How to Strengthen Online Q&A Communities - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #853

How to Strengthen Online Q&A Communities

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Increasing the costs of asking questions acts as a lever for successful online question-and-answer communities to manage participation and efficiency in their community.


In online question and answer communities, such as the Apple and Google communities of users, or general interest platforms such as Quora, user questions are answered by other users. These communities are a win-win: companies enhance their customer support without additional staff and user receive answers to the questions more quickly than through conventional customer support channels.

Not all online Q&A communities are successful, however. Some, such as Walmart Moms or PBS Learning Media, never managed to get the traction needed to continue. Other communities founds success early but were unable to maintain that success. Yahoo Answers had 25 million users in 2010, a number that quickly dropped to 4 million by 2015 and was finally shut down by Yahoo in 2021.

A team of researchers from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania statistically modelled an online Q&A community to explore why some communities are successful and others fail, and what steps or initiatives community designers might take to increase the chances of success.

Users join the community to resolve their problems by asking questions or read other answers; when their questions are not answered or answered satisfactorily, users are likely to leave the community. Users also join because they have a high level of knowledge and want to share that knowledge by answering questions from other users.

The model developed by the researchers showed that the majority of the activity in Q&A communities—asking and answering questions—are undertaken by a core group of users.

Most communities offer virtual points to users based on activity. For example, users who ask questions can earn points by choosing and marking the best answer, and labelling their question as solved. Users can also earn points by answering questions, and having their answer designated as the best answer.

Users can also be penalized with negative points—e.g., for asking unclear questions or questions that display no effort on the questioner’s side, or for violating guidelines such as using foul language. A user’s accumulated points are displayed next to the user’s name to indicate activity level and reputation.

Asking and answering questions comes with certain costs, in terms of time and effort. The cost of answering a question depends on the user’s knowledge level. For example, a user with a high level of knowledge can answer a complex question quickly and without much effort.

On the other hand, the cost of asking questions depends in large part on the guidelines and policies of the community. For example, in some communities, a user who asks a question that has already been asked is punished with negative points. Users who do not formulate clear questions are also punished. Thus, in communities with stricter guidelines on the quality of questions, the costs of asking questions are high.

The researchers’ model showed that raising or lowering costs can act as a lever through which to control the participation level (users actively participating) and efficiency (questions successfully answered) in online Q&A communities.

Raising the costs of asking questions, according to the model, resulted in a smaller proportion of the users asking questions. Less participation might make the community less attractive to potential joiners. However, with less people asking questions, a greater proportion of the question-askers received answers—thus, increasing user satisfaction and efficiency. Thus, the decrease in joiners would be offset by the increase in user retention resulting from higher user satisfaction.

This generally positive effect has a threshold, however. At some point, the costs of asking questions are so high that participation in the community decreases significantly, dramatically decreasing, in turn, the level of new users, The increased retention rate mentioned above is not enough to counterbalance a lack of new users—and the community finds itself in a downward spiral of participation.

In addition to the benefit of increasing asking costs, the study also reveals the unexpected value of users with low-level knowledge. Every time low-level users have their questions answered, their knowledge-level increases—and they are soon answering questions. Thus, an influx of low knowledge-level users is essential to keep the community alive. An influx of high knowledge-level users is not as vital as the pool of high knowledge-level users are replenished from low knowledge-level users increasing their knowledge.


This study uncovers the increasing costs of asking a question as a lever that online community designers can use to enhance key success factors of the community notably the proportion of users who are asking questions and answering them, as well as the level of users leaving or joining the community. The increased costs lead to higher levels of user satisfaction and retention, higher levels of efficiency in terms of questions answered, and higher levels of new users.

The challenge is to avoid breaching the threshold of asking costs, beyond which participation starts to plummet and the community can eventually crash.

Structuring Online Communities. Neha Sharma, Gad Allon, Achal Bassamboo. SSRN 3959181 (November 8, 2021).



Neha Sharma’s profile at Kellogg School of Management

Gad Allon’s profile at The Wharton School

Achal Bassamboo’s profile at Kellogg School of Management


Structuring Online Communities. Neha Sharma, Gad Allon, Achal Bassamboo. SSRN 3959181 (November 8, 2021).

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Idea conceived

November 8, 2021

Idea posted

Jun 2023
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