The Beta Trend

Q. How does Apple Computer develop a new product?

A. First, they give it a code name. Then they make T-shirts and leak it to the press. Someone writes a few lines of code. It ships. Now, they write the functional specification and finally perform quality assurance.

This was a popular joke among the Apple faithful back in the ’80s. Now the model is back, except today it’s called “beta.” Have you noticed no one releases finished software any more? Idea-to-market times are more compressed than ever, fueled by the pervasive acceptance of beta releases.

A beta release is a release of a service or product that by definition is not finished, often not well-tested, and in most cases probably not even fully specified. In other words, software and services are released to customers before developers even know what they’ll be developing.

The beta trend is an example of how the Internet places customers and influencer communities in the driver’s seat. Done well, a beta program becomes a period of intense dialogue between customers, opinion makers, outside software developers, and the company or organization developing the software or service.

A well-run beta program clearly informs users the software may not be reliable and important features and functionality may still be missing. Users accept and tolerate this in turn for helping to shape the service before it’s cast in iron. Their input and feedback not only improve product quality, they also set direction and influence features and functionality.

But an extended beta period can become a poor excuse for incomplete functionality, buggy software, and spotty reliability.

Photo-sharing site Flickr is a good example of a beta service that released a very simple site early, and engaged users in an active dialogue to refine and enhance its offering. It did a beta program the way beta programs should be done. But it’s still in beta!

I haven’t kept exact tabs, but I believe Flickr has been around for 12-18 months. Yahoo even bought it a few months ago. Isn’t it time to take at least a part of the service out of beta?

Launch a new service under a beta program and you tell potential customers you care about their input and want their assistance in shaping the service — a powerful message. Keep the beta program running too long, and it can to look like an excuse for a lack of commitment or an inability to deliver the service at acceptable levels of performance and reliability. It may sow seeds of doubt as to whether users can ever rely and depend on the service.

Releasing a new online service on a hunch and calling it beta is an interesting departure from the traditional wisdom of keeping things under wraps until a formal unveiling, running hush-hush focus groups, and performing exhaustive market research and analysis. There’s no better way to study the value of an idea or understand what users like than to give them your early prototypes to play with.

The current momentum behind free software and open source movements is a strong acknowledgement and recognition that proprietary, closed methods may not be the most effective, efficient way to ensure innovation and quality. The beta trend lines up behind the open movement, borrowing the “more brains is better” theory and recognizing a decentralized, less-controlled approach can result in better, faster innovation.

How does the beta trend affect marketing? Certainly marketers have become accustomed to increasingly short product cycles. Average product shelf life is shorter and shorter. There are fewer monolithic releases with incremental updates being made weekly, even daily. In the world of software, continuous release cycles are a common way to run development.

Why don’t marketers run beta campaigns, too? Not controlled focus groups, but actual public releases of advertising campaigns with the intent to improve based on open, uncontrolled user input?

A recent “Adweek” article led with the claim “More Marketers Cozy Up To User-Created Content.” It describes advertisers having a difficult time giving up control. Some are taking the plunge, however, and experimenting with greater customer engagement.

Control, or lack of it, is the key sticking point for marketers when it comes to the beta trend. Marketers are trained to control everything, from the message to positioning and timing, to create the perfect image. Running an ad campaign without these controls is a foreign concept for most marketers. Yet the open movement and the beta trend are all about giving up certain controls.

It takes a leap of faith and strong belief in your idea, product, or service to give up control and invite customers to be part of the early creation process. Yet people will increasingly expect to participate from early on. Their tolerance for “positioning” is waning and expectation of authenticity is on the rise. How do you get any more authentic than having your customers write your ad copy?

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