Questions about Quora

Quora is one of my favorite products on the internet.  So many times, learning new things is the product of asking the right questions – and Quora is a crowdsourced repository of really interesting questions and answers, from the tactical (e.g., what is a cool / useful skill that only takes five minutes to learn?), to the philosophical (e.g., “How can one make the most of one’s youth?“). The vast majority of the times I visit the site, I emerge 30+ minutes later, having clicked through so many related questions that I’m multiple degrees of separation from the initial topic (very much like Youtube’s related videos).  Most other people I talk to who have used Quora are also similarly impressed by how addicting and high quality the content is.

However, one common observation I’ve heard (and experienced) is that, despite really enjoying the product, people don’t find themselves headed to the site of their own accord very often (note: based off my own small sample size) .  I typically visit Quora only when I receive their weekly digest email (which, by the way, is incredibly well targeted).  I’ve done a bit of thinking as to why, and the answer I’ve arrived at dovetails well with two questions we commonly ask startups:

  1. What “job” is your product helping a consumer complete?
  2. What alternatives will your product displace and why?

I think Quora struggles to answer these two questions, largely because there are so many alternative ways to acquire knowledge and wisdom (from in person conversations, books, articles, podcasts, etc.).  For the first question, while Quora might answer with “Getting smarter”, this is such a diffuse need, with so many alternatives that it’s hard to create a strong association in a user’s mind for a particular goal.  Without that association, building and retaining a network of users that come back regularly of their own accord is a challenging task (part of the reason why focus is so valuable for a company).

These challenges are not unique to Quora – on the surface, Facebook had a very similar set of difficulties to overcome.  However, Facebook was an incredibly low-friction, reliable way to complete an emotional “job” – feeling connected to your friends and community.  Going to the site was much easier than texting, calling, or arranging time to meet up with that broad circle of people, and required significantly less commitment (and cognitive load, vs. Myspace) than the alternatives. In Quora’s case, it’s not clear that going to the product is much easier than cracking open a book (nowadays, opening your Kindle app), reading an article on Pocket, Feedly, or clicking on link from your timeline. Quora finds itself competing for time and mindshare with all of these alternatives, without an immediately clear advantage. And so, even for Quora-lovers like myself, I don’t think to use the product, even in cases where it might be relevant.

Though the questions seem basic, I think companies should devote the time to developing a clear answer to each – it’s often the simple things that are deadly.

Reach out with your thoughts – would love to hear other perspectives on Quora and the framework above.

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