How can Quora make money? China’s Q&A websites have the answer

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Life is full of questions for Zhu Ning, a business consultant in Shanghai who has signed up with Fenda, a Q&A website often described as China’s answer to Quora.

Having joined the service last month, Zhu can be called upon by any of the website’s members to answer their questions on his specialist field of sales and corporate management – provided they agree to pay his set fee of 27 yuan (HK$30) per question. He then gets 48 hours to answer their queries – via voice messages that must last no longer than 60 seconds.

If he is in luck, his questioner can choose to share the answer with others and earn them both some extra cash. Other users who listen to the answer must pay an additional one yuan, with the extra money being split between Zhu and the questioner.

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“I’m not taking these questions for money. But I’m interested in trying out how to turn knowledge into money,” said Zhu, who has already answered nearly 20 questions, ranging from his views on the finer points of China’s Belt and Road Initiative to whether people only take sales jobs because they can’t hack anything else.

The cash may be insignificant to a consultant like Zhu, but it represents a major breakthrough for Chinese internet start-ups hoping to solve a global puzzle – how to make money out of Q&A websites.

That question has for years evaded the industry’s best minds, despite the growing popularity of the services, with even Quora – which has more than 100 million monthly active users – having failed to find the answer.

But the success of Chinese companies like Fenda has raised hopes that at last there is a viable business model.

During Fenda’s first 42 days in service – it launched in May last year – one million users paid a collective 18 million yuan to have their questions answered, with Fenda picking up a healthy slice of that revenue.

Fenda declined to disclose its exact revenue, saying only that its growth was enough to attract investors. The company is in its second round of fund-raising – in June last year, the site received US$25 million from investors that included Sequoia Capital China, and was valued at US$100 million.

And Fenda isn’t the only Chinese Q&A site that has begun to taste financial success. Zhihu Live enables users to share their insights (for a fee) via interactive, live talks. Many of its speakers are users who have already formed a fan base online and established reputations for expertise on certain matters. As of April, Zhihu had hosted nearly 3,000 live talks, which attracted 2.7 million paid listeners and generated revenue of 76.9 million yuan, according to Southern Weekly. Zhihu and its speakers share the money raised.

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Such success stories are in stark contrast to Quora, which made zero revenue in 2014, five years after it was founded by Facebook’s former chief technology officer Adam D’Angelo. The company’s recent attempts to monetise its services have also foundered. Last year, Quora introduced “knowledge prizes” which let anonymous entities offer up cash rewards for popular answers, but the company quickly removed the feature, leading to speculation it had failed to attract sponsors.

Indeed, the success of sites such as Fenda and Zhihu raises the possibility that their business models will soon be copied by Western sites such as Quora.

Quora declined to comment on the business model of its Chinese peers, but said it had been increasing efforts to boost revenue and that a new advertisement service had been introduced last month.

Some of the success of the Chinese Q&A websites may be due to a secret weapon that Western companies have yet to embrace – the human voice. “It’s easier to engage and it allows me to make the best use of the time,” Sean Ye, a marketing specialist in Shanghai, said of Zhihu Live. Since signing up for the service last year, Ye has already listened to scores of live talks and audio Q&As – mostly during his commute, exercise time or while babysitting his three-year-old daughter.

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Cui Shuxin, a frequent user of Fenda, loves the convenience of audio-based Q&As, too. “It helps me save time,” Cui said. Previously, the novelist, 28, would go to the pharmacy for advice on treating her sensitive skin, but now the answers come to her.

Users who have a question but don’t know who to ask can direct their query to a pool of experts and pay 10 yuan to the one who comes up with the best answer. Cui said her questions were usually solved within 10 minutes. Cui has even made use of the share option that enables those who ask a question to profit from it. Last year, when she asked a famous writer for his favourite female martial arts character, Cui made more than 100 yuan from others who were interested in the answer too.

In another high-profile case, a Fenda user earned 17,500 yuan by asking Wang Sicong, the son of Chinese tycoon Wang Jianlin: “Is there anything you cannot afford as the son of the richest man in Asia?”

Wang, the only child of the Wanda Group founder, replied: “I can afford any commodity that can be bought and sold in the market, but there are still things that money cannot buy, like love, freedom and dignity. As a Chinese, I would think twice before spending money on goods which are too luxurious or might cause public anger.” More than 50,000 people paid one yuan each to listen to his answer.

Such cases may prove the commercial potential of Q&A sites, but they also prompt criticism that such sites are little more than gossip platforms.

Ella Yang, a co-founder of Fenda, denies this, saying most users are ordinary people hungry for knowledge or seeking help for daily challenges. Yang helped her caregiver seek legal advice on Fenda after finding out the caregiver had not been paid by their agency on time. For 10 yuan, a lawyer answered their question within 30 minutes.

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Chinese Q&A sites are also scrambling for ways to keep their customers happy. After some users complained about the quality of its paid talks, Zhihu brought in a seven-day unconditional refund period. And in response to doubts over whether 60-second audio messages were sufficient to explain complex issues, Fenda introduced a subscription-only online forum to enable deeper discussion.

Even so, not everyone’s been won over. Even Zhu, the business consultant in Shanghai, admits to some disappointment with his experience of Fenda.

“It is rare to come across an interesting question,” Zhu said. “Also, users tend to seek answers from those with a big social media outreach, rather than those with actual knowledge.” But he’s not so disappointed he would consider leaving. “After all, it doesn’t hurt to stay and answer questions,” he said.