What of this silly little invite-only idea?

Google TalkI’ve received a couple invites from folks for Google Talk, Google’s new instant messaging service. The funny thing is that it requires a Gmail username and password to make use of the software, which, like other Google software, only runs on Windows. Now you’ll recall, too, that Gmail is an invite-only system. This would make for some rather troublesome exclusivity in the service if it weren’t for the fact that you can talk to your buddies on other IM services.

So here’s what’s interesting about this, and something I wonder about personally given Flock’s current “private beta”: what results are had by using such an invite-based system to grow your userbase and social network? What are the costs and benefits, and to whom? There are myriad reasons for busting out with a fully public beta but just as many for going private, which is, admittedly, different than exclusive (Flock is the former, Gmail the latter).

To limit your system to invited participants, you must certainly have something of both legitimate and substantial value to create demand… that actually incents invitees to sign up and login. But you also must not upset or invite the bitter ire of those who haven’t yet received invites.

And quite obviously, as we learned over the past week, once you’ve extended an invite, especially in the world of software where there is hardly such a thing as scarcity of resources, what you giveth, you nary can take away.

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?

Who knows?

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!

Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: Molly.com (YC W18), Uber, Google.

16 thoughts on “What of this silly little invite-only idea?”

  1. You only need to take a look at services like msn spaces when it first launched just how useful using an invite only system can be when introducing something new to the public. They had all sorts of problems because they didn’t use one. The service bogged down unbearably, the back end couldn’t cope. It’s only because of the might of Microsoft that they were able to bring people and resources online when they needed to. Not every startup can afford that! It makes sense to me to use an invite system when there are millions of users online now all wanting a piece of tha latest action. Takes time to develop systems, some people just have to be patient and wait. People love to whinge when they’re left out of the loop. Hey, all the more hype… they whinge, they must want in… people see that and think this must be good and want in themselves… those people whinge too, I call it the whinge cycle. 🙂

    I think you’ve taken the right approach Chris, you don’t need other distractions diverting your attention right now.

    Google Talk looks interesting. Pity they haven’t set any chat rooms up yet, not that I can see. Or integrated it to use the MSN/Yahoo/ICQ. I do like its clean design.

  2. I personally find it interesting that many invitation-only services / software share the same goal as all the other freely available software: to create convenience for the common people, who, as our target customers, will not have “connections” like the buzz-creaters do, for them the search for that elusive invitation itself can be a frustrating experience.

    Totally agree with what craig said, that sometimes an invitation system is simply needed to avoid server overload. But maybe there could be some better way to it, so that prospective users will not be left in the dark amidst all this buzz, trying to obtain the “prestige”. More than “creating a false hierarchy”, it creates a false sense of popularity. It’s like saying the product is not for everyone and you have to be good / smart / rich enough to get it, people naturally want to get it even just for the sake of getting it. 🙂

    Maybe from a marketing prespective any kind of popularity is good for the product. As a programmer myself, I can’t help but sympathize with the users in this case.

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  4. I think software development betas have recently been morphing into marketing development betas and causing the tension which you’ve described. In the case of Flock and RawSugar, where I work, there’s a need to have users early on to test the software and planned messaging, both of which require some privacy to do well. In the case of GMail, GTalk and Yahoo 360, we’re really talking marketing beta because those all came out of the shoot ready to go; from a more traditional perspective there was no need to use the beta label at all.

  5. The good news is that Flock won’t be in private beta forever and that eventually our seeded invite program (which, it turns out, is really just a way to attract a more diverse pool of testers) will expire, so I completely agree with you, Ann. I’m not at all interested in turning our invite system into a popularity contest — but for now, we do need to keep it limited as we figure out our complete service offering.

    As far as Bill’s comment, I would only suggest that Gmail and Yahoo 360 have changed a great deal since they were first introduced and therefore bear the “Beta” qualifier accurately. I think the one issue that exists with slapping “beta” on a site or software offering is that all software, especially Web2.0 software, should be in perpetual beta. To that end, I wouldn’t mind seeing the first release of Flock be called Flock organic… But I doubt that’ll happen. 😉

  6. Screw server overload, think about Lloyd overload 😉

    Neglect. I can barely keep up with all the detailed, accurate feedback and bugs that we am getting! Most of it from ~ 10 people. At the same time we are working on putting in the infrastructure to have a community knowledge garden 😉 I don’t want to neglect anyone’s invaluable feedback!

    Disappoint. The other reason that I appreciate Flock having a private beta is that the presentation, delivery, and even some of the ideas continue to morph in signficant and exciting ways. For some people it takes more time and energy to learn a new technology or tool. I don’t my mom to say to me, “Lloyd just when I was getting the hang of Flock, it is now quite different! This is exhausting!”

  7. (I found your blog via Technorati, btw.)

    Does it artificially increase desire?

    Yes, which is not necessarily a bad thing. But it also cultivates a cliquey feeling that could turn potential users off completely (as my friend Doug said today after I teased him: “I’ve been resisting del.icio.us, because a) it seemed absurd at first b) trendy c) I just hate adopting things SECOND. Either I’m there on opening day or, “oh, no, I never really got into THAT place.”)

    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?

    Yes, a little, to answer the first part of your question, and yes, probably a lot, to answer the second.

    Or does it create a false hierarchy around an inner circle of well-connected geeks?

    Can’t it do both?

    Okay I’m done.

  8. Hi Chad,

    Adding the option to get an account be receiving an SMS message also sounds like a lame barrier to me. Most of Google’s technologies seem accessible to me. Why not gmail?

    Thank you,

  9. Flock is not an invite beta

    So please stop asking for invites 😉

    There is a signup form @ flock.com . The “announcements� mailing list will be used to seed the expanded (private) beta within a couple of weeks.

    The Flock browser will be free to take flight within a month!

  10. I have been using Flock since Oct 23, 2005. I have used it as my primary browser and have not suffered any crashes. I just want to be sure by filling this out here that I am going to be able to continue to use Flock and the latest builds etc. Very nice product. Thanks for allowing me to Beta test and enjoy your fine product.

    Greg Fisher

  11. Hey Greg,

    No worries — we’re going to keep pumping out new releases of Flock with cool features. And of course, it’ll stay open source and free.

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