expert

There was a time when it was unheard of to seek answers online to everyday questions. Today, it’s become second nature. With more than 65 million monthly unique visitors, Demand Media’s eHow.com is one of the largest players in this space – not to mention the twelfth largest website in the US. But despite a catalog of more than 3 million articles and 150,000 instructional videos created by experts, the site faces a difficult challenge trying to be everything to everybody.

Beyond the mundane questions like “How to change a flat tire” and “How to roast a Thanksgiving turkey,” there’s only so much that can be addressed through static, generic content. My problems are simply different than your problems, which are different still than the next guy’s problems. Today, the company is taking a major leap toward personalizing its instructional with the launch of eHow Now, a paid platform that will allow consumers to chat directly with category experts to obtain unique real-time answers to their specific questions.

At launch, eHow Now will cover six categories – auto, tech, health, legal, personal finance, and pets. EHow Senior Director Cassandra Campbell explains that these categories each feature clearly defined experts that can be both expensive and inconvenient to access on-demand by more traditional methods. They also strongly align with where eHow has existing audience demand.

So the question is, will consumers see value in this offering and will they be willing to pay for it access to experts?

Consumers can choose to pay a $9.99 monthly subscription for unlimited access across all categories – after a 7 day free trial – or a single, per-consultation fee priced according to the category and the urgency of response requested. The average price for this à la carte option is $19.99, with the obvious intent of encouraging users to sign up for a subscription. Under either option, questions can be answered immediately via live chat or within 24-hours via email, and can contain pictures to more clearly articulate the nature of the problem. (See the company’s “How it Works” video for additional information.)

One would think that this pricing structure, combined with the free trial, would lead to a high rate of subscription cancellations. But, according to Demand Media EVP Media Dan Brian, this simply hasn’t been the case. During its six month limited beta, eHow Now has hosted more than one million expert consultation sessions. During this time, the average session length was between 10 to 15 minutes and involved more than 15 questions asked and answered, according to the company. The site’s experts received more than a 90 percent satisfaction rating, a number that has been steadily climbing as the company refines its methods. The highest performing category in terms of both engagement and customer satisfaction has been the pets category, which according to Demand Media’s Brian came as somewhat of a shock to the team.

During a live demo, I sent an expert photos of the brake calipers on my car and described a hypothetical noise I was hearing while driving. It only took a few minutes for this auto mechanic halfway across the country to diagnose the likely issue and then recommend an appropriate solution. More importantly, he told me how much I should expect to pay to get it fixed. It’s less clear how this will work in more sensitive categories like health and pets. The company made it clear that doctors won’t be offering medical diagnoses, but rather consultation and possible reassurance that a chosen course of action – a trip to the emergency room, a visit to the veterinary clinic, or a simple over the counter home remedy – is an appropriate response.

At $9.99 per month, this type of trusted confidant and advisor seems like a reasonable offering. But nonetheless, I can see subscribers balking when told to visit a doctor after already paying for access to one through eHow Now.

Today’s launch coincides with a broader initiative at Demand Media to diversify revenue streams within its portfolio. The company already excels in advertising-supported content, but is actively seeking to generate subscription revenue. This is evident in the recent launch of the Stronger online health and wellness platform under Demand’s Livestrong.com brand and its acquisition of craft education publisher CreativeBug under eHow in March of this year. More recently, the company acquired Society6, an online ecommerce marketplace for artists that represents yet a third revenue model for the content giant.

EHow built its own technology to power both the front-end Q&A and the back-end expert matching functions of the eHow Now platform. Long term, Brian and Campbell see an opportunity to license out the platform, or to partner with other publishers to embed the module on their sites. The pair also cite plans to expand into additional eHow categories and to additional Demand Media-owned properties, including near-term to CreativeBug and Livestrong.

Demand Media hasn’t always had the most pristine reputation among content creators, at times being branded with the derogatory label of a “content farm.” But, to the extent that its experts can deliver the quality of advice that eHow Now is promising, the personalized content model should be a step in the right direction toward addressing these claims. The biggest challenge will be in meeting this promise at scale. It’s one thing to answer a million questions in six months. It’s an entirely different beast to do so each month, or each week, all the while promising real-time availability. Should consumer demand to force eHow to grow its expert pool rapidly, it would certainly be a classic “good problem to have.” But it would be a problem, nonetheless.

Between Livestrong and CreativeBug, Demand Media now offers two of the most authoritative instructional sites in their respective platforms. Given the breadth of the subject matter that eHow covers, it will have to be more effective across a wider range of topics and with a more diverse audience to earn the same praise. Expanding into real-time, personalized content is more ambitious still. Demand Media gets an “A” for its ambition. It will be months before we are able to hand down a grade for its execution.

[Image source: Under30CEO]