How Quora and reddit solved the chicken and egg problem

Getting users contributing on an empty website is a bit of a problem. After all, if you don’t think you’ll get feedback or attention for whatever it is you’re submitting, why bother?

This is called the “chicken and egg problem.” It is a problem most communities face when first starting off. You can’t get users contributing without content, and you can’t get content without users contributing. Fortunately for us, there are solutions. One simple way is to branch out from an already existing community. A good example of this is Imgur (popular image sharing website), which built itself as a tool for redditors. Then there’s the method that reddit and Quora used: generating the content yourself.

Nobody likes an empty website.

While reddit and Quora both had their founders posting most of the early content themselves, the approaches they took varied.

Launching Quora

Quora describes itself as the “best source of knowledge.” It features questions and answers on a wide variaty of topics, although the main focus from early on has been technology and startups. Two years after being released to the public, they were hitting 1.5 million unique views per month. What makes it special is the quality of the answers, as well as the contributors. It’s not uncommon to find the founders of huge companies, including Mark Zuckerberg, answering people’s questions.

In 2008, there was a lot of media buzz going around when Adam D’Angelo, Facebook’s former CTO, quit his job. Although it wasn’t public knowledge at the time, his leaving had a purpose: he wanted to start working on Quora. According to him, he felt like he could “bigger impact on the world by starting something new rather than just continuing to optimize Facebook.”

So in April 2009, he started work on the platform with Charlie Cheever. Rebekah Cox joined to work on the design in June, and Kevin Der started helping out with engineering in September. They realized that there was a gap on the Internet. There were a lot of question and answer websites, but they weren’t as good as the founders thought they could be. “No one had really made a good knowledge sharing site like this.”

Because of D’Angelo’s previous work on the startup scene, Quora didn’t have much trouble getting media attention once it opened doors in 2010. However, getting lots of publicity doesn’t solve the problem of having no content on your platform.

The profiles of D’Angelo, Cheever and Cox are filled with questions and answers from the early days of Quora. They wrote most of them themselves, in order to increase interaction on the website early on. The first employees and beta testers then continued this trend, until the amount of activity on the platform was steady enough for them to take a step back. They still participate, but the website won’t die if they stop.

This early amount of contribution from them helped them take advantage of the publicity they were receiving. Without it, users visiting the empty website for the first time wouldn’t have stayed for long.

reddit’s first users

Reddit, founded by Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman in June 2005, has grown immensely over the past nine years (has it really been that long? Wow.) It was one of the first startups out of Y Combinator, receiving $12,000. Today, they’re hitting over 100 million unique visitors a month.

The two founders launched the site from a small apartment in Medford, Mass. Back then, reddit didn’t have categories or subreddits- just a single front page. The techniques they used to attarct their first visitors were a little unorthadox for tech companies. They spent $500, their entire advertising budget to date, on stickers. Whenever Alexis went to travel, he posted these stickers everywhere. Signs, poles, you name it. The two founders would also hand out the stickers to people at events and meetups.

“The focus was on building a great product and a community online–the stickers were just an excuse for people to show their allegiance,” says Alexis. Slowly, they started getting visitors on their website. But once again, no one is going to stick around without content already on the website.

The reddit approach is a bit more interesting. In addition to posting all the early content themselves, they also created fake profiles to post on. Their submission form featured an additional area for creating a new user. To an outsider, it appeared as if there were a bunch of active users submitting content constantly. According to Steve Huffman, reddit cofounder, it took several months until they didn’t have to submit content themselves to fill up the front page. That’s a lot of fake users.

Avoiding the barren look by submitting content yourself has a second benefit- you’re able to set the tone of the the community. What attracts one group of people might not appeal to another. An interesting note is that as the community grows beyond the control of the founders, this original tone might be lost. There has been a lot of discussion about the “original reddit” being better. The style of content that Huffman and co were submitting has been diluted, making it feel different from the early days.

Let’s apply this.

If you’re trying to start a community, following this strategy might work quite well. No one wants to participate on an empty website, so fill it up. Whether you want to use fake accounts or submit the content under your own username is up to you. Both approaches have benefits. The benefit of fake accounts is that it doesn’t look like the website is run by one or two power users. However, I’ve heard people say that it feels underhanded. It’s up to you to decide.

Another thing to note is that it might be useful to stick to a smaller selection of content in the beginning. D’Angelo, Cheever and Cox were able to answer most of the early questions on Quora because they knew a lot about technology. If you’re seeding content, make sure that the topic you’re discussing is something that you can provide value in. If people are receiving good answers to their questions, or reading interesting conversations, they’re more likely to come back.

This also helps avoid the empty feeling by limiting the places where people can have discussions. It’s much easier to fill up a community with just one or two topics. When reddit started, they had no categories or subreddits. Just a single page the founders submitted links to.

Remember that the first impression a new visitor has is the most important. Unless there is interesting content once they land on your page, they won’t be staying for long. Think about what kind of content seeding you can do.