One of my clients last week asked me about beta blogs: why, how and what’s the tradeoffs? It got me thinking both back to 2004 when I first started a blog as a brazen and shameless way of getting some attention for my first microISV product. And it got me thinking forward: If I were a developer in my 20s who preferred being at the top of the payscale instead of the bottom, would I blog and if so what about?
If you are that archetypal 20’s developer, working for The Man but burning with a desire to do a startup, I see three blogs in your future:
1. A “professional me” blog where you get to geek out about the languages, frameworks and algorithms you get to play with. That blog will be your communications endpoint as a developer; it’s how you connect with other developers blogging, how you build a body of posts over time that prove your technical chops to prospective clients, employers and partners.
Professional blogs are just that: professional. Skip posting the cell phone pics from your last big party, complaints about your boss and other personal stuff. Instead, share your passion about what you are spending most of your waking hours doing, cool techniques that save you time and in general, reach out to the online programming community.
2. Your private beta blog. Somewhere between being a gleam in your eye and being credit card bait, your desktop app or SaaS needs some place that makes it dirt easy for your private beta testers to funnel you honest feedback. Note the word private. It used to be that betas were periods you traded free software for a chance to try your app out on a variety of other people’s boxes; Google’s perpetual betas and the realities of Internet marketing circa 2008 have moved “beta” from the engineering to the marketing column. Put another way, everything on the public ‘net is beta.
But private beta testers are another matter: they are doing you a huge favor and the easier you make it for them, the better your results will be. You want to create a trusted place on the net where you and they can say things not part of the public discourse about your product or service.
For example, you can create a free blog at wordpress.com, password protect it and only make it available to beta testers (35 or less: if you have more, spring for a workpress.com upgrade for $30/yr.). Or you could do the same thing at Vox.com, with the catch that your beta testers would need to create free vox.com accounts. For that matter, you could create a blog at TypePad and initially password protect it.
The point is, you want to make it as easy as possible for your beta testers to give you real feedback. And blogs are all about feedback.
3. Your product’s blog. Actually, product blog is a misnomer and a pit trap: you don’t want or need a product blog, you want and need a blog about the intersection between your [prospective] customers and your expertise, passion, perspective and occasionally product. If you’ve launched a startup or microISV, presumedly you know a lot more than the problem domain your product or service lives in than do your customers. Share that knowledge and passion – it’s a great way to establish your expertise, authority and standing.
You can start your product blog before, when or after you launch; blogging is one of the best ways a startup or microISV can get the word out and get market feedback in. Just go light on the marketing mayo and provide your readers with plenty they can sink their teeth into: everything from customer stories to solutions, workarounds and fixes that complement your product are fair game.

8 Comments

  1. Great post. I’m preparing to launch my private beta and I found that squarespace (http://www.squarespace.com/) seems like an interesting alternative. I don’t have time to deal with building a full blown site at this point of time, though I will do it closer to the public launch. In the mean while, squarespace can be used to host a landing page, a personal blog, a product blog, a private beta blog and even some beta discussion forums. You can even use it to collect beta requests and feedback from users.
    It’s not a cheap alternative, but it seems to be a big time saver and my time has a price tag, too.

  2. Bob,
    I agree on the technical blog (I have one) and the product blog (I’m building it), but with the beta test blog, wouldn’t it make more sense as a forum? I mean, they’re more flexible, thread better and have all kinds of bells an whistles these days. I mean – given it’s private – your not going to be having Google index it anyway (one of the benefits of a blog).

  3. Thanks for the post Bob. I actually had the same reaction as Scott.. why a blog instead of a mailing list or forum for the beta group? I’d think a mailing list would actually be better, as anyone can initiate discussion on any topic (rather than responding to a post), and following comments is usually much easier too. Or maybe those 20’s developers aren’t supposed to know about email and forums, those dinosaur technologies used by us old farts pushing 40. 🙂

  4. Bob Walsh Reply

    Scott, Mark:
    Re private blogs:
    1. Blog vs. Forum: Technically/costwise they’re a wash. The difference/advantage is by blogging you a) can focus your beta testers on a specific part of your program, with a screen shot, and build a good, short, focused conversation around that one issue. You control/set the agenda for discussion. b) Expectations. Let’s say every 3 days you post – your private beta people will readily incorporate that into their schedule. c)RSS (but not through google obviously).
    2. Blog vs. Mailing List: same as above. I guess I think it’s up to you as the vendor to keep the discussion focused. If you ask a beta tester “what do you think” I don’t think you get as good information as you would by asking them to participate – or not – in say 20 focused conversations.

  5. Interesting points. Bob. I actually hadn’t thought about it like that. Thanks for elaborating. Mark might have a point about us over 40’s… 😉

  6. I agree the blog format is more conducive to focused discussions, though forums certainly are as well (though they don’t have to be). In either case regular structuring/scheduling by the host is as you say very important.
    RSS was one thing I had top of mind actually when I thought maybe blogs weren’t ideal for this situation… while I don’t normally use them, I know Google Groups has RSS feeds for messages which would make following conversations via RSS easy. But when I went back and checked, it looks like they don’t publish full content feeds (just first few lines) and I’m not sure about if/how it handles feeds for private groups. Yahoo Groups doesn’t seem to provide feeds. Oops, ok not as good as I imagined monitoring things via RSS that way.
    Now I hope I’m just ignorant about it, but I’ve found blogs to actually be weak for RSS in this scenario! You can do a feed that contains all posts, feeds containing comments for each post, but not that I’ve seen a feed containing all comments on all posts. So if other users want to follow all comments (useful in this sort of scenario if people are commenting not only on the last one or two posts) they’d have to subscribe to each of the individual feeds – ick. I know even as a reader of blogs it regularly annoys me that I don’t have the option of following all comments via a feed.
    I do very much like the more structured discussion abilities that blogs are so conducive to; am I the only one who has this problem following blog comments?

  7. Bob Walsh Reply

    I too would like an easy way to get a feed of comments – perhaps someone reading this thread has a solution. I belong to a few Google groups and that would be my first choice re a private beta forum. The problem with comments is you can get too many of them – I’d think of the RSS feed as being the headline tipping each private beta participant to the idea that here’s a post that matters to them – join in.

  8. @Mark Roseman: Great Idea. I recently developed my own blog with Django and build an email-notification for comments in it—so that everythime a comment gets written, I get an email. But now that I think about it, an RSS feed with all comments would probably be the better, and less distractive, choice.
    Also, WordPress blogs actually have a comment feed by default. The developers just don’t post the link on the page (don’t ask me why). You simple take the url and append “/comment/feed” to it. For example the WordPress Development blog is “http://wordpress.org/development”. To see a feed for all comments, just append “/comment/feed” => “http://wordpress.org/development/comment/feed”.

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