shoppers are more likely to buy when they get the information they need. With a tool this powerful, Amazon has now given shoppers yet other reason to go straight to Amazon next time they ready to buy.

If you run an online store, you need this functionality. It provides significant conversion lift, produces a mountain of user-generated content (which search engines love), and off-loads work from you customer service team. Plus, it builds loyalty! (Here’s some data we’ve collected on all these points.) You don’t need to let Amazon run away with yet one more reason for shoppers to buy there rather than at your store.

The best way to understand how Amazon’s social Q&A works is to go there and try it out. But, for a shortcut, here are screenshots of the main elements.

George Eberstadt is CEO and Founder at TurnTo Networks.