Have a Question? Do the 'ChaCha'

Want to know where to fill up on the cheapest gas? Ask ChaCha!


June 10, 2008 — -- No question is too complicated, too bizarre or too random for ChaCha, a recently launched mobile answering service that promises quick and accurate answers to your inquiries via text message.

Wondering where the cheapest place to buy gas is in your city? ChaCha knows.

Want to know which team won the 1985 Super Bowl? ChaCha can tell you, so long as it can be done in 160 characters or less.

Anyone with a cell phone with text messaging capabilities can text a question to ChaCha (242-242 in numbers), and in minutes will receive an answer to their question. There is no charge for the service, though standard text message fees do apply.

"Using ChaCha is like having a smart friend around all the time," said Brad Bostic, president and co-founder of ChaCha, who launched the service in January 2008 with business partner Scott Jones.

But what Bostic says makes ChaCha different from other answering services like 4-1-1 or Google mobile is the human component.

"There is nobody that I've seen that delivers the kind of sophisticated solution that we have that really combines the human intelligence with the technology to provide accurate answers," Bostic told ABCNEWS.com.

Sarah Nickow, one of 10,000 ChaCha guides, has answered 1,523 questions since passing the application tests and getting hired at the site in March 2008. She estimates that she's made as much as $160 in one month – approximately twenty cents per question she answers.

"The first couple of months I worked for ChaCha I spent a lot of time on it – 10 to 12 hours a week – but this month I'll do less because I started going back to school," said Nickow, who said she chose to apply for ChaCha primarily because of its flexible work hours.

All Nickow has to do to report to work is log on to the ChaCha Web site and wait for a question to pop up on her screen.

Nickow responded to one question during her interview with ABCNEWS.com – one that asked if she liked pinecones.

Surprised by the question, Nickow reveled in her chance to show some personality – ChaCha instructs the guides to have some fun with the users, who don't know the identities of the guides.

"ChaCha encourages you to be sarcastic with your answers," Nickow told ABCNEWS.com of the site, which does not regulate the number of hours a guide must work. "The whole idea is that they want the people who use this program to know it's a person answering – that's what makes ChaCha different."

"I have never given the question much thought," Nickow responded to the user with the pinecone inquiry. "I don't personally have many opinions regarding pinecones. They don't bother me…"

Moments later, she was responding to a question from a user inquiring about a video game's release date.

Nickow told ABCNEWS.com that while the majority of the questions she answers are about sports scores or local restaurants, there are plenty of users who fool around with the system and ask sexually explicit questions.

Repeat offenders can be blocked from the site, Bostic said, but silly questions are still encouraged for the most part.

Bostic says he's found that the guides' ability in answering everything and anything makes the service that much more fascinating to users and increases their rate of return.

"We're answering millions of questions a month, and hundreds of thousands a day," said Bostic, who said on average he uses the service 10 times a day.

"Fifty-five percent of people who try ChaCha keep using it, and on average consistent users use the system 40 times a month, or more than once a day," added Bostic, who said that the site has just started making revenue by linking to specific sites within their answers. For example, if a user asks about the release date of DVD, the responding ChaCha guide will not only tell them the date but send them a link to a site where they can purchase the film, he explained.

David Griner, a writer specializing in social media at marketing agency Luckie & Company, told ABCNEWS.com that while ChaCha is not the first system to utilize humans as fact seekers, they are the most direct in doing so.

Mahalo.com describes itself as a "human-powered search," said Griner, but really they use real people to organize search results so that you only get the most accurate answers.

Twitter also has a sort of human answering service known as "AnswerMe" which lets you ask a question to a large Twitter audience, but there is no guarantee that those people answering have any idea what they're talking about.

"I'd rather ask a network of people I trust a question than hope one of the three million results on Google are right," said Griner, who said he's seen a trend over the past year of search engines utilizing humans to find answers. ChaCha's screening process of their guides adds to its legitimacy as an accurate source of information, added Griner.

ABCNEWS.com tried to stump ChaCha — but to no avail. When we asked whether Britney Spears had a shot at a comeback, ChaCha responded, "Britney Spears ruined her comeback at the VMAs." When ABCNEWS.com asked why Big Brown lost this weekend's Belmont Stakes, ChaCha responded, "It's still unclear, Big Brown's Trainer has said, 'I got no idea. I was looking for a problem, and so far I can't see a problem.'"

As for Nickow, she says she enjoys working for ChaCha not only for the extra spending money but also because of the opportunity to help people solve their burning questions.

Even so – Nickow says that working for ChaCha can be as stressful as any other more conventional job – especially when she gets an answer wrong.

"During the first few weeks I got a question that was asking about the relationship between Pokemon characters," said Nickow. "I have no knowledge of the Pokemon world and so I tried to find the answer but I guess I was wrong."

"I got an e-mail from [my ChaCha boss] quality saying that my answer wasn't accurate and to please try harder next time," remembered Nickow.

"I actually felt really bad," she said. "I was really upset that I had done a bad job and now this person is out in the world thinking these Pokemon characters are cousins – and they're not."

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