Love it or hate it, Quora is a phenomenon that can't be ignored. After using Quora for a few months now, I've come to appreciate that it embodies a set of principles and trends that will be critical to community management and social media marketing in the future.
Many companies already plan to integrate community as a core part of their offering; they have at least five good reasons for adding Quora to the mix.
1. Real People and Real Context
Unlike so many answer sites, Quora encourages you to use your real name. A general shift toward dispensing with anonymity is now a trend that's unlikely to reverse. The most important lesson to learn as more sites include community and commentary as a core feature set in their product or service is that anonymity doesn't work well.
When people use their real names, three things happen. First, anything that they contribute has context. Part of what makes Quora valuable is not only good questions and answers but also knowing both who asked and who answered them. Quora parlayed this feature into successful marketing in the early days when it recruited the highest order of Silicon Valley elite to answer fundamental questions such as "How should you launch your company at SXSW?" An answer from a person identified by his or her real name is more valuable than socialmediaguy42.
Second, when people opine in public and their real names are associated with their comments, the quality of the content increases dramatically and the bad behavior and flaming drops proportionately. If you want evidence, simply scroll through and compare the video comments on YouTube with those on Vimeo. Though loutish behavior will never go away, associating commentary with a real person significantly decreases it—along with the effort needed to manage the community.
Third, when people use their real names, they can start to build reputation, which engages them with and invests them in Quora.
2. Participation Is Now About Reputation
Until recently, people contributed mainly blog and video content online to participate in and express themselves via a new medium. As the amount of user-generated content has skyrocketed in the past two years, Internet denizens have started to more actively curate the content they contribute.
Contribution now is less about expression and more about reputation, because reputation is the simplest filtration system for the abundance of content. Of course, the use of a real name is fundamental to reputation. Quora is helping to blaze the same trail as other reputation sites, such as StackExchange (originally, a Q&A site for software developers); they recognize that people are motivated to engage if they can build and curate a reputation along the way.
The problem with many content sites is that they provide only one viewpoint at a time, and you have to search for referencing articles or scan through comments to find counterpoint. Quora flattens the discussion, allowing both point and counterpoint to coexist at an equal level in the discussion. That is a subtle, but important, part of its design. Very often, it's as if the comments constitute the principal portion of the content.
4. User-Generated Content (UGC) Shifts to User-Generated Linkage (UGL)
User-generated content has evolved from a model of individual creators' posting to a central repository (e.g.,YouTube, Wikipedia) to a linked experience where the crowd creates not only the content but also the links between it. One of Quora's subtler, but more important, features is the ability to autolink users, companies, and other objects in line while asking or answering a question.
Though it didn't invent this feature (HTML did, with URLs; Twitter did, with people; and Facebook extended it a bit with groups and companies), Quora recognized from day one that it should be as simple to create associations as it is to create content.
That new form of user-generated content, which I'll call user-generated linkage, is the next generation of content creation. By creating references as well as content, the value of each piece of information, contributor, or object increases. (That is similar to Google's early exploitation of HTML linkage, which became PageRank, a core aspect of its search algorithm.)
5. Content Is Social
Quora has employed various tactics to turn content from an individual-contributor model to a social model:
- Creating not only content but also a reputation system that encourages social pressure to engage
- Allowing linkage between people in content and reinforcing the community around the content
- Seamlessly integrating the social experience of amplifying content to a broader audience with social network integration (like Facebook and Twitter), and thus, extending the reach of the community and the value of the content
Though each of those social aspects has appeared elsewhere before, Quora's careful integration of them sets the bar for next-generation content sites.
Quora matters for many things. No doubt, all social media managers should put Quora on their daily reading and watch list simply to manage the signals about topics they are responsible for. But it also matters because the collection of features sets a new paradigm for harnessing communities around products.
As everything from websites, apps, brands, and crowdsourcing companies learn how to integrate their communities, it's important to see where the trends are headed and to get ahead of them.
(Read more: "Seven SMB Marketing Trends for 2011.")