The desire to harness the vast array of individual experiences and knowledge in an online platform is not a new one – in fact the internet is littered with a graveyard of dead and dying sites attempting to do this very thing: Ask Jeeves, Aardvark, Curiosity, Yahoo Answers, Ask.com to name a few.
Of course, there have also been a number of highly successful platforms (i.e. Reddit, Wikipedia) – but one of the most impressive growth stories comes from Quora. Even as a late entrant to a crowded space that benefits greatly from network effects, the company was able to emerge as an incredibly popular site (averaging over 340 million visits per month) with a reputation for having the highest quality.
So, how did founder Adam D’Angelo do it?
As with any venture, it was a combination of luck, skill, and a thoughtful approach to “hacking” a crowd of questioners and answerers. In 2009, D’Angelo, already a big personality in Silicon Valley lore from his role as CTO of Facebook, left the social media behemoth to create a Q&A service to beat them all. His predecessors suffered from stale, inaccurate, sometimes inappropriate and mostly low-quality content. D’Angelo designed his site to address these issues:
- Users had to sign up with their real names (reducing the effects of anonymity)
- The most helpful answers would be upvoted ensuring the best and most evergreen content rather than the most recent content was at the top
- Answerers had their own platform page allowing those who were the most helpful to potentially amass their own followings (appealing to people’s egos and embedding additional virality in the site)
While these measures were helpful, they probably weren’t enough to ensure high quality outcomes and certainly didn’t help to overcome the lack of content and users. So, D’Angelo made some other choices to catapult growth and train the crowd from the outset:
- Leveraged his reputation and background to amass a ton of earned media
- Decided to initially focus the question site on where his own knowledge and network was supreme: the startup and technology space. This focus also helped to lower the hurdle on the amount of content necessary for the site to be “helpful” at the outset.
- Corralled his heavy hitting impressive Silicon Valley friends (I.e. Mark Zuckerberg, Marc Andreesen, etc.) to participate heavily in the early questions and answers. This helped set the tone for the level of depth and expertise required to answer questions, gave legitimacy to the site, and got everyday users excited about the potential to interface directly with these legends (it is rumored that Zuck’s decision to buy Instagram came from a Quora post)
- Used his own team, already deep in expertise in the technology space, to answer many of the early questions, ensuring the delivery of high quality content at the outset
- Allowed the focus of the site to evolve organically away from startups focus as additional users joined
- Invested heavily in SEO and were then greatly benefited when Google released it’s “Phantom” update which downplayed weak “how to” sites and led to a 120% increase in Quora’s organic search visits.
These initial decisions were implemented over a number of years and led to the site amassing a deep set of high quality content and users (Fortune 500 CEOs and Obama are occasional contributors). This created a pull factor for a mass following of everyday users who followed the lead on quality. Certainly, it’s an ongoing challenge to keep the standards for answers high, but there is no question that Quora continues to be a legitimate resource for expertise in the Q&A universe.
Despite this powerful network and high degree of value creation, a solid monetization plan still remains a challenge for the company. Even as late as 2014 (and with an $80mm seed round in hand), the company had made no effort to earn money from the platform. As pressures for revenues mounted, they began exploring value capture opportunities. The company piloted an ad-based business model, but users found the ads disruptive and answerers felt resentment that their free contributions were making the site money. More recently, they have begun allowing advertisers to create their own sponsored posts as their primary source of revenue.
While the team were very innovative at building and training their crowd, it remains to be seen if this will be a successful monetization strategy or if the Q&A crowd sources space will continue to churn out loser after loser.