Social media: Is Quora the new Twitter?

Quora is being hailed as the next big social networking site. Kate Magee asks whether PR professionals should take note.

What is Quora?

It is a site that allows users to ask questions and answer those posted by others. It was founded in April 2009 by former Facebook employees, Adam D'Angelo and Charlie Cheever. Quora launched in private beta in January 2010 and is now open to the public.

Why should I care?

Quora is the hot social media platform of the moment. In December, reviews on sites including TechCrunch, Scobleizer and CNN sparked a flood of new user registrations and media coverage in both the UK and the US. Quora engineer Albert Sheu wrote on Quora that on 28 December the site saw between five and ten times more activity than usual. Later in the day, 'Quora' became a trending topic on Twitter in San Francisco.

PROs should be aware brands and companies are being discussed and the respondents are often high-profile. For example, former AOL chairman and CEO Steve Case answered, among other questions, how much it cost the company to send out direct marketing CDs in the 1990s.

What sort of questions are asked on Quora?

Quora is not limited to set subjects: users can choose their own topics. Some questions in which PR professionals may be interested include: who are the top PR agencies in the UK and why?; how do you fire a client?; how much are start-up tech companies paying for PR?; and why is it so hard to find competent PR people?

Why is it getting so much attention?

As well as the posts on influential sites like CNN and TechCrunch, 33 Digital MD Drew Benvie says the site benefited from the Christmas holiday: 'The early adopters of Twitter like TechCrunch said the site was good, so people made a mental note to register. When everyone arrived back from their holidays at the same time, there was a mass increase in registrations and invitations spreading across Twitter.'

Edelman's director of digital strategy Marshall Manson agrees it has been a case of good timing. 'It got a really good write-up just before digital thinkers went off to the CES summit and spent a week talking about it,' he says. Tangerine PR group MD Sandy Lindsay believes 'Quora's popularity is being driven by Twitter'.

Is Quora valuable to businesses?

WCG's head of social media Neville Hobson says the value of Quora is unknown because it is still evolving. 'It's a huge crowded place of unstructured questions and a huge time sink. Users can spend hours trawling through the questions, but how will this become a serious tool in business?' he says. But TechCrunch, which he says has the credibility of forecasts, predicts it will make money.

Does it have longevity?

Social media platforms are springing up all the time - remember GoogleWave and FriendFeed - but many are disappearing at the same rate. The concept of a Q&A site is not new and there are already competitors on the market, including Yahoo! Answers, Ask.com and WikiAnswers.

Quora will need to find mainstream appeal if it is to really take off. The outgoing board director at Band & Brown, Mark Lowe, says: 'At the moment Quora is all social media and marketing related. It will be a more interesting place when the questions get more diverse.'

But Benvie says there is time, noting that Twitter took three years to become mainstream: 'Twitter needed celebrities to use it to encourage others to get involved.'

What factors make a social media platform successful?

Benvie says it boils down to two simple things - the community on the platform and the functionality. 'If it's too difficult, then everyone will leave it,' he says.

Manson believes successful platforms have broad appeal and real practical value. For this reason, he thinks Quora is a momentary fad: 'What's neat about Foursquare is that it provides information at a moment in context where it has incredible value.

'Facebook has infinite value because it puts you in touch with friends. But other platforms are more niche. You need to have a clear reason to tell someone else to use it. With Quora, I'm not sure why anyone would care.'

So, is Quora the new Twitter?

The two sites certainly have overlap, but Shine Communications' head of social media Mark Pinsent says the two have different uses, so they could end up as useful as each other: 'The key benefit of Twitter is that you are only listening to a group of people that you have selected and regard as trustworthy and knowledgeable.

On Quora you're exposed to the thoughts of many more people, which obviously has upsides and downsides.'

BrandAlert's founder Nigel Sarbutts believes Twitter is more about the person than the content and that Quora is not such a good networking tool: 'Quora postings are more considered. They are showing off "your best side". While the content may be deeper and richer, you are not getting the real person, and we form bonds with people, not information.'

Will it threaten other platforms?

Sarbutts believes that LinkedIn has more to worry about than Twitter: 'LinkedIn needs its groups to elevate it above being just an online Rolodex, but they are awash with people posing the same old cliche questions which are simply naked self-promotion. If Quora can keep the quality going, why would you bother posting a question on LinkedIn?'

Benvie does not think Quora will destroy the popularity of other platforms: 'Every now and then something pops up that sticks, but it rarely kicks anything else out. Twitter hasn't replaced Facebook.'

On which other social media developments should PROs be keeping an eye?

Quora is a place that has very little restriction or formal structure and this enables the membership to decide its purpose, says WCG's Hobson. While 'walled garden sites' like Facebook and LinkedIn have been successful, he believes the growth areas are in unstructured networks.

'Social media platforms need to evolve into a format that permits users to have greater freedom about how they want to use them. A huge amount of the excitement around Quora is the idea that this is what unstructured looks like and isn't it great?' he says.

Benvie adds PROs should be working out how to get involved in the games that sit inside social networks. 'In December, CityVille overtook FarmVille in popularity on Facebook. It built up 70 million active users during December alone,' he says.

Is a company more profitable if it uses social media?

According to McKinsey, yes. In December, the management consultancy firm released research that claimed a new type of company is emerging called 'the networked enterprise' that uses collaborative web 2.0 technologies to connect the internal efforts of employees with customers, partners and suppliers.

It said in its McKinsey Quarterly report: 'Results from our analysis of proprietary survey data show that the web 2.0 use of these companies is significantly improving their reported performance.

'In fact, our data show that fully networked enterprises are not only more likely to be market leaders or to be gaining market share but also use management practices that lead to margins higher than those of companies using the web in more limited ways.'

EXPLOIT THE TREND - FIVE WAYS THE PR INDUSTRY COULD USE QUORA

1. Research. The site could be used to generate customer feedback and float ideas. Shine's Pinsent says that by looking at the type and tone of questions being asked about a brand, 'this can help with insight and shape messaging'.

2. Crowd-sourcing ideas. There is a question about Starbucks, for example, that asks: 'How could Starbucks set up a recycling programme for all of its stores?' Savvy PROs could generate ideas through the site's users.

3. Thought leadership. Tangerine's Lindsay says: 'If you have clients that want to talk with authority on subjects, they can show thought leadership on the site.' BrandAlert's Sarbutts agrees: 'If Quora sustains its explosive growth, it's going to be a big thought leadership opportunity and a place to offer opinion and information on an issue that goes beyond the sound bite. It will, however, be a challenge for PROs to manage a client's presence on there if it is under attack.'

4. Monitoring a brand. A number of brands are already being discussed on Quora, so PROs should be aware of what is being said. Threepipe's social media head Beth Carroll argues: 'As with any social media portal, it's key that companies monitor conversations to understand what is being said about their brand and address any questions, issues or comments.' Quora provides a particular opportunity to engage with consumers as the portal captures an audience that is openly inviting a response from brands.

5. Answering questions. Get spokespeople to go on and answer questions. 33 Digital's Benvie says you might be able to cut down on customer service calls by answering queries, or help out overseas journalists outside of press office hours. Carroll adds: 'Those who do choose to answer questions posed by customers will make sure that their brand is represented in the right way before a third party responds on their behalf.'

THE BASICS - STARTING OUT ON QUORA

Once you have registered for an account, you can start asking or answering questions. You can also follow questions, which means you can keep an eye on updated answers.

Once an answer has been submitted, other users can vote on whether they like or dislike the answer. The answer with the most 'likes' rises to the top, becoming the first answer to the question.

If enough people 'dislike' an answer, the answer disappears and the person's name appears in a faint colour.

Benvie says this system could be open to gaming, and warns PROs to watch out: 'An answer could be anti-brand, but if people find something amusing, they can push it to the top, whereas they can make other answers disappear.'

PR professionals should register and explore the site. Search for brands or clients and find out if they are being talked about.

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