Quora’s hardest question: Which users matter?

It was less than a year ago that Quora saw a nice little bump in traffic. Quora was on everyone’s lips and many of the Valley cognoscenti predicted  that this is was just the beginning of the hockey stick. 10 millions users before the end of 2011, they crowed. True, there were skeptics, myself included.

The promised growth never materialized and what seemed like a sure thing to some is growing even more slowly than I thought it would.  So what happened? Why didn’t the hockey stick-like growth occur?

In January, great conversations were being had and tech celebrities like Steve Case and Reed Hastings were participating. The site was fun and engaging, informative and yet still playful. For me personally, Quora was a a discovery engine, introducing me to smart people and great conversations.

However, sometime in the beginning of spring they deployed an army of unnamed “administrators” to police the site.  Quora was setting strict and oftentimes arbitrary ground rules for engagement. This type of heavy-handed engagement not only turned off the new users, but also some of the existing users. And the hardcore users weren’t very excited about new users joining as well. And then when Robert Scoble joined all hell broke loose.

By all rights, a consumer-facing site with no revenue model, modest gains in a userbase and users which are hostile to site growth would be a recipe for disaster.

Therefore, you would expect big changes…. opening up the site and finding ways to make it more user friendly…. or you would expect it to fail. Yet, Quora chugs along without a userbase that can make it profitable.

There are two reasons for this: 1) Quora has a vision of the what the product should be and that is independent of what the new users wanted and 2) they are well-funded enough that they don’t need have immediate needs to show traction to get additional funding.

So what exactly is Quora’s vision of what the product should be?

It became clear to me what Quora’s vision of their product in Charlie Cheever’s paean to Wikipedia. Quoth Charlie:

I love Wikipedia. It’s the original site that works because of the constraints it imposes. You have to follow the spelling and grammar. You have to format it this way. You have to use the objective voice….. A lot of times, too, people say to me, “As Quora gets bigger, isn’t the quality of answers on the site going to degrade? Don’t you know people on the Internet are stupid?” In the face of that, Wikipedia is inspiring. It’s reassuring to be able to look at what you’re doing and say, some percentage of people really care and are smart. If you can get them interested, they can build something of real value.

So Quora has an interesting challenge… they are trying to build two types of communities: content creators/curators and content consumers. Problems arise when the content consumers try to answer questions and get beat down by the creators/curators. Of course, how are the consumers to know that they aren’t supposed to answer questions? It’s a Q&A site after all, and no one likes being told that they aren’t smart/clever/eloquent enough to answer a question.

Quora’s challenge is to cultivate content creators/curators without getting the unwashed masses to answer questions. That’s why they created ask-to-answer and give creators/curators credits to disperse. See below:

As someone who has been active on Quora, I have credits to give someone to answer the question. Helpfully, Quora has an algorithm to identify users who might present the best answer.

This is not the first time that Quora has used technology to solve what would normally be a community problem. In the past, Quora has used thousands of Twitter accounts for SEO purposes. I’ve also noticed  that Quora is populating geo-specific questions on their mobile app using a bot. ( I mean, seriously, why else would there be 16 questions about Campbell, California?)

Quora’s mobile strategy is a post for another time. The question that we’re trying to address here is, can Quora cultivate two concurrent communities and still have expansive growth. My immediate impression is that they are dealing with a chicken and egg problem.

So what Quora has essentially decided is that it’s content creators/curators are more important right now than the content consumers. Quora’s approach is to incentivize and build for the content creators/curators and hope the the content consumers arrive later.

Breaking it out using the customer ecosystem model, Quora is doing a decent job with the content creators/curators:

However, Quora is doing a poor job in terms of bringing in content consumers and once they are there, doing something to keep them engaged.

It’s not to say that Quora hasn’t tried to reach out to broader consumers to get their interest. Quora worked with Paramount to get filmmaker JJ Abrams to answer a few questions, but they will need more than some celebrity respondents to reach the hockey stick growth that people expected.

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