Fred Wilson wrote about the value of blogging and building social capital, demonstrated by the hundred requests for invites he received on his post on his recent investment, Boxee, an invite-only service.
Now, while I find the behavior of public invite-requesting curious, I understand it.
I also think there’s another side to this equation that I’d like to point out, being one of the fortunate early adopters who happens to get invited to a lot of early alphas and betas… and that’s understanding the relationship between the creator of the beta and the testers. Or, to put it another way, requesting an invite to a service for one’s own benefit is one thing; understanding that an invite is a privilege given in exchange for feedback and suggestions provided is another. And the secret to getting early access to beta programs is, perhaps obviously, to be a good beta tester.
There are any number of ways to demonstrate that you’re worthy of an invite to an invite-only alpha or beta program. One problem is that a lot of beta feedback is submitted privately, outside of public forums. Whenever I can, I attempt to use more public forums, both for my own recollection, but also for the benefit or other testers, developers and later users.
In other cases, I’ll use Flickr or Twitter, leading to interesting phenomena, similar to what Fred describes.
In particular, I’ve been alpha testing a music player called Spotify for some time. It’s an incredible service and recently opened up with three levels of service, although it’s sadly not available in the US yet owing to licensing issues. Now, the only way to get an account with the service is to request an invitation.
It just so happens that I screenshotted an element of the new interface, uploaded it to Flickr and titled the photo “Spotify Invites“. That photo is now the second result for that phrase on Google and people have noticed, quickly exhausting my supply of invites.
The problem with this scenario, and with Fred’s, is that many folks seem eager to get access solely for their own benefit, without thought to the quid pro quo that makes beta programs successful (and ultimately benefit both the developer and subsequent users!). And I think it’s worth it to point out that beta programs aren’t just freebie give-aways: the gate is there for a reason!
I wrote this post in 2005, back when Gmail was an invite-only service (!!) and I was thinking about the relationships we were attempting to cultivate with the Flock alpha tester program:
So what of all these invite-only (or formally invite-only) services where you have to know someone on the inside to get a golden ticket? Does it artificially increase desire? Does it help services grow organically and cut down on trolls and spam, creating more value for invitees? Does it create more investment from the user community and perhaps establish even minor connections between invitor and invitee? Or does it create a false hierarchy around an inner circle of well-connected geeks?
What I do know is that it’s a curious trend and happening rather profusely across the web. Good or bad? I can’t quite say — except that in the case of Flock, we’re using the invite system to start out slowly on purpose. We want to not only be able to scale up organically, but we also want to cultivate relationships with our brave early adopters so that we can build the best experience possible over time. And to that end — we want to make sure that when we do launch publicly, we’ve hammered out all the glaring issues — as well as minor ones — so that sum total Flock makes you more productive, more explorative, and more voraciously social on the web. So for now, Flock will remain available to few kindred souls with enough courage to shove through our bugs and dodge the sharp edges. In the meantime, do add yourself to our invite lottery so that your name will be there when the next round of invites go out.
Not much has changed in terms of the structure of invite-only betas (even though the tools for managing them have improved), but I think something of the intimacy and purpose of these programs have been missed as more of the mainstream have gotten used to handing out just their email address for access to such initiatives.
As Fred points out that there’s value in building up social capital so that you can help stoke interest in new projects and draw the interest of potentially valuable contributors and testers, but it’s just as important to highlight the value of diligent and hard-working testers who have an interest in improving products and becoming partners in the potential success of such projects. I think there’s the potential for mutually reinforcing and ongoing relationships in the execution of a productive beta program, and that those longer-term relationships should not be overlooked.
. . .
To that end, I’m looking for some highly motivated and qualified testers for LittleSnapper, Real Mac Software’s new webpage screenshot utility. Be one of the first ten to leave a comment with your proper email address and a description of how you approach beta testing and I’ll send you info on where you can sign up. As I’m eager to see LittleSnapper mature, I won’t settle for just anyone — prove to me that you’d add value to the alpha tester program! ;)