Rethinking Health Q&A
Q&A content is the fastest growing content type at HealthCentral, and has been for years. We get a few hundred questions a week and nearly every one is answered by our Experts or community members in a timely fashion. For a health publisher, the problem with Q&A is it's less monetizable than curated areas of our site. So, we have spent a lot of time understanding what people are looking for and why they turn to Q&A over other content types.
Like in search, we find there is a short and longtail distribution of questions: most questions asked have been answered before; few questions (36%) garner bulk of traffic (95%); there is density of demand around introduction / diagnosis (58% of questions) and treatment (36% of questions) topics. [Source: HealthCentral data on Breast Cancer, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Chronic Pain and Heart Disease questions]
We have articles that cover the majority of these topics extensively, written by experts and professionals -- so why do users turn to Q&A? After reviewing the feedback we get from our community within Q&A, it seems this pattern stems from both users' inability to find answers to their specific questions through search and users' tendency to place more trust in personalized answers. For example:
"Thank you so much for your helpful advice! [...] Whenever I did google searches for my situation I just kept getting webpages and message boards that scared me even more. You definitely helped put my mind at ease and lowered my stress at least 50%." [Source: Healthcentral.com]
Broadly speaking, this tendency towards personal interactions is what has made social media so wildly successful. Just look at a site like Quora - people join solely to ask questions and get answers from people with domain-knowledge (with faith that the best answers get crowd sourced to the top). Or, look at the notoriety gained by Twitter's @ComcastGuy - he answers your questions and recommends deals for you on Twitter. Thousands of people a day are asking health questions on Twitter alone. But the difference here is people are looking for answers from their network or possibly a helpful stranger in the Twittersphere. And, they have lower expectations on whether their questions will get answered at all, let alone by a trustworthy source.
As a test, we took our HealthCentral Q&A to Twitter via @Health_Tips. The gist of it is that we find answers to your health questions on Twitter. People can ask us questions directly, but more often we find health questions and supply the answer. Today, we answer an average of 350 questions per week and have proven successful in helping thousands of people on Twitter since the soft launch of this project in June.
We have found that some of the Q&A behavior we have seen on HealthCentral seems to be magnified on Twitter. There is high demand around certain topics, like healthy eating, diabetes, allergy and ADHD, and limited demand around others like multiple sclerosis and schizophrenia. Within a given topic, people tend to ask the same questions over and over - in each topic we can answer around 50% of questions with a handful of articles (note: we do get to pick which questions we answer).
We have received overwhelmingly positive response in our Twitter conversations. And, we can see that people we help become loyal to us, by following and re-engaging with us (metrics that are somewhat harder to track on HealthCentral.com).
Here are a couple of examples of @Health_Tips Tweets:
It's clear that its human behavior to seek and trust answers from people and Q&A will remain a cornerstone of health information seeking. So, as an industry we have to figure out how to support it. For us this means developing scalable solutions to provide personalized answers to questions (ex: directing users to similar questions or providing contributors with articles most often used in answers). In kind, we are able to help people every day, and develop a loyal community across the web.