Since its launch in 2009, Quora has gone from strength to strength. While it hasn't hooked user imaginations in the same way as Pinterest, and while it doesn't provide the demographic gold-mine that Facebook has built up, Kay Hammond of multi-award winning digital marketing agency TAMBA told technology journalist Emma Byrne that Quora should not be overlooked.
"Quora is still a relatively young startup and, despite only having a handful of employees, it has an estimated market value of $400 million," Kay said. "On the back of this, Quora has successfully raised $61 million in investment since its launch without ever making a cent of income. The market hot for Quora, and its competitors, with more users and viable revenue streams, have struggled to raise as much funding."
Thee figures show that Quora's traffic still lags behind other question and answer sites. In terms of the free competition, Yahoo Answers still attracts 50 times more visits each month. Wiki Answers draws in over 37 times more visitors and JustAnswer.com brings in ten times more. Why, then, does Quora attract so much interest, and so much investment? It might be because it is (according to the New York Observer) "the smart person's Yahoo Answers."
"Quora aims to be the easiest place to write new content and share content from the web. We organize people and their interests so you can find, collect and share the information most valuable to you," said Quora co-founder Adam D'Angelo. Co-founder Charlie Cheever said: "If you want to know more about something, Quora delivers you answers and content from people who share your interests and people who have first-hand knowledge - like real doctors, economists, screenwriters, police officers, and military veterans. On Quora, it's easy to create a personalized homepage of everything you want to know about by following topics, questions, people and boards."
There's certainly something in that, according to Kay. "Quora pulls in contributors of the calibre of Steve Case, co-founder of AOL, David Pogue, the New York Times Tech Columnist, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. Quora allows users to ask questions of, and respond to the questions posed by, a community of dedicated, knowledgeable people. The quality of the exchanges on Quora remains high, with long and thoughtful answers provided by experts. Whereas Yahoo Answers attracts questions about shopping, relationships and health, Quora tends to attract questions about investment, business and technology."
Analytics show that Quora hits a demographic that other social networks have found hard to cultivate. The average Quora user is highly technically literate, usually works in science, engineering or information technology, is relatively young and highly educated. The vast majority of their users are Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and investors. Although Quora doesn't collect demographic data for individual users - ruling out the kind of niche marketing that Facebook thrives on - their user base is a valuable one, and is one that other social networks tend not to engage with as successfully.
And Quora seems determined to keep it that way. A recent tie-in with Facebook to allow cross posting between the social networks aside, Quora is bucking the trends of social networks. It doesn't allow business accounts, has no space for advertising, and does no niche marketing. Instead it is committed to creating a space where highly savvy individuals can share their expertise.
The company is taking its commitment to keeping business off the boards seriously. In 2011, Mashable was Quora's most followed user, with over 33,000 followers, but the company banned Mashable's account in order to preserve the "individuals-only" ethos of Quora. That decision doesn't seem to have cost them users, with the number of daily visitors almost quadrupling in the last year.
Kay makes the point that Quora's unique style demands a very different mindset than many other social networks. I asked her how businesses can use Quora when the company is determined to keep the network's "person-to-person" identity? Kay has the following suggestions, based on her experience with the platform:
1) Consider Quora as an "inbound channel". Rather than using it to push a particular message about your company, you should be using Quora to learn from your customers: actual and potential. There are some extremely thoughtful commentators on Quora who are asking the kinds of questions that your brand could learn from.
2) Also consider using Quora as a channel for relationship-building. In the topics dedicated to famous brands, many Quora users are asking questions, both serious and flippant, that show a desire to create a meaningful bond with the brand. For example, the McDonnalds topic the top two questions (as voted by Quora users) are What's the point of the sesame seeds on the Big Mac and other burgers?" and "How many fries has McDonalds served?" These two questions have great answers from a food blogger and a research physicist respectively. However, there should be someone from McDonalds involved in that conversation. While business accounts are not allowed on Quora, there's nothing to stop individuals from contributing in their own right, nor is there anything to stop them from mentioning their affiliation.
3) Use Quora to build your personal brand by answering questions. Quora users can upvote answers that they find useful or insightful. If you become known for your expertise on Quora people will soon seek your input outside that channel.
4) Use Quora to build brand relations by asking open questions. For example, developers are asking what they should add to the next release of their product. VCs are looking for trends in investment. The demographic that currently dominates Quora is intelligent and tech-savvy and you can be assured of some insightful replies - if your question fires the imagination and interest of the community.
5) Use Quora to stimulate your own creativity and your development. Find a question that inspires you, and that you would need to 'reach' to answer. Maybe the answer is something that you know, but that you've never had to explain before. If so, try sharing that knowledge on Quora - nothing helps us to learn like teaching. If the question requires research to answer, use it as an opportunity to find something out while sharing the effort - and the results - with other people who share the same interest.
What does the future hold for Quora?
For a service that is yet to post a penny of revenue and that hasn't revealed a business model, Quora has managed to raise a significant amount of investment and is valued at $400 million dollars. Whatever the future holds, the market is confident that Quora is monetizable and is here to stay.
Quora refuses to comment on its eventual monetization strategy. Whether it will charge organisations for corporate accounts (possible, given their determination to keep the current service organisation-free), carry targeted advertising (unlikely, unless it manages to significantly increase the demographic data it holds on its users), or follow some other strategy entirely, remains to be seen. Whatever path it chooses, it needs to continue to grow the Quora user base if it is to even begin to make inroads into its competitors' market share.
However, that growth in user base means that Quora's dominance by entrepreneurs, technologists and other specialists will also become weakened. Whether or not you think this is a bad thing depends on whether you subscribe to the maxim that "the masses are asses".
I asked Kay whether the uncertainty should make businesses think twice about involving themselves with Quora, but she believes that earlier adopters have the chance to make the biggest impact: "Whatever happens with Quora, there are several benefits of joining now as an individual: you can build your personal brand and reputation in a community with a high signal-to-noise ratio, and you can build meaningful connections with some of the biggest names in technology, entrepreneurship and digital marketing. For the time being at least, Quora is a platform for interactions that stresses quality over quantity."
___Kay Hammond is the CEO of TAMBA, a multi-award-winning social media, viral and digital marketing agency in London and Staffordshire. Kay was named Engineering / Technology Woman of the Year 2011 in the Network of Aspiring Women Awards, a prestigious awards scheme for women in business. TAMBA was awarded Social Media Agency of the Year 2011 at the COGS Awards, a joint scheme between the Institute of Promotional Marketing and Promotional Marketing Magazine. Kay was in conversation with technology journalist Emma Byrne.