5 Reasons You Should Launch a Website in “Beta”
The day we planned to launch the new AmericansForTheArts.org website, everyone on staff was ready for a party-a pizza party to be exact–to celebrate all our hard work and the debut of our beautiful new site.
While the web team was humbled by staff's faith in us and their palpable joy about the new site they helped create, we were a little less ready to celebrate.
Yes, technically, we just needed to make one DNS update on that day to point traffic from our old site to the new one and viola, a new site is launched.
But, it's actually not that simple.
Yes, we had spent weeks testing the site and getting everything in order, but the traffic of 10 people testing a site just doesn't match the traffic of your daily visitors. When you open your site to that increased traffic, they stretch it in different ways, interact with it differently, and a new level of testing begins.
And that’s the testing that really matters-whether you acknowledge it or not.
Enter the new trend to launch web technologies in "beta." Launching in beta means that the site may be ready for use, but it’s not quite perfect yet–it’s a signal to users that the site is still in a state of testing.
Launching in beta lets users know that behind-the-scenes work is still being done to fix any remaining bugs, and to identify and alter anything that might not be working well for the site's visitors.
Launching in beta tells your visitor that you realize your site won't truly be finished until they've tested it and their feedback has been incorporated.
Still not convinced to launch in beta? Here are 5 good reasons to re-consider:
1. It Acknowledges Your Technology Isn't Perfect and Sets Realistic Expectations
With technology, you never know what's going to go wrong. We spent weeks testing our site before launching, but you can never predict what will go wrong when the traffic picks up on your site. Being honest and telling your users that you know they'll find bugs in the technology and that you’re committed to hearing and fixing what they find sets up a very productive dialogue with your user.
For us, our bugs were found mostly in the integration between our website Content Management System (CMS) and our organization’s database (CRM) that should’ve allowed for a single sign-on between the two different sets of technology.
We had some serious trouble with this integration in the first two weeks after launch. But because we launched in beta, our users joined in the battle with us–sending us head’s up e-mails (instead of nasty ones) when they had trouble and giving us their patience as we worked through the problems.
2. It Shows Your Commitment to Make Real Changes Based on User Feedback
Much like asking your visitors to tell you when the technology isn't working, launching in beta also offers your visitors the opportunity to give you other kinds of feedback.
Not only were we very interested in our users' perception of how well the navigation was working for them and if they were finding the information they needed, but we are also ready to compile and make changes based on that feedback.
We felt gratified when the user feedback on the navigation was positive, and when people said it was much easier to find content than they did on the old site. But we also made some changes and improvements, and are continuing to roll out new functionality.
3. It Allows You to Roll Out More Advanced Features on a Schedule
Launching all of your new website's really high-tech features on the same day means you have to solve all your high-tech problems on the same day, too. It doesn't give you space or schedule to troubleshoot.
If you launch different features over a few weeks, or even months, you can actually spend the time you need to work on bugs that arise post-launch with more focus and precision. For us, our big new technology feature that we presented with the launch of the new website was the integration between our CMS (Drupal) and CRM (netForum) that I mentioned previously.
After launch, we turned our attention to building two new additional databases which would become part of our website, the Public Art Network Year in Review Database (which we plan to launch in June) and the National Arts Administration and Policy Publication Database (which we plan to launch in July).
The databases themselves will launch in beta, again allowing our users to help us find bugs and give feedback on their usability. Now that all of the bugs from the main website launch have been largely addressed, we have the space to focus our attention on these roll-outs.
4. It Provides a Structure to Plan a Tiered Marketing Strategy
A beta phase allows you to tier your marketing. During our beta phase, we haven’t done a lot of marketing to drive new traffic to the site. Instead, our marketing efforts were focused on our existing visitors and members, a select group of people who already knew us and used the site on a regular basis.
We knew they were the group that would be able to best provide feedback, and they would be the most patient and willing to engage with us during a beta stage.
As we move out of beta stage, we will increase our marketing efforts, and our goal will be to gain new audiences and drive traffic to a site that is stable and well-vetted by our existing visitors.
5. All the Cool Kids Do It
Google was one of the first to launch their technology in beta, and now they do it as a matter of routine when they roll out a new feature. During the beta phase, it's not unlike them to make major changes but those changes are made on really strong analytics and user feedback they have garnered.
To name a few others, CNN launched its 2007 website in beta, Facebook Messenger recently launched in beta, and Apple routinely launches in beta (most recently, the OS X Beta Seed Program made the pre-release Mac operating system software available to all who want to try it out).
So launch in beta - you'll be in good company.