This article was published on April 26, 2011

InboxQ: Your customers are on Twitter, asking questions. Answer them.

InboxQ: Your customers are on Twitter, asking questions. Answer them.

A few weeks ago Twitter got its fifth birthday badge. In that half-decade most of us have barely figured out how to abbreviate our survival efforts into 140 characters spurts.

But be honest with me: You still don’t really understand how to properly use social media to market your business, do you?

I don’t believe any of us truly understand the equilibrium of push and pull at play here, a point brought home to me when Columbia Journalism School digital media professor Sree Sreenivasan asserted we’re in the baby days of this communication revolution.

We revel in what we know. It’s been said 10,000 times you can use Twitter to listen to customers, to create impromptu hashtag-based communities and even receive reminders for task deadlines.

But the fact of the matter is the real fire under the hood is fuelling a customer, not commercial, revolution. We’re on the cusp of a fresh start for social media – the moment when baby realises gravity is holding her up, not putting her down, and the discovery phase begins.

So what do we do? We start looking for answers.

Finally, someone switched the light on

If it’s answers we’re seeking, we’ve first got to find the questions. Enter InboxQ.

My intimation we’re entering another phase in social media – one punctuated by the realisation of its ubiquitous potency – was no ill-conceived or hollow gesture.

Having spent a couple of weeks witnessing the evolution of InboxQ, this little-known browser-integrated application that literally sucks questions out of the Twitter hose, I’m convinced we’re finally on the brink of making some serious advances towards unleashing the true power of this disruptive technology.

On the surface, InboxQ is candy larceny. Pluck out and drop in your favourite SEO keywords, authenticate your Twitter account and watch as dozens of posts come tumbling down your Questions river categorised by topic, date, and so on.

In seconds.

Brand builder extraordinaire and new-age oenophile Gary Vaynerchuk spent 14 hours a day mining the Twitter Search looking for people asking wine-related questions.

It worked: @garyvee said was the most important website in 2009 and was pivotal in the evolution of Wine Library as it grew exponentially to bankroll $60 million a year.

If InboxQ had been launched earlier, I have no doubt Vaynerchuk would have referenced the tool among next steps for readers in his latest book, The Thank You Economy.

For not only does this application let you underscore your role as a trusted authority in your area of expertise – when more people are using it, and I’m betting they will, it gives curious customers a much greater chance of banking relevant, valuable answers.

Take a step further into the business’ servile responsibilities within this so-called Thank You Economy era. Twitter users with less than 100 followers are in the majority, and without InboxQ their chances to find answers are relatively small because their networks are relatively diminutive and impotent.

“This creates a great opportunity for businesses to surprise and delight these askers by providing helpful answers,” said Joe Fahrner, co-founder and CEO of InboxQ.

Just the beginning

Fahrner is no egomaniac. In fact he’s just about the most modest and unassuming digital visionary I’ve had the pleasure to meet, and that’s why I get a hunch this one’s a winner.

InboxQ is Twitter-only right now, on the Firefox and Chrome browsers, but within a few weeks we’re expecting answers on answers from other social networks. Integration into social media interfaces will follow.

Grow in increments, delight the customer as you go – it’s a template of success for any business, and in the arena of social media, clearly we need all the help we can get.

Social or search?

Being a business owner with tech smarts in 2011 is like being a metal ball in the centre of a marketing-powered Newton’s Cradle. Thundering in from the left is the search, while the equally overpowering steel sphere of social threatens to unhinge our attempts to focus efforts.

American Express OPEN and SEMPO via eMarketer say businesses are basking in the sunshine of social media. While the vast majority of us still consider our company website home base, it’s social media we’re setting our sights on now or next to yield great wins

From an InboxQ, Twitter concierge perspective, evidently social makes sense to citizens too.

We’re not yet truly semantic. Fahrner told us: “A large percentage of the questions asked on Twitter are about product advice, tech support and local recommendations. These are all categories where humans can do a much better job providing useful answers than traditional search algorithms can.”

These are interesting times for business, and tools like InboxQ can certainly deliver an advantage in our constant quest to outwit the competition.