Monday, August 11, 2008

The "Coolness" of Beta Websites

Many people ask me why MSI is an invite based site and not open for registration. After all, being a startup, shouldn't increasing user base be one of the goals?

Even more people mistake it as planned marketing strategy, citing Gmail as an example. The concept being that an invite only registration adds to the "mystery", making people curious and wanting for more.

While this concept worked for Gmail, with people auctioning the invites on eBay, I doubt it was meant to be this way. As a marketing strategy, I guess it's quite a risky one - you are trying to increase your user base by limiting it! Moreover, this concept can work only for a few products, products that are extremely good that can create a hugely positive word of mouth publicity. In that case, I am not sure why would any company whose product is that good would resort to this strategy. If it's good, it would anyway become popular. Also, after a few companies this out, the whole concept itself loses the novelty - quite a number of things look good only the first few time.

People tend to forget that the concept of beta is older than Gmail, or Google itself. And so is the concept of invites. I remember Netscape and Windows inviting people to try out their products before the final release. While Google is the one who made betas "cool", they are also the one who most misused the concept with betas running for years (Gmail is still in beta, after more than 4 years!)

So why are products invite only (or in beta)? While I can talk only about my startup, I think these concepts apply to others as well.

The main concept behind a closed beta is that the product is still in early stages and not ready for a full release. There can be bugs. Maybe the feature list is not complete for a good user experience. Perhaps the UI is not as nice as for a production ready product.

But if it's not ready, why release it at all? Why not wait a little longer for product to finish? Because for any product to be successful, you need feedback, from actual users for whom it is meant for. However, not all users are forgiving. If your product is not ready, they may get turned off. Worse, write a bad blog turning off even more users. So you release it to a limited set of users. You can always find a few users who are more tolerable. They can ignore a few blips here and there if they like the idea and see the potential. They are ready to invest their precious time to try and help you in your initiative.

When should you open up? Well, short answer is when it's ready. And readiness varies from product to product.

In case of MSI, I define readiness as user getting excited enough to "use" our site. When a user joins our site, we have an expectation as to the level of activity. We certainly do not expect users to log in daily - we are a travel portal and people don't think about travel everyday. But we do expect users to add their past trips, upload photographs, maybe write a review or two, send out mails to a few friends. When our users do that regularly, I would call ourselves successful and would signify time to open up. Till that time, we'll prefer to stay as beta and keep improving.

Where are we on that goal now? Not quite there. One of the feedbacks we got while we sent out the last few invites was that entering old trips was long process. Clicking "Enter past trip" button for each trip was not the easiest thing to do. We resolved that by upgrading Travel Map so that you can just click on the destinations you've been to and a trip would automatically get created thereby significantly reducing the time to load your past trips. And new users would automatically be sent to this page as part of registration. We'll observe user's behavior on this feature and see how it's going. If you are one of the users of our site, do let me know if it helped.

One another important thing that we are set out to do as part of beta is to encourage people to write about their travel experiences. While there are ways to do it currently, I feel they are not appropriate for a number of travelers. Not everybody wants to maintain a blog for writing travel experiences. Maintaining a blog is very intimidating and many people give up after a post or two. Travel is supposed to be fun and writing about it should not come with burden of maintaining a blog. We want to provide a comfortable setup for people to share experiences. While this is a long-term goal, I am happy to say that we have been seeing some success with it. Two of our users (Anshul and Shobhit) not really known for their writing in past have written about their experiences, for the first time - here and here. If we can do that on regular basis, it would be a great success for our site.

These are some of the tweaking we are doing to achieve the goals we have set out for ourselves to open up.

These days beta is synonymous of "cool". But one should be wary of misusing it. It should not be used as an excuse for inferior product. It is easy to get complacent on the beta tag. The earlier you get out of it, the better. You should set goals for your product to come out of the beta tag. That is best not only for your product but for your users as well.