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Leveraging the Power of Beta

Given the popularity of ‘Beta’ websites, it is surprising that very little is written about them, especially in the online marketing world. “Beta” is a term used to describe a website or online service (e.g. Facebook, flickr or several of Google’s services) that is in a development phase, but is not ready to be commercially launched.

The Beta theme is a potentially powerful tool for online marketers because it acts as a cue to website visitors. Basically it indicates that, while a website is designed to provide a certain type of experience, its present version may not be able to satisfy visitors’ expectations. As with many websites in development, visitors may encounter functionality problems, navigational issues, missing tools, and a whole range of possibilities.

Launching a website that is in a Beta phase can result in two positive outcomes for website owners. First, it can generate forgiveness from visitors if they experience problems. In those cases, instead of people being deterred from returning, they will be more likely to give the website another opportunity at a later date.

The second benefit is that Beta can encourage people to participate in a website’s development. For virtually every Beta website there will be visitors that, if they can see the potential value of the site, have the motivation to help develop the experience by providing suggestions and feedback. A person who engages in the act of contributing may also become a powerful evangelist for the site.

I emphasized the word ‘can’ above because it’s important to understand that to foster forgiveness and participation, the Beta concept must be leveraged – but how? I had to answer this exact question at the company I work for, MovieSet, and so I began to review a number of Beta websites using the Top 100 Beta Websites list as published on this Museum of Modern Betas Blog.

Based on this review, I derived six considerations for leveraging the power of Beta.

1. Make the Beta Theme Noticeable

Putting a ‘Beta’ logo on your website is a good start, but it may not be enough. Many Beta websites do this (usually beside the company name), but many of those that do use a very small logo, which is easy to miss. I do not recommend plastering a Beta logo everywhere on a web page, but it needs to be noticeable.

2. Tell People What You Want Out of Beta

The Beta concept has been around for years, but has generally been limited to the B2B world. Thus, the average person may not know what you mean by simply placing a Beta logo on your site. With more and more websites signalling that they are in Beta this is likely to change, but in the meantime, it is a good practice to tell people what you hope to achieve while in your Beta phase. Very few of the websites I reviewed did this. If you are exposing your website while it is in a development phase, you must want something out of it, so why not explain it?

3. Provide Tools for Feedback

If you are looking for people to provide feedback or suggestions, provide them with easy-to-find tools. For instance, place a (obvious) link to a bug reporting or feedback window that pops up when clicked on. And remember, you’re asking people to give you their time, generally, for free. So try not to make these reporting forms too onerous.

4. Make Your Messaging Consistent

Your messaging has to be consistent across the website and in interactions (offline and online) with your stakeholders. Contradictory messaging can ruin the Beta push. Consider a website that says “We are the best at what we do, but are in a development phase and would like your feedback”. Wouldn’t make sense would it?

5. Know Your (Beta) Audience

Side note: Before discussing this important point, I too am frustrated by reading online marketing articles that start off with “Five Steps to………….” and then one of the five steps is know your target audience. This is marketing – you always need to know your target audience.

That being said … your ideal Beta audience is most likely going to have different characteristics than your actual target audience. Instead of targeting people who like what you are currently doing, you need to focus on those people who like what you’re trying to do. In academia, these people are typically referred to as innovators and early adopters. Early adopters have the ability to share your vision and the propensity to become involved because their participation can help realize that vision.

Of course, identifying and reaching early adopters is a complex process and definitely easier said than done. I would argue that the main focus should be people who will use your website for the value that it provides. A lot of the Beta websites I reviewed have a developers blog, which can really only be understood by software developers. While software developers are useful for communicating with (they may help you get past a troubling coding problem), unless they are going to use your website in the future in the way that you intend, their value is extremely limited. So for instance, instead of only having a developer’s blog on your website, also include a blog that speaks to the people who will be using your site – in a language that they are familiar with.

6. Don’t Overdo It

Like many things in life, too much of something is a bad thing. Specifically I would argue that there is a non-monotonic relationship between Beta effectiveness and time. The relationship works like this:

At the beginning of the beta stage, leveraging the power of Beta is barely effective – it takes time to (a) create awareness of a website and (b) drive home the fact that you are in a beta phase. As time progresses, the ability to leverage the Beta theme increases and eventually you hit an optimal point where all those tools you’ve implemented for engaging people start becoming valuable.

The important, and probably consistently ignored, point is that being in Beta too long becomes detrimental. Your website’s visitors will eventually become annoyed with the fact you’re still in Beta – it becomes an excuse as opposed to a legitimate reason.

How do you judge when too much Beta is bad? This will vary depending on a two primary factors:

(1) Whether people can see obvious improvements in your website.

If people can see obvious improvements/developments in a website, the longer the Beta phase can be drawn out. There’s nothing more annoying than seeing a website that is in a development phase that is not developing. This signals to your users that their participation is not being put to good use.

(2) Whether you are able to reasonably communicate why you are still in a Beta phase.

If you are having problems developing a fast enough pace to keep people interested (lack of financial resources, problems finding software developers), it is best to admit this. I would never recommend approaches like “We need money”, but I do recommend finding some way to explicitly acknowledge the fact that development is taking longer than you (and your customers) may have expected.

Effectively leveraging the Power of Beta requires strategic planning and entire company adoption. The more websites that embrace this concept, the more understanding we will gain on how to use it. And for the sake of online marketers everywhere, be careful how you use it. Marketers are great at coming up with excellent ideas, but they’re also great at ruining them.