Today Obama took on Quora. Now Quora needs to take on revenue

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on March 24, 2014

From The News Desk

In case you couldn't tell by now, the White House really really wants you to sign up for the Affordable Care Act. And POTUS himself is all over pop media shilling for it every chance he gets. Why not? As any founder will tell you, the top man is always the best spokesperson for something new, buggy, or controversial. (Or in this case, all of the above.)

First he did "Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis." Then he did ESPN. Then Ellen.

And now he's rounding out the press blitz with a Q&A on Quora, answering questions like "How will ACA shape the career and job choices of young people, and their lives in general?" and "What changes did the White House make to make enrollment faster and easier?" Not quite as riveting as talking about sending "Ambassador Rodman" to North Korea with Zach Galifianakis. But Quora's forte isn't comedy, it's understanding wonky, dense things in simple terms. (Perhaps Quora should have been an earlier stop.)

Despite the fact that the Obama sheen fades a tad with each new press appearance, Quora is still understandably excited about the Q&A.

It speaks to Quora's continued success at making quality scale-- those two words are usually antithetical when it comes to Q&A sites. The early, easy knock on Quora has been it'll remain niche or become Yahoo Answers. It's slowly and steadily finding a middle ground.

Fast forward from the early haters in 2010 and Quora has maintained its quality. It's not just the Obama appearance today. It's the deep bench of experts ranging from bonafide celebrities like filmmaker J.J. Abrams to Victoria's Secret models discussing what it feels like to go from being unattractive to beautiful to astronauts talking about whether they wear bras in space.

Obama is the most high profile Quora expert answer yet, and the company is using it as an opportunity to roll out a new feature -- verified profiles. (At least it's new to Quora.)

Quora will verify public figures -- entertainment media, government officials, industry leaders -- and a blue check mark will appear next to their name when they answer Quora questions. Sound familiar? 

"It's very similar to how Facebook and Twitter do it. We're not trying to reinvent the wheel," Alex Wu, Head of Product Marketing and Partnerships, tells me. "We saw a huge amount of people join over the last year…and we realized we should build a scalable feature to help people trust and have confidence in these profiles and answers."

It's surprising that Quora hadn't rolled out this feature already given how important trustworthiness to the platform and how many celebs and CEOs directly answer questions about themselves. Fake profiles would puncture the legitimacy of the whole expert-answers endeavor. 

It's further sign of the company's maturity. As Sarah Lacy reported in October, Quora's traffic tripled in 2013. Despite the fact that many in the Valley had written the company off after its overly hyped early days, Quora continued plugging away, building out a service that answers questions people didn't even know they had. As Lacy says, "It’s seeking consensus and truth, but not particularly facts. There’s a subtle difference." That's where the magic of Quora comes from.

So the company has diversified its topics, successfully expanding from just tech into food, entertainment, dating advice, politics, and, yes, healthcare.  It managed to make quality answers scale across a community of users, without falling to the "curse of Yahoo answers." But there's one very important last piece of the puzzle that it has neglected: Monetization.

Quora raised its $11 million series A round at an $86 million valuation, uncovered by Michael Arrington March 28th, 2010. It's almost exactly four years later and it has not rolled out a single ad unit. Still. It has not earned a cent in revenue. It has not even attempted to monetize its magic. Instead, it raised a massive $60 million Series B in 2012 and just kept plugging along on venture funds.

2014 should be the year for Quora to bring in its own money. The company has not released any specific timelines for such an effort, although a February New York Times article vaguely cited "next year" according to Marc Bodnick, who leads Quora's business team. Fortune reiterated the same from Bodnick. Quora CEO Adam D'Angelo told Pando the same last year.

Verified profiles and the Obama Q and A have nothing to do with money, and everything to do with quality. Quora is still concentrating solely on quality at scale -- two things it has already succeeded at.

Quora is like the little kid circling the freezing cold pool. It's too afraid to take the plunge and see what happens if it jumps in with monetization.

In 2009 D'Angelo had this to say about why they're holding off on monetization:

It's hard to plan ahead too far on the internet because things change so quickly, but there's a good chance that advertising will end up as some component of our business. There are a lot of other options, too, but our focus as a company is on building Quora as a product, and our costs are low enough now that we can afford to delay worrying about monetization until later.

But when does "later" become "now"?

Attempted monetization will be the reckoning moment for the platform. It's all well and good to say that Quora will be able to make money through targeted marketing, delivering a tailored audience up to advertisers when it's really just living on venture capital. It's another thing entirely to prove it.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]