One of the most nerve-wracking parts of launching a community is the moment where it actually goes online. All your preparations are finally tested, your plans go into action and your users step, blinking, into the glorious light of your new community. A lot can go wrong. Your moderators could become befuddled by the interface, your categories may turn out to be confusing or redundant, your theme might aggravate the eyeballs of your userbase. The list of potential hiccups is endless. Given how hard it can be to rescue a community once it starts going south, it's understandable to look for a way to manage that risk. Soft launching can be a good way to do this. In the simplest terms, a soft launch is opening your community to a limited number of users to test and perfect before opening them to the larger community. In software terms, it's similar to a closed beta.
There are a number of advantages to this approach. You could, for instance:
- Mobilise the most dedicated members of your community in order to find bugs or hiccups in your setup.
- Test your moderation workflow and ensure that your moderators know their way around the tools in a live setting
- Ensure that all your theming is bug free and pleasing to the populace
Another advantage is inherent to this kind of launch: the selection process. Being selected as the first to enter the gates of your forum will provide those dedicated users with the warm fuzzy feeling of being part of an elite group. It's a great way to kick off the engagement of those users by awarding them a coveted veteran status.
Parkinson’s Triviality Theory
While there's nothing wrong with a carefully measured dose of elitism, this system is not without its downsides. Notably, you're likely to run into Parkinson's Triviality Theory. Put simply, your users will be keen to show themselves as valuable by giving as much feedback as possible. This is all well and good, but it may cause problems when you need to sift through dozens of suggestions to get to the most valuable feedback. In the event that you end up disregarding some (or indeed, most) of their suggestions, you may run into resentment. "Why did you even ask if you weren't going to take our advice?". User feedback can be capricious and contradictory, so this approach requires you to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff and do so without angering the users providing it.
You may also run into some problems once your community is fully launched. Once the gates are open, how will this Veterans group react to new users? Will they be friendly and welcoming, or feel like their private clubhouse has been invaded? Be very careful about the nature of reward you give to these early users. While giving them a badge, or some special decorative status is all well and good, too much special treatment will leave new users feeling alienated. To the users who most enjoy this kind of gamification, feeling like a status is unachievable for them is a huge turnoff. You should monitor your user base in these early stages to ensure that these groups are rubbing along well together, and that excessive resentment or elitism are not building up.
Beware of Perfection Paralysis
You should also beware the dreaded Perfection Paralysis. This is a condition that rises when the desire for your community to be perfect before it launches causes you to continually postpone the launch in favour of constantly reiterating and tweaking. An apt analogy would be a musician who works on their song for years in an attempt to make it sound precisely like the music they imagine; the audience will prefer the imperfect version that they can hear to a theoretical piece that only exists in the creator's head.
A soft launch is a great testing tool, and can allow you to feel out the response of your target audience. However, you should have a clear game plan before you go in. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Who do I want in this early access group?
- What problems do I want this beta stage to solve?
- What will the transition to the live community entail?
- What is my hard deadline for launching the community?
If you have solid answers to these questions, the disadvantages to a soft launch can be almost entirely mitigated.