How Can I Leverage Q&A Sites?
Glad You Asked.

On Stack Exchange, value comes from information. The growing Q+A network offers 111 free sites that serve more than 4 million people on everything from bicycle repair tips to patent advice. The formula is simple: Users ask questions, and other users answer with citations and annotated comments. Think of it as Reddit meets meets Google. Jeeves would be proud.

Brands should take notice: such a large platform means there are plenty of readers ready for interesting content. Publishing on a free, collaborative forum may seem unorthodox, but Stack Exchange gives companies a place to post their work and receive immediate feedback from the community.

Over some wine at Contently’s Brand Publishing Summit, we started talking to Sam Brand, Stack Exchange’s Manager of Community Development, about how his company views their place in the content ecosystem. After a few additional chats, we found out about revenue streams, copyright quandaries, and plans to expand to Portuguese. If you have any questions of your own at the end of the interview, you know where to ask them…


Sam Brand, Manager of Community Development, Stack Exchange

How do you create content that drives traffic to the site and gets people who may stumble upon the site for one question to become consistent users?

We don’t create content, our users do. And most of our users first encounter us through search. They Google a question and find the same question asked and answered at Stack Exchange, with the best answer vetted and edited by the community and upvoted to the top. Visitors who get value come back, and they become users when they have a question that hasn’t been asked before. Users join the community when they realize it feels even better to give a good answer than it does to receive one.

What is your strategy for securing paid distribution deals with publishers?

We don’t have one. We’ve built a platform that allows people to create high quality content that delivers help long after a user has clicked “Submit.” What we’ve learned is that if we provide the best information available, Google will be the best distributor we could ask for. We make money from job listings, candidate search, and display advertising.

What makes Stack Exchange different than the other Q&A networks out there?

There are two aspects that most distinguish us from other Q&A networks. For one, each of our sites focuses on a narrow vertical. Apple fanatics mix with Apple fanatics on our Apple site. You can’t ask about Android there. Well, you can, but you might not enjoy the response. Secondly, all of our sites form and sustain themselves organically. When we talk about sites, we’re really talking about communities of knowledgable and passionate people. The sites don’t exist in the first place when those people aren’t there.

How does your model make it difficult to develop growth with external partners?

We work with partners in a few ways, and each poses a unique set of challenges. On the content side, a lot of publishers are still wary of touching user-generated content.

And then you have the fact that the content isn’t really ours. It belongs to our communities, and everything published on our network is available under cc-wiki. A publisher doesn’t have to actually work with us to create an ebook or advertorial out of our Q&A — as long as they give proper attribution.

What criticisms or hesitations have you heard from potential partners, if any, about Stack Exchange’s relationship to content and the potential for marketing?

When we look for content deals it’s important to us that readers know where the content comes from. That’s part of the agreement we’ve made with our community. But some publishers are still wary of branded bylines. They usually come around when they see what we can deliver. A problem that I personally find a little more interesting: Editors are generally hesitant to let their writers engage with our communities to generate collaborative content. I’m still looking for a brave publishing partner willing to give it a try. Know any?

What kind of outreach programs have you focused on as Manager of Community Development? How have these programs fostered growth?

I’ve worked on securing publishing deals with partners like Lifehacker and Ars Technica to expose our brand to a wider audience. I’ve also worked with the USPTO and Google to launch Ask Patents, and I frequently work with organizations to help launch new Stack Exchange sites or grow those that are already in the network. Success to us comes in many forms. We’re constantly measuring campaign conversion, and frequently redefining just what that means. We try to push forward campaigns that drive signups and encourage visitors to become active members of the community. We’re a lot more interested in generating quality content than driving traffic, as we’ve learned that great content brings more traffic than we could ever get from a link.

Do you think Stack Exchange can supplement its current content in any particular way in the future other than expanding its user base? If so, how?

Our core audience will always be the developer community, and we work hard to keep sight of who we are. But we know the platform works well for others. In 2013, 14 new sites were successfully launched into our network. Moving forward, we’re interested in introducing our platform to new users, but also to help established users engage in new ways. Mobile is a focus, as is localization. English is a second language for a large number of those who visit our sites.

Let’s end with some talk on future expansion. How are you implementing your formula in different countries, why you are doing so, and what do you plan to do differently, if anything, for the foreign branches of Stack Exchange?

We’ve put a lot of thought into how we might bring the benefits of Stack Overflow (Stack Exchange’s Q&A community for programmers) to developers who don’t use Google in English. In early 2014, we’ll be launching Stack Overflow in Portuguese. It’s uncharted territory for us, with exciting new challenges ahead. For one, we’ve got to be sure that by localizing we don’t fragment our established community any more than necessary. Also, we have to trust that the community is producing high quality content. That’s tough enough for Stack Overflow in English, which can produce some pretty esoteric Q&A. It will be even more challenging when most of the company doesn’t speak the language. Luckily, we’ve got the best community team in tech, and a razor-sharp multilingual community to help us assess the site as it develops. Localization is just one more tactic in pursuit of our mission: to get more people creating more high quality content that helps as many people as possible.

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