Why you should launch a new website in beta

Digital & Online

If you’re launching a new website that has tight timelines, make sure you manage users’ expectations. One way to do this is to launch your site in beta. Lots of people do this including Google, CNN and Microsoft.

There’s a great article on One Degree. The author (who I think is Clay Mitchell) says, “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.”

Today in one of our website meetings we agreed to a longer ’soft launch’ period and a ‘hard launch’ in beta. (For those that don’t know, a soft launch is limited and may include a small group. A hard launch includes the masses.)

It was important that my work folks understand we cannot launch a site and expect that site to work perfectly when we’ve only tested on, say, 300 people. We will never know if it works perfectly until we have a large number (meaning: the regular visitors to our current site).

There is a vast difference. A small number of users on your site in its early incarnation may unearth some problems. A large group of users will allow you to see the site being used on a routine basis.

Take Oprah Winfrey. She’s a chick with a lot of cash. She did a webcast and her site, struggling with the strain of 800,000+ users, crashed. This article from the Huffington Post says that the media empire queen had employed the best dudes in the business to put together and execute her webcast. Importantly the article also says how was Oprah to know the site would crash? Until she had 800,000 hungry fans rushing to hear the word of Winfrey (i.e. putting the site to use under routine conditions) it’s hard to predict what will go wrong.