The Real Value of Beta Programs

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The term “beta program” is a very overused term in product development, and depending on who you talk to, the term carries different meanings. There often seems to be a misconception that beta programs should be used primarily as a way to get market feedback and validate that you have the right solution. For me, a beta program is not the right tool for validating whether you’ve created the right product. That step should be done way before a beta program and with as little actual software development as possible. In fact, beta software should be pretty darn close to what you end up releasing to market, which is to say beta software should already reflect a tight product / market fit. In my opinion, beta software should be the last market feedback stage before a full market release (actually, it should be part of the market release program). Thus, you should already be very confident in your solution at the point of beta. Instead of (mis)using beta programs as an expensive market validation technique, I like to use them to turbo charge go-to-market initiatives on the marketing and organizational readiness sides and to optimize first impressions.

Generate powerful marketing buzz around your product launch.

First and foremost, beta programs are wonderful for creating and capturing powerful user testimonials that can be used in your marketing material. If you’re not leveraging your beta programs to collect testimonials then you’re really missing out. Nothing compels someone to try out something new like hearing that their colleagues or competitors have already been benefiting from it.  This is especially true for highly competitive domains like sales. A tactic I like to use for this is to target some of the beta users that you know have had a great experience thus far and pre-write a few testimonials that each can comfortably sign off on, or easily tweak to their preference. This eliminates the time it would take them to come up with the right words and allows you to frame the testimonial to speak to the key pieces of the value proposition.

Another great marketing opportunity is to use your beta program for collecting hard statistics on how your innovation has moved the needle thus far, and use those stats in your release marketing. For instance, you might create a pre-beta survey that all beta participants are required to complete as part of acceptance that asks targeted questions aimed at establishing benchmarks around the areas your innovation is supposed to impact (or you may already have qualitative or quantitative benchmarks you can use). Towards the end of the beta program, send out the survey again to get your “before and after” comparisons. Hopefully you notice some significant upticks in the areas you’re looking to impact and you can use these stats (much like the testimonials) in your product marketing to juice your early adoption.

Finally, you’ve got a great opportunity to generate pre-release buzz by facilitating a way for beta users to discuss their experiences amongst themselves. For instance, you could set up a temporary, private Facebook group for beta testers where they can all discuss their feedback. This gives you a centralized way to monitor and manage feedback and allows positive buzz to build (it also means you’ll need to mitigate any negative buzz). In industries where there’s a lot of cross talk among companies and competitors, this buzz is likely to spill outside of the private community and create a groundswell of anticipation for your new innovation across the larger market.

Create a smooth transition within the company for selling and supporting your new innovation.

Beta programs are invaluable for preparing the internal organization for release. In my opinion, you should never launch a beta version as a separate, isolated product group initiative. You should always incorporate as much of the organization into the program as possible. Basically, whoever will be involved in selling and supporting the new innovation going forward should be involved. The support team should be involved in fielding support calls to get a feel for some of the potential soft spots that may need to be ironed out before release. In many cases, there will emerge a support issue that wasn’t anticipated and at a larger scale could really bog down the team and result in poor customer service. There should be a smooth feedback funnel over to the product team so that feedback can be assessed and prioritized. Even though the account management teams aren’t usually first lines of software support, you can bet their clients will be sending beta feedback to them as well so make sure to equip them with the right protocol as well.

On the sales side, there may also be an opportunity to run the traps on selling your new innovation. If it’s something you’ll be charging for in beta, then your sales team can help to sell it (on a limited basis) and test out pricing. For more complex products or features, the sales team also has an opportunity to learn how to best pitch and demo the main value proposition.

For many innovations, there may be an aspect of technology performance and stability that needs to be tested. For instance, something that will result in having to process significantly more back end transactions, events, emails, etc. will likely need to be ramped up slowly so that server infrastructure performance can be monitored. The beta program gives the technology team a chance to identify any possible performance concerns that can be mitigated before a full release.

Make those small, final product tweaks that will optimize first impressions.

You only get one shot at creating a great first impression. So, related to marketing, beta programs are great ways to nail down those final, small details that can make a huge impact on first impressions in the broad market.

There are some bugs that just don’t emerge until you have a group of real users using the software in the real world. This beta period gives you the opportunity to uncover and eliminate critical bugs that have a chance to ruin someone’s first impression.

Once you start getting broader usage of the software you’ll also likely uncover small design and functionality changes that can make a world of difference. Stuff like copy edits, color changes, help text and small placement / interaction changes can sometimes mean the difference between a user really engaging with your new innovation and a quick exit. If you’re a SaaS product, with the broader usage, you’ll start seeing meaningful insights in your Web analytics dashboard that help to uncover soft spots in the conversion flow. I’ve always been amazed at how often these soft spots have been quickly solved by seemingly insignificant design or functionality changes!

What are some other great ways to fully leverage beta programs. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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