This post continues a series on effective writing in social media.
LinkedIn's Q & A section moved a step beyond the traditional "forum" when it provided a separate page for each question with its answers, a feature appreciated by any user who has ever tried to sort out responses to one inquiry from 500 chronologically arranged and topically diverse comments. Smart Q & A participants keep their own comments in the "one page, one question" spirit: no answering questions that weren't asked, no going off on tangents, no adding new questions on the same page.
Smart Q & A participants also stick to the following principles:
When asking a question:
Be concise but clear. Questions that run more than a few sentences look too complicated to bother trying to answer; often they are, since lengthy paragraphs are frequently the mark of thoughts put down in random order. On the other hand, questions can be too short if they fail to explain exactly what is needed. Vague questions will draw vague answers, if any at all.
Keep parameters narrow. Questions such as "What are the best ways to market?" may draw recommendations that don't fit your industry or resources. Besides, the human mind tends to go blank in the face of "Oh, just anything" requests. (Remember that grade-school teacher who left you bewildered by saying "Write 1,000 words on anything you like" instead of assigning a topic?) Think "who/what/why": who are you (how is your industry/customer base relevant to the problem?); what do you need to know (not just marketing, but online/low-cost/networking marketing); why do you need to know it (to increase your customer base, improve ROI, focus your marketing efforts)?
Do put your question in an appropriate category. Sometimes the same question can be posted in more than one category. At other times, it's difficult to find any that fit; in that case, peruse the full list carefully and consider the closest match. Dumping a Web graphics question in the Law and Legal category on the rationalization that "occasionally people get sued over Web content" is pure laziness.
Likewise, when choosing connections to send your questions to, consider who actually knows the topic. Don't just copy your whole list. Most regular LI users have contacts in widely varying fields of expertise; and it doesn't do much for relationships to constantly bother people with questions they know nothing about.
Do check after a day or two to see if your question needs clarification. The first several answers should give clues as to how people are interpreting your question, and if they're confused on any point.
Don't forget to rate the question when it closes--and send a thank-you note to the Best Answerer!
When answering a question:
Avoid "fluff answers." Saying "I'd like to know that too" doesn't add a thing to the discussion. If you're really curious, send a separate message to the question-asker, or post a similar (not identical) question of your own.
If you're an expert on the topic, feel free to mention that. Here, you can even link to your website if you sell products or services related to the core problem--provided you include a genuinely helpful answer to the basic question, free of charge. Remember that ads and sales pitches have no place in social networking.
Never say that a question is dumb or unanswerable, or write anything else that might insult the question-asker or another answerer. In fact, keep your personal opinion, except as it relates directly to solving the problem presented, out of the whole thing. A surprising number of people use the Q & A pages to vent things that belong in the Discussion section, if anywhere.
Keep your answer brief--one paragraph whenever you can. Don't fill the page with an essay on the topic.
Do cover all points as thoroughly as you can, though. Consider everything the question-asker needs for a full solution to the problem. If you can give only part of that, fine; if you can answer the whole question, do so. Read the question in full; if you stop after the first two sentences, or skip the Clarification section, you may wind up answering a different question from the one that was actually asked.
If you're chosen as Best Answerer, thank the questioner!
Many entrepreneurs have found new clients through Q & A. The secret is to let your expertise shine through.
Other posts in this series:
Social Networking for the Business Writer: Profiles
Social Networking for the Business Writer: Network Updates
Social Networking for the Business Writer: "Cold Call" E-Messages
Social Networking for the Business Writer: The E-Article Connection
Social Networking for the Business Writer: LinkedIn Discussions
Social Networking for the Business Writer: Top-Ten List