Betas are a tricky thing to get right. Realistically when you’re testing a beta product you’ve got a solid foundation of base functionality that you think is ready for prime time but you want to see how they’ll fair in the wild as there’s no way for you to catch all the bugs in the lab. Thus you’d want your product to get into the hands of as many users as you possibly could as that gives you the best chance to catch anything before you go prime time. Many companies now release beta versions of upcoming software for free to the general public in order to do this and for many of them it’s proven to work quite well. However more recently I’ve seen beta testing used as a way to promote a product rather than test it and the main way they do that is through artificial scarcity.
Rewind back to yonder days of 2004 and you’ll find me happily slogging away at my various exploits when a darkness forms on the horizon: World of Warcraft. After seeing many of the game play videos and demos before I was enamoured with the game long before it hit the retail shelves. You can then imagine my elation when I found out there was a competition for a treasured few closed beta invitations and not 10 minutes later had I entered. As it turns out I got in and promptly spent the next fortnight playing my way through the game and revelling in the new found exclusivity that it had granted me. Being a closed beta tester was something rather special and I spoke nothing of praise to all my friends about this upcoming game.
Come back to the present day and we can make parallels to the phenomenon that is #newtwitter. Starting out on the iPad as the official Twitter Client #newtwitter is an evolution in the service that Twitter is delivering, offering deeper integration with services that augment it and significantly jazzing up the interface. Initially it was only available to a select subset of the wider Twitter audience and strangely enough most of them appeared to be either influential Twitter users or those in the technology media. The reviews of the new Twitter client were nothing short of amazing and as the client has made its way around to more of the waiting public people have been more than eager to get their hands on it. Those carefully chosen beta testers at the start helped formed a positive image that’s helped keep any negativity at bay, even with their recent security problems.
This is in complete contrast to the uproar that was felt when Facebook unveiled its new user interface at the end of last year. Unlike the previous two examples the new Facebook interface was turned on all at once for every single user that visited the site. Immediately following this millions of users cried out in protest, despising the new design and the amount of information that was being presented to them. Instead of the new Facebook being something cool to be in on it proved to be enough of an annoyance to a group of people to cause a stir about it, rather than sing its praises.
The difference lies in the idea of artificial scarcity. You see there really wasn’t anything stopping Blizzard or Twitter from releasing their new product onto the wider world all at once as Facebook did however it was advantageous to them for numerous reasons. For both it allowed them to get a good idea of how their product would work in the wild and catch any major issues before release. Additionally the exclusivity granted to those few souls who got the new product early put them on a pedestal, something to be envied by those who were doing without. Thus the product that was already desirable becomes even more so because not everyone can have it. Doing a gradual release of the product also ensures that that air of exclusivity remains long after it’s released to the larger world as can be seen with #newtwitter.
I say all this because honestly, it works. As soon as I heard about #newtwitter I wanted in on it (mostly because it would be great blog fodder) and the fact that I couldn’t do anything to get it just made me want it all the more. I’ve also got quite a few applications on my phone that I signed up for simply because of the mystery and exclusivity they had, although I admit the fascination didn’t last long for them. Still the idea of a scarce product seems to work well even in the digital age where such restrictions are wholly artificial. Just like when say someone posts a teaser screenshot on Facebook sans URL to an upcoming web application.
I’m sure most of you knew what I was up to anyway 😉