A lot of Q&A communities have been mushrooming lately.  Why the sudden surge in Q&A communities?

Q&A dates back to early internet days and forums. Forums are an outdated model which suffer from lack of identity of participants and result in trolling and noise (and hence, poor navigation and discoverability of the right answer). For a long time, Yahoo Answers was the best thing when it came to Q&A, which got a lot of things right including the reputation platform, though it continued to suffer from the identity issue. Now that Facebook and FB Connect have solved the problem of identity and single sign on across the web, several Q&A sites have emerged based around real identity and have made fundamental improvements in the model.

Anyway, a valley-based startup that I advise is working on a niche Q&A site targeting, well, young parents. There are specific offline dynamics which make this a great target segment.  But they’re stuck with the problem of getting the community started. How do you get people to ask questions when no one is answering and how do you get people to answer questions when no one is asking. This post is based on my response to the problem. While this talks about Q&A startups, a lot of points apply to any startup trying to build a community around user-generated content.

One side is easier to get

Typically, in two-sided networks like this one, one side is much easier to get than the other. In this case, it is easier to get people to ask questions than have people answer them. So the question boils down to:
How do you get people who can answer questions?
This question actually involves 4 parts:
1. How do you ‘source’ people, from outside the network, who can answer questions? This is the key to user base growth
2. How do you get people on the network to engage with questions?
3. How do you match people in the network to the right questions? This is the key to ongoing engagement
And more fundamentally…
4. How does one seed activity in a dead community? How do you go from 0 to 1?

How do you ‘source’ people, from outside the network, who can answer questions?
1. Kickass Discoverability: This is where a site like Quora is SO different from the traditional forum model. Quora does an incredible job with SEO. Every question has its unique, juicy, keyword-intensive permalink. It is an amazing model to harvest long tail demand from web search.
2. Piggybacking on other networks: Tweet it to get the word out. Yes, we’ve all heard that people in your social graph are not the best to answer your questions because they aren’t necessarily experts. But many questions do not require experts, they just need a discussion, a free-for-all opinion throw-I (Piggybacking explained in detail).

How do you get people on the network to engage with questions?
Incentives: Any participation site can perform better with the right incentives. In a Q&A site, the incentives are largely of 3 types:
A – Greater recognition in the community: Even forums got this right and so did Y! Answers.
B – Greater megaphone-power: What’s that? The ability to be heard more if you participate more. Quora does this through credits. The more you participate, the more votes you  can potentially get ad the more credits you have to spread the word in the community about future posts and answers.
C – Monetary: In my mind, the least effective unless structured well.

All this sounds very intuitive but companies like LinkedIn have got it wrong. LinkedIn had a problem of misaligned incentives because of which its Answers product is so sub-optimal. LinkedIn is a destination for people to promote themselves, not necessarily create a body of knowledge. As a result, all posts end up being self-promotional until the only people left posting are the self-promoters themselves.

How do you match people on the network to the right questions?
Again, Quora has some really good tactics implemented to make the match-making work.
Pull: The person who asks the question is given suggestions for potential ‘experts’ based on their past track record at answering. The ‘expert’ algorithm could, of course, depend on many things including answers on topics, community reception of those answers etc.
Push: This has to be a multi-channel tactic. News feed based on topics a user follows, related questions on a question the user is browsing as well as tactics to maximize return usage like a daily biggest mail of the most relevant topics based on the user’s interest, have all proven to be successful for various Q&A sites.

Finally, how does one seed activity in a dead community? How do you go from 0 to 1?
1. Fake it till you make it: Initial seeding of  community is almost always editorial. Editorial seeding prepares the way for the crowd. Reddit did it posting links through fake accounts. Quora did it with moderators asking and answering questions. This is typically what it takes in the early dark days of no U (More on how startups use this strategy effectively.
2. Focus on a micro-universe: This is probably the fundamental principle of creating any two-sided network. Facebook focused on Harvard, Foursquare focused on New York and StackOverflow focused on programmers. In fact, StackOverflow’s growth and moving on to the cooking category from the programming category is a great case study. Apparently, programmers love to cook a lot!

While a lot of the points above apply to Q&A in particular, almost all of them apply to any two-sided network based around user-generated content.

[About the Author: Sangeet Paul Choudary writes regularly on strategies for online two-sided markets: platforms, marketplaces and communities, at http://platformed.info and works closely with startups in these spaces in India, Singapore and the US.]