When Should A Website Launch As Invite-Only?

Author

Steimle, Joshua

May 20, 2013

I am involved as a co-founder in more than one company. At one, I’m helping to build a new social networking website. Here’s a question for fellow entrepreneurs: Should we launch the site as invitation only? This is not a theoretical question. It is a real decision my partner and I need to make soon, and today I am crowdsourcing the decision of whether or not to launch on an invite-only basis to you, dear Forbes reader. Come, let us reason together.

A Brief History of Invite Only

Gmail is the first invite-only success story I know of, although whether that success had anything to do with its initial invite-only policy or other factors is difficult to say. Other successful companies or initiatives that launched on an invite-only basis include Google+, Google Voice, Pinterest, and Spotify. Medium (think Twitter without a character limit) is a new startup from Twitter co-founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams and is currently in invite-only stage, although it will open to the masses at a future date. You might recall Facebook launched to a limited audience, perhaps for some of the same reasons one might institute an invite-only policy.

Different Levels

Invite only isn’t a zero-sum game. On our social networking site there is a strong content creation component, not unlike with Medium. And as Medium does we could opt to invite only certain users to have an account and create content on the site, while others would only have access to view content on the site. Or we could allow all users to create accounts and “like”, “favorite”, or “follow” content and content producers, while content creation itself would still be temporarily restricted.

Why Invite Only?

There are many possible reasons why a company might want to launch invite only, but the four that stand out to me are:

  1. Buzz
  2. Beta testing
  3. Quality of content
  4. Quality of network

Buzz. What is it about us that we want nothing so much as the forbidden fruit, or the object barely out of reach? What can’t be had seems to be more valuable, and there’s something newsworthy about “the next hot thing” that is only available to an exclusive group. Part of the allure is the potential to become part of that private club.

Beta testing. Remember Fail Whale? People have little patience with what is perceived as a polished website that should be ready for prime time. But people don’t expect much from a system in beta, and being invite only can support that “beta” message. Site’s down? Hey, it’s in beta, what do you expect? Invite only allows a company to test with users who won’t be as openly critical as the general public. And a smaller group won’t be as likely to swamp the system. All this gives the company time to work out kinks before opening up, when any minor failure can result in a deluge of bad press.

Quality of content. Of more particular interest to me is launching with high-quality content. If one limits those who can contribute content only to those who have been invited, as Medium is doing, then the quality of content will be higher when the site opens up for general use.

Quality of network. Without an invite-only policy one runs the risk of being overrun by spammers or other undesirable users, reducing the likelihood of anyone else wanting to join. Who wants to join a social networking website alongside LeBron James, Oprah, and Eric Ries? Everybody. Who wants to be part of a social network that includes the guy who sends you those emails about Nigerian princes who want to put $20M in your bank account? You get the picture.

Why Not To Go Invite Only

I can think of at least three reasons why you would want to open things up right from the start.

  1. More users
  2. More customer feedback
  3. It’s easier

More users. Why limit the number of people who can sign up? Let it be completely open and available to all and find other ways, such as using algorithms and user feedback systems, to deal with low quality users and their low quality content. After all, what proof is there invite-only systems produce all the potential benefits I’ve speculated on above?

Yesteryear’s rookie startup Viddy, destined to be the “Instagram of video”, didn’t have an invite-only policy when it launched. Meanwhile Viddy’s competitor, Socialcam, did have an invite-only policy. But both suffered major setbacks when Facebook came down hard on them after Facebook users complained about being bombarded with spam from users of the two apps. Socialcam had an invite-only policy, Viddy didn’t. It’s hard to say what effect, if any, the policy or lack thereof made.

More customer feedback. The more users you have, the faster you’ll get feedback that will help you continue building your site the right way, both directly and in terms of user behavior.

It’s just easier. Invite only means more programming than not going invite only, all other things being equal. Do you really want to spend any of your valuable startup time creating a user-management system that allows you to specify who can and can’t sign up?

One more reason–it could backfire.

So What Should I Do?

I’m sorry I can’t share more details about the site at this time—that’s a story for another day. I know the devil is in the details, but what are your thoughts generally? Should we go completely open, or completely invite only? Should we choose some in-between area as Medium has? I (and a number of others) will be very interested to hear your response.

Author: Joshua Steimle | Google+

 

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