I’m on Quora and, despite the ironic questions about forums being dead, I think it is a pretty cool site.

Quora has been accessible to the public for about 2 and a half years now, so it isn’t a new service any longer. Even so, I regularly see brand representatives who post low quality answers or answers that will be generally seen as spammy and not in the spirit of Quora. Worse yet, even when called on it, some defend the practice as legitimate.

There is a lot of value to be had on Quora for a brand, if you participate in an exemplary way, which is true for most platforms. But the part where people often drop the ball is when they fail to differentiate between different platforms. You can’t expect to participate on one as you do on another. You can learn how each one works, and it usually isn’t that complicated, but you have to actually take the time to learn (and care enough to do so).

Quora is (Mostly) About Quality, Authoritative Answers

This is the guiding principle to keep in mind. While there are plenty of exceptions, if you look closely at the most popular answers, you’ll notice an overall trend: quality, authoritative answers from qualified people. That is what is recognized by the community. There are several things that contribute to a great answer, but before I offer a summary of them, I want to hit home on two big ones.

Quality, Not Quantity

If you’re posting a bunch of short answers to as many questions as you can find, that isn’t something that tends to be valued on Quora. Instead, seek out questions where you are qualified, perhaps uniquely qualified, to answer. Questions where you really have something to say, where you can provide an answer that fully speaks to the question being asked. Explain your answer and be detailed.

Now, that doesn’t mean that the answer has to be long, though those two things can go hand in hand. For example, see this answer by Robert Scoble. It specifically answers the question and further elaboration isn’t really needed. How much does RackSpace pay? Well, they pay $x. It’s straight forward and there may be no one who is more authoritative on the subject since they are his expenses that are being paid.

Take a look at this answer by Jennifer 8. Lee to the question, “How do you survive an interview with Stephan Colbert?” She’s uniquely qualified because she’s been interviewed by Colbert on his show. A short answer, while possible, likely wouldn’t be satisfying to the person who asked. You can’t simply say “Don’t try to be funny.” Why shouldn’t you try to be funny? She explains why. It is a good, quality answer.

Answer Quora Questions on Quora, Not With Links to Your Site (Generally)

While Quora might generate “leads” for you, Quora is not your personal lead generation engine. It is not your website or even your Twitter profile. It is a shared community space and the reason that people ask a question on Quora is to get an answer on Quora. The community responds well to this because you are actually offering value to the community, not sending people elsewhere.

For example, there are questions asked about online forums on Quora that are answered in my book. If I went around to those questions and gave some quick one paragraph answer and said my book goes in more detail, that would not be well regarded. It’s spammy. The same goes for if I answered questions with links to my blog posts. If someone asks, “How can I prevent spam on my online community?,” it isn’t appropriate for me to link them to a blog post where I wrote about that. Instead, I should answer that directly on Quora. That is how you build actual trust and authority within Quora.

I caught someone doing this recently and, wouldn’t you know it, all or most of the upvotes on those answers were from people who worked at the company. That’s a pretty good hint as to what people think of those answers. I know people who include a mention of their company or website in virtually every answer they post. Subsequently, the answers these people provide don’t get a lot of upvotes, on the whole. It’s ridiculous (and embarrassing).

Sometimes, when a representative gets caught doing this, they argue that links to their website are “relevant.” While it might be related in subject, it isn’t relevant as an answer. If that was the case, then all Quora would be is a bunch of links to places where answers could be found, not answers. If you don’t see that sort of answer (simply a link) as a top voted answer very often, you can safely assume there is a reason for that: people don’t like it.

Now, there are exceptions, certainly. Perhaps a subject is so detailed that an answer on Quora could only scratch the surface, even given thousands of words. In those cases, you might want to make sure your answer is as specifically targeted to the question as possible. But with some questions. it might not be possible. When that happens, links to further reading might add value (most likely you don’t need to link to yourself, however). Also, in some cases, people might simply be asking for links in their question (“What website has the best information on X?”). In which case, the answers should be links or, at least, mention links. Even so, it is unseemly for you to answer a question like, “Who is the best?” with “ME! I’M THE BEST!” If you are the best, other people will mention you.

If someone is asking a question specifically about your company, that is one thing. If you aren’t the first person bringing your company up, that is a clue that it is probably alright to mention your work, as well. But, for example, if I were to begin every Quora answer with “What we’re seeing at KarateForums.com is…,” that is totally unnecessary. But people actually do that!

Unless it is very clear to you that a link to your own website is exactly what is being asked for, or the answer would simply not be as useful without it, leave it out. Links to your websites are for your profile and bio, which people will look at if you provide value.

What Makes a Great Answer?

With those guiding principles in mind, here is a list of qualities that many great answers have:

  1. The person answering is qualified (or, better yet, uniquely qualified) to answer. For example, with the Colbert guest mentioned above. Not everyone has been interviewed on Colbert’s show. Those that have are uniquely qualified to talk about that experience. I can answer a question about online community because I’ve been managing them for 12 years. I don’t know anything about being interviewed by Colbert, though, so I wouldn’t answer questions about it.
  2. If necessary (and if it is not readily clear), the answer explains why the person is qualified. “I was interviewed by Colbert on his show,” for example.
  3. If there is a conflict of interest that should be disclosed, it is disclosed. Briefly, but clearly.
  4. The answer speaks directly to the question asked and doesn’t take the question as an opportunity to delve into an unrelated subject.
  5. The answer is comprehensive. This doesn’t mean it is long, necessarily, but it means that it is detailed to the point of being truly helpful and not simply providing a shallow or vague answer. This can be hard to describe, but in general, I believe it is best to offer too much information than too little.
  6. As much as is possible, the answer is self contained on Quora. If quoting from or citing material owned by other people, that should be properly attributed and responsibly quoted. But, the answer should not (generally) simply be a link to an outside site. People visit Quora to receive answers on Quora – and that is what the community best responds to.
  7. Self promotional links, or links and mentions of organizations and websites, are kept to an absolute minimum and, if possible, not included at all. No matter how “relevant” you feel they are. They should be included only when it is actually relevant to making a point, when the question is specifically about that organization or website or when someone else, not affiliated with you, has mentioned it first and it is necessary to follow up appropriately.

If you keep these in mind, you’ll be able to provide value to the Quora community, while building up authority that will lead to attention, traffic and a good reputation for your company.