Commentary

ChaCha's Conversational Search

I have been having trouble getting my head around ChaCha, the human search engine where people, not just algorithms, answer text and voice questions. And then Vice President of Marketing Susan Marshall told me some of the results of the company's most recent user survey. "We find the majority of users, more than 80%, are under 25 -- a lot of teenagers and college-aged students."

So now at least I understand why I don't quite get ChaCha. It's the same reason I feel like an alien intruder when asking my daughter why she doesn't just call her friend after the 40th text exchange in five minutes. I am still old and crotchety enough to think I am forestalling the day her mom and I have to bring her in for the inevitable thumbectomy. "You're going to need those things for something productive some day, you know. You may want to save the tendons for adulthood."  

For the uninitiated, ChaCha is a text and voice-based mobile search service that has 55,000 registered "guides" responding via SMS to all manner of question. Users ask for answers to trivia questions, for a joke, movie suggestions, even advice about life quandaries. Marshall says the topics are a blend of social (settle a bet) to entertainment (what DVD to rent) to utilitarian (where can I buy a Wii online and what time does the movie start?). The guides use their own set of online references and the system can automate replies from a growing database of previously asked and answered questions.

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Marshall says there are 3 million unique phone numbers in the database now, with about 1 million monthly uniques. The service fields 300,000 questions a day, largely because ChaCha fans get hooked and keep coming back for more -- on average, 10 times a month. About 16% of the users have smart phones, and there is a large concentration of use in the Midwest.

Now, I do understand the discreet charm of SMS. You can communicate with your teen daughter, for instance, without hearing the attitude. I appreciate that. But I never got into SMS as an everyday search tool. The impulse to use ChaCha still seemed odd to me until Marshall mentioned that a good many of the young searchers actually get into exchanges with the guides. They start talking to one another in a chat/IM mode. Search as we know it evolves into a conversational tool and anonymous social networking.

In fact, it is that conversational quality that informs ChaCha's early forays into ad support. The company needs to start monetizing, especially since it pays its guides by the answer. Like other SMS ad networks, ChaCha is starting to append text ads into an available slot of about 27 characters on the bottom of replies. Early text campaigns for Coke and McDonald's started last year, and the ad product itself has been available since November.

Marshall says that the best results come from campaigns that evoke the conversational ethos of the service. Rather than directly pitch a tune-in campaign for a realty TV show recently, they started with a tease: "Have you made your New Year's resolution?" A series of branched and automated SMS exchanges finally ends with the tune-in message for the show. The campaign led 21.57% of recipients to interact with the messaging until the end.

Marshall says that typical response rates are in the 4% to 5% range, but part of that performance has to do with the good match between early advertisers and this demo. "When an ad wants to target entertainment or use celebrity, we are finding that with this young demographic it is pretty amazing."

And it is all about the audience. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the early results from ChaCha is that the ad effectiveness does not seem to depend on contextual relevance, ads targeted to the types of questions. "We thought that would be a big deal," says Marshall, "but it seems to be more about the user and the demographic and whether the product or the offer resonates."

ChaCha is learning a lot about its users just from the question history, which can be mapped against responses. An advertiser can know not only who responded to an ad but what other interests they may have, whether they skewed female, had tech or entertainment interests, etc. While ChaCha doesn't have personal profiles on its users, it does have algorithmic tools like a "genderizer" that can tag user attributes simply by the kinds of questions they ask.  

Not to beat my familiar "form follows function" drum I have been banging for the past few weeks, but ChaCha's early success seems to underscore the obvious about mobile media. The best ad formats and messaging here will appropriate the basic functionality of the device, conversation.  The audience for ChaCha is seeking and finding that human connection in the machine.  It is something much more than search.

Here is an actual question to ChaCha the other day: "Why should I give him a second chance? My boyfriend told me he cheated on me. He said he was drunk and was crying and felt horrible." Being a hopeless Dad, I read this and thought only one thing.

"What, now?" my daughter asks when I start peering at her suspiciously. "What do you think I did now?" She is getting good at recognizing my suspicious glances, because, well, I am the paranoid father of a teen girl who more likely than not is doing something at any given moment that will scare the crap out of me. Of course, it wasn't her.

If you are curious, here was the ChaCha guide's ("Desiree P.) response. "You need to decide for yourself if you want to be with someone who has such a small amount of self control. Alcohol is no excuse."

I may be way outside the ChaCha demo, but this 50-year-old just found a use for the service. When my daughter asks the hard questions, I am texting Desiree first.   

8 comments about "ChaCha's Conversational Search ".
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  1. Brian LoCicero from Kantar, January 27, 2009 at 11:31 a.m.

    Although I too, am not of the demo (I'm 42), I tried to use the service during the Indy 500 last year. Cha Cha was prominently a sponsor, but yet, when I asked very specific questions to both the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and/or the race itself, I was unable to get answers.

    I think Cha Cha has to be very aware that if they align themselves with specific event marketing efforts they need to collaborate closely with the sponsors and employ staff who can answer specific questions. After my second question didn't get answered (and admittedly it was a very unique question but one that probably could have been answered by IMS employees), I discarded the service quickly and never went back to it.

    IMS is now playing with Twitter and it's obvious it's manned by track employees/marketing folk and so my propensity would be to first go there versus Cha Cha again.

    GREAT IDEA, but they need to be careful about opportunities that could backfire on them negatively with very loyal audiences.

  2. Greg Sterling from Sterling Market Intelligence, January 27, 2009 at 11:38 a.m.

    Twitter isn't yet at the point where it can truly be an "answers" service like ChaCha.

    ChaCha will be speaking about many of these issues at an upcoming event (I'm also there) in San Francisco on 1/29: http://internet2go.net/agenda.asp

  3. Larry Czerwonka from happinessu, January 27, 2009 at 11:50 a.m.

    first, i am outside the demographic (48) and would much rather sms someone than talk. second chacha needs to find a way to have paid experts in certain fields and route questions to them, that would put them well ahead of any competition and raise user confidence even higher.

  4. Uwe Hook from BatesHook, January 27, 2009 at 11:52 a.m.

    Disagree with Greg. Twitter is for me the de facto search engine, even trumping Google. When it comes to certain topics, Twitter is by far superior. Crowd sourcing will always trump services like ChaCha

  5. Susan Marshall from ExactTarget, January 27, 2009 at 1:33 p.m.

    ChaCha is a huge community of trained Guides and users with unique interests and specialities (over 3 million users and 1 million monthly unique users).

    And since its free, users can engage in conversations and ask clarifying questions until they get the answer they seek. Those who love us, treat the Guides like smart friends, not machines.

    Remember that answers don't come from the crowd -- but from trained Guides who are paid to find the most appropriate answer. We don't always get our answers right, but we are improving every day.

    Thank you to our community for asking thousands of interesting and unique questions every day! :)

    Have a great day!
    Susan

  6. Brian LoCicero from Kantar, January 27, 2009 at 2:21 p.m.

    Hi all, and Hi to Susan and thanks for responding:

    IMS' use of Twitter right now is acting as a back and forth between themselves and race fans/fans of the IMS, so in essence, they are already testing how to use it possibly like ChaCha.

    Please be clear though, I highly value ChaCha's services, I just think as with anything where your brand is being featured in social media/mobile media, bad experiences can exponentially spawn out of control if not carefully monitored and responded to.

    In fact, my suggestion to IMS was to improve the ChaCha efforts so that not only can they answer questions about the event/venue, but also provide updates during the race (crash updates, driver updates, etc.) When you are at a venue that big, no matter how many video screens there are, there's a quest for more information. The push/pull dynamics of the offering can go a long way towards breeding loyalty for lengths of time far past that ONE DAY.

  7. Stephen Paez from Spark Communications, January 27, 2009 at 4:09 p.m.

    I wouldn't have much faith in Chacha - many times the responses are not correct.

  8. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, January 27, 2009 at 4:57 p.m.

    Cha Cha is also the name of Barbara Walters' dog although the importance of that trivia is a mystery. So is the need for Cha Cha or how it will be able to sustain that kind of employment. Let's see - CD's or Cha Cha.

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