Once and for all: A beta test isn’t enough to create buzz


It’s old news, it really is. But since I get confronted with invitations to beta tests everyday (in my role as a blogger, as a freelance consultant and as project lead for German blog magazine blogpiloten.de), I can promise you that a lot of PR agencies still think a beta test is enough to get bloggers to write about your product, and thus to create buzz. It isn’t. Period.

Beta tests are important. If you’re a bootstrapping web startup, you need to release early and release often. In order to to that, you need constant feedback from your users. Potential users (and testers) are most easily identified by their blogs, so inviting bloggers to your beta test makes a lot of sense.

That said, inviting bloggers to test your stuff just to get their attention and save money on marketing is a really, really bad idea. If you don’t allow for the feedback they’re willing to give, you’re being unfair, both to these bloggers and to your product. Whatever it is you’re developing, it’s not perfect. It cannot be perfect. So you’ll need that feedback, simple as that. Open feedback channels very early in the production phase. Post-launch is too late. Pretending to bloggers (who you should be trying to make your fans) that they have any influence that they don’t really have will almost certainly backfire, and badly so.

So, where does that leave us?

  1. Identify users who might be seriously interested in what you’re doing, for whatever reason.
  2. Invite them very early on in your production phase, so you can implement their feedback into your product.
  3. Give them feedback, respect, and credit. Lots of all of this. And then some.
  4. Make sure to hook them up with a free version of your product once it’s all set and done. They just put a lot of effort into your product, so you can make money off of it. It’s only fair not to charge them.

Learn from the Fail Whale: failing doesn’t need to hurt


If there’s one thing all Twitter users have in common, it’s that they’ve experienced down time. Twitter is famous for it’s long and regular down times, and since the service is growing so fast, it will continue to be unavailable fairly frequently for quite a while. Usually, with the fickle web audience, this would mean the end of the service. Not so for Twitter. Twitter users aren’t a more forgiving bunch than others – it’s a lot of early adopters on the service which usually wouldn’t mind shooting down a service that doesn’t do what it promises. So why does Twitter get away with it?

Twitter's Fail Whale

It’s the Fail Whale, the image that is displayed whenever Twitter is “over capacity”. Every Twitter user is familiar with the Fail Whale.

Of course, it’s not the Fail Whale itself. But the whale is a symbol here, it stands for Twitter’s open, relaxed, ironic and fun way of handling their problems. “Look, we sometimes screw up, but we’ll try to make it fun for you,” they seem to think.

And it works! Not only do Twitter users forgive their favorite micro blogging service all their problems. The Fail Whale has grown its own fan base, and it has even been seen in the wild. Check out the myriad of Fail Whale variations and references on Flickr, a few of which I picked below. (Could you imagine a huge fan base for your average “404 – file not found” page? I think not.)

Image by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid of laughingsquid.com. Image licensed under CC. LED Whale Love” by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid. Licensed under Creative Commons (by-nc-sa). More on the LED Fail Whale here.

another fail whale by Flickr user emdot another fail whale” by emdot. Licensed under Creative Commons (by-nc-sa).

Fail Whale @ the library by flickr user Timothy Greig Fail Whale @ the library” by Timothy Greig. Licensed under Creative Commons (by-nc-sa).

Lesson learned? Your service/company/organization doesn’t have to be perfect in the web 2.0 sphere. That doesn’t mean that it’s ok to launch with a crappy, buggy beta and think your users will fix everything. But it means that if you’re conscious about your problems and communicate them openly and in a relaxed, fun way, chances are your users will stick with you. Don’t pretend to be perfect – nobody is – but talk to your users. The more open, the better.

Hobnox: Slick new player. (May work.)


HobnoxHobnox, an up-and-coming community site for artists, has quite a few assets. One of them is an audio tool WIRED loves. Another one, which I’d like to focus on here, is a video streaming tool.

This is some really interesting piece of software right there. Without knowing anything about the technical background, I have to say I haven’t seen any stream as smooth and quick as that before. You just don’t get any of the usual buffering or anything. (That’s the old player. The new one, we’ll see.) Who saw Hobnox’ live stream from Re:Publica 08 knows what I’m talking about.

So far, sadly there’s no mobile streaming, but folks in the company assured me that’s on their to do list.

Today, I got the chance to check out their new channel player, which is still in beta:

Meet Girls in Hawaii on Hobnox’ Sly-Fi channel. I was lucky enough to attend the Belgian indie rockers’ living room concert you see here, in a Berlin Kreuzberg shared apartment, with another dozen or so folks. So I was quite a happy surprise to discover that video stream right now…*

Just for comparison, here’s a YouTube video of the same event:

What is there to say about the new player? First, the navigation has become more complex, but also more powerful. You’ll still find the occasional jumping button, so it still seems a bit frickle. Also, a right click in the flash interface did produce a little temporary freeze on my computer. However, to be fair, I just installed the new Firefox 3 (and you should, too!), so this might be related.

Although you can embed the player like I did here, it really shows its strenghts in full screen mode – there it looks gorgeous! I’m curious to see where this goes.

Full disclosure: I share office space with Panorama 3000, which is loosely affiliated with Hobnox sister company, so, you know, I kinda like ’em.

*Update: The embed video doesn’t seem to produce the right stream yet. I’ll let it embedded for now to see if it’s going to work soon. Remember, it’s still in internal beta. Hope I didn’t break it…

Update: Video embed seems to be working now. Thanks, David, for the quick feedback!