Higher Logic Blog

The Importance of Soft Launching Your Online Customer or Member Community

Written by Joshua Paul | April 23, 2015 at 12:15 PM

After months of strategizing, planning and hard work, you're finally ready to launch your new online community. Your online community software vendor has completed the implementation process, your community layout is all set up, and you have a handful of active members ready to engage with newcomers.

You're ready and excited to watch your efforts begin to pay off. However, before you jump head first into your launch, there's one just step left to take: a soft launch.

Taking the extra time to do a soft launch of your online community allows you to confirm that every aspect of the community is going to make a positive first impression on your customer, members, or partners. Even the communities that are 100% sure that their online community is ready for launch uncover hidden issues with a soft launch.

Still not convinced? Here are six more reasons to make the case for soft launching for private online community platform.

6 Reasons to Soft Launch Your Online Customer or Member Community

Reason #1) Guarantee Your Platform is Bug-Free

It's difficult to know how your platform will resonate with your audience until you put it into action. A soft launch of your online community to a small group of members allows you to monitor how the platform works to see if the process is intuitive or if adjustments need to be made. 

Reason #2) Determine If You Have Enough Content Already Created

The content in your online community will grow over time, but it's still important to make sure you have enough exclusive content ready before launching to keep your new members interested. However, figuring out exactly how much content you need can be a tricky process. A soft launch gives members the opportunity to test-drive those resources and see how your audience reacts. This will also allow you to gauge the engagement level of the community atmosphere and identify any topics or resources you need to create to fill in the gaps.

Reason #3) Observe Your Members' Reactions

When you invite a few founding members into your online community for a soft launch, one of the biggest advantages is getting feedback on their first impressions. This first impression data can often be the only time you get this type of feedback when it comes to new members. Thus, having the opportunity to practice and adjust your first impression is golden.

Gauge their initial sentiments on the feel, use, and features of the community and take their reservations into consideration before you open the doors to your entire target audience.

Reason #4) Uncover Issues Your Testing Can Not

A soft launch can help reveal hiccups or inconsistencies that your own testing of your online community may not uncover. If you are as excited about implementing an online community strategy as most organization are that we work with, chances are you are very close to the project. You have been immersed in the details and minutia of your online community for months. You know it like the back of your hand.

However, you aren't the target audience. It is always best to have an outside reviewer, such as a member of your target audience, take a look to catch things you did not as the creator. For instance, while you may have thought that your choice for organizing your community platform and the resources within was the best decision, a soft launch with real community members could reveal a better option. Small changes and tweaks can make a big difference to the user experience.

Reasons #5) Lower the Impact of Missteps and Adjustments

If there are small issues or changes that need to be addressed before your online community officially launches, a soft launch enables those changes to affect fewer people. It's the difference between one thousand members seeing a mistake and only 50 members see it.

Reasons #6) Slow and Steady Membership

If you create a big fanfare around the official launch of your online community and invite your entire target audience in at once, you're going to see big numbers, at first. These numbers are likely to taper off significantly as you find your core audience.

While your community's membership growth may rebound over the next few months, the initial big numbers followed by a big plummet can be discouraging. Save yourself the heartbreak by introducing the community gradually to grow and build engagement over time.

How to Create a Soft Launch for Your Online Customer or Member Community

Creating an effective soft-launch is easy witht the steps below. Use this as a guide to get you started on the process. However, bear in mind that every community has unique goals, strategies and characteristics that should be taken into account throughout the process.

Start Small

In order for a soft launch of an online customer or member community to have the most value, it is best to keep your numbers of people you launch with small.

The approximate sample size depends on the expected size and interest of your online community. However, aim to find the sweet spot of having enough feedback, but still keeping the community experience inclusive.

Smaller communities (under 1,000 members) may have a soft launch of just 20 people, while a larger community (above 1,000) may have as many as 75.

Where should you prospect to find these users? Look to those founding members who helped provide early feedback and research when you were still in the planning stage of your online communities.

Perfect the New Member Welcome

In order to collect the most valuable feedback from your founding members you want diversity in user experiences.

Encourage users to explore as many different aspects of your online community as possible. Test out your onboarding strategies by suggesting very specific activities one at a time. Avoid overwhelming new community members with options or being too pushy. Gently nudge them to try different options within the community so you can get an accurate representation of how your target audience will engage.

Take Their Feedback Seriously

Soft launch participants should feel that their opinion is highly valued - they'll be more likely to be honest and take the experience seriously.

Reach out to them directly for their feedback through phone calls and personal emails. Make sure the questions you ask are specific so you can get a full understanding of what's working and what still needs to be tweaked.

Focusing on direct outreach with your founding members demonstrates that their role in the process is important, which helps to create a stronger sense of community and belonging that will carry over to the official launch.

Collect Data

Soft launching your online customer or member community is a great opportunity to perfect your data-collection methods. Test out processes and make sure you have a solid understanding of the social community metrics you'll be tracking. The soft launch data will obviously be substantially different than a busy month in your fully-launched online community. However, it is valuable to have those numbers for comparison's sake down the road.

Online Customer or Member Community Takeaway

Launching an online community takes months of hard-work and strategic planning. Don't fall short at the end and skip the crucial step of a soft launch. A soft launch gives your online community the chance to practice making a killer first impression on your entire target audience.

Simply testing the site within your online community management planning team is not enough. Engaging outside reviewers is key.

Don't miss the opportunity to gain valuable feedback from community members that will ensure your big online customer or member community launch is a major hit with your target audience.