When the right elements at the right place, the right time, and under the right circumstances converge you get a PERFECT STORM. 

A perfect storm is brewing right now in marketing. 

The way consumers find information on the internet has changed dramatically over the last 10 years. 

Search began with simple keyword queries, evolved into the semantic web, and has now quickly morphed into question answering.

The Answer Economy sits at the center of the storm where the combination of changing consumer trends and technological breakthroughs are fundamentally changing the marketing landscape. 

What is the Answer Economy?

The term Answer Economy refers to the technology-enabled transformation driven by consumer demand for real-time, on-demand, direct answers to their questions. 

What is an Answer Engine?

An Answer Engine is a hybrid of site search and conversational chatbots designed specifically to help your visitors get direct answers to their questions on your website.

Changing Consumer Trends and Technological Breakthroughs

Consumerization of B2B:

B2C and B2B are converging.

Research presented at Adobe Summit 2019 clearly shows that B2C and B2B experiences are converging.  All consumers, B2C and B2B, now expect a smooth, simple, enjoyable experience when researching and buying new products. According to the Salesforce State of the Connected Customer Report, “ 82% of business buyers want the same experience as when they’re buying for themselves.”

Voice search:

Different studies estimate voice search will represent anywhere between 20% to 50% of the search market and 30% of web browsing sessions will be done without a screen.

Given the growth of voice-activated devices like Amazon Alexa and Google Home it looks like we are just starting to see a glimpse of a world that runs on voice.  

While this growth doesn’t mean that text-based search will completely go away, it is a clear indication that marketers need to take this new consumer trend seriously. 

Natural Language Processing (NLP):

Advancements in AI-driven Natural Language Processing (NLP) allow search engines to deliver specific answers versus providing a list of suggested results.

While the research varies, the general belief is that about 15% of Google search queries result in direct answers. This number is only expected to increase as consumer behavior continues to shift towards question-based search queries. 

AI-powered Knowledge Management:

The amount of content and data being generated every day is unfathomable (both on the open web and internal sites), well beyond what humans can consume.  

Companies that can embrace the changing dynamics of the Answer Economy and optimize their workflows accordingly, will see benefits such as decreased time knowledge workers spend doing research and increased time available for more strategic and creative work. 

Key players in the Answer Economy

Content creators:

Content creation, as well as writing for NLP,  plays a critical role in the Answer Economy.  

Optimizing content for answers is no longer a “nice to try marketing tactic” or an optional strategy. If you don’t answer your customer’s questions, your competitor will.

Winning in today’s Answer Economy requires you to meet today’s consumers’ search expectations by optimizing your content for answers but in return, you win with user experience, speed, and customer success. 

Question Answering forums such as Quora become even more valuable in the Answer Economy as they represent a massive repository of content already structured in a question-answer format.  

Virtual Digital Assistants (VDAs):

Amazon Alexa and Google Assitant own the market share for Virtual Digital Assistants (VDAs). 

Amazon Echo and Google Home are the most widely adopted digital assistants for the smart home. Most use cases for these devices are driven by voice commands that only allow users to perform specific actions, such as playing music or controlling other connected devices. 

Amazon Flash Briefings are an indicator that such devices will eventually become a significant entry point to consume digital content at scale.

Digital Assistants and other connected devices are no longer just for the home. Smart devices are starting to show up in workplaces and businesses in the form of audio solutions for many use cases. 

Answer Engines:

An Answer Engine is a hybrid of site search and conversational chatbots designed specifically to help your visitors get direct answers to their questions on your website.  An example is Google’s ability to answer queries with Featured Snippets.  

But, it’s not just Google. There are other vertical-specific Answer Engine solutions. Answer Engines solutions are being implemented in customer support and others are being used to automatically answer RFPs for sales organizations.  

We will begin to see Answer Engines increasing replacing search engines across all aspects of business and organizations.

Knowledge Bases:

Consumers are accessing content across multiple channels in various formats both via direct answers and voice. This makes having a well-organized Knowledge Base increasingly important maybe even more so than a well-designed website. 

Solutions that help businesses organize and optimize content for questions will play a critical role. 

3 Ways the Answer Economy will Impact Digital Marketing

  1. Disruption of SEO: Featured snippets now represent over 10% of all search queries, and they capture about 20% of all clicks. Many times consumers don’t click through because the featured snippets direct answer fulfills their search intent. This is extremely frustrating if you are measured on increasing organic traffic to your website.
  2. Increased Importance of Website Conversion: Given the likelihood that direct answers found via search engines will lower traffic to your website, conversion optimization is critical. Most businesses will have to double down on content experience and make sure visitors quickly and easily find what they are looking for when they land on your website.
  3. New Consumer Expectations: Consumers are increasingly embracing the Answer Economy, businesses must catch up quickly and make their websites meet consumer expectations.  Businesses need to start thinking about new KPIs around answering visitor questions such as Answer Funnel Completion.

The current state of AI Question Answering

At this point, you are probably asking yourself how bad this perfect storm really is, how fast is this consumer-driven transformation happening, and is Artificial Intelligence (AI) advanced enough to directly answer my website visitors’ questions. These are big questions that we all need to make a priority now.

The traditional FAQ approach

Many companies have implemented a “FAQ approach” approach to question answering but mostly addressing customer support.

For online help centers and FAQs, Natural Language Processing (NLP) technology can match a visitor query to the most similar question in your FAQ. This is possible thanks to the adoption of word vectors, which allow data scientists to compute the similarity between sentences. This is already available today and is delivering quality customer service results.

The open domain approach

Beyond the FAQ approach, stands a more difficult challenge with fully unstructured long-form content such as website pages or documents on your companies intranet. They require a solution that can dig into your content and find answers autonomously.  

The data science community refers to this as a “machine reading comprehension” problem. Better understood by the non-data scientist as teaching computers to read. 

Finding answers “in the wild” is a problem that is currently unsolved in data science, but one that many anticipate will be solved soon. 

Big companies are racing for the solution

All large internet companies are deploying resources today in hopes of solving the open-domain question answering problem. 

Google has open-sourced multiple datasets, such as BERT, which is a massive language model.  

R&D teams are working on these projects and there is still a great deal of work to do translating the research into market-ready applications. 

How are you preparing for the perfect storm?