How we use product betas to shape our product marketing

Main illustration: Michelle Kondrich

Private product betas are a tried and true method for improving products, but for marketers, they can be critical for your messaging too.

As the product evolves during the beta stage, so should your product marketing strategy. From evaluating your positioning to choosing the right communication channels for your announcement, betas can inform, improve, and let you preemptively assess your go-to-market plan. Part of my role as a Product Marketer here at Intercom is making sure we’re as prepared as possible for a product launch. As we grow, betas are an increasingly important part of this – don’t let them go to waste.

Before your beta begins

To make the most of the private beta as a marketer, you need to understand the goals of the product team and the beta plan. Meet with the product manager and outline the schedule, the size and selection criteria for the user group, what feedback or data they want to collect, and how they determine whether a viable solution has been reached. There’s a substantial difference between a short beta focused on finding bugs and a longer one meant to evaluate product/market fit. These differences will impact how much the product evolves and, as a result, the strategic value the beta can provide to your product marketing.

Incorporate your positioning into the invitation so you can test it with your beta users.

With the beta plan and the product goals in mind, you can outline the different things you want to achieve. In general, my objectives for the beta are directly tied to my goals for the announcement. Some will have specific deliverables, like sourcing customer testimonials, while others are more evaluative, such as validating the hierarchy of our messaging.

What you can accomplish during the beta from a product marketing standpoint will vary, but there are a few opportunities you should consider.

1. Test your positioning

At Intercom, one of the ways product marketing participates in the beta is by working closely with the product team to craft the beta invitation. This is often the first chance to see if messaging clearly communicates the benefits of the product to users. Incorporate your positioning into the invitation so you can test it with your beta users. If you’re considering two directions for your positioning this can be a good opportunity to run a A/B test. Evaluate your customer’s reaction to the invitation. What percentage of customers agreed to participate? Were they confused, excited, indifferent? Picking up on these queues will let you assess how well you communicated the benefits of the product and whether you need to adjust your positioning.

When our reporting was in beta, we included the primary user benefit of each report in the invitation, then compared feedback from users to see if the benefit we identified matched their experience.

In particular, I try to validate the hierarchy of benefits that’s used to structure our messaging. Think of this as removing the bias toward what your team finds compelling about the product, and ensuring you don’t underestimate the value of a particular feature. An example of this is when we launched Articles, our knowledge base. We built a content importer that automatically moved help center content from another doc site over to our product. Initially, we treated the importer as a minor feature, but after the private beta revealed overwhelming enthusiasm for the feature, we adjusted our marketing to highlight it more prominently.

2. Set accurate expectations for your product

Overpromising and under-delivering will only burn your brand’s credibility.

In B2B software, your product should solve a specific problem, but that doesn’t mean it will be a perfect solution for everyone. As a Product Marketer, your job is to know the limitations of your product in relation to your target audience. As beta users apply your product to different use cases and discover its limitations, familiarize yourself with these as much as possible. Identify the extent to which your beta users’ pain points are addressed and make sure to reflect that in your product messaging.

The easiest way to do this is to ask, “Based on what was described to you, did this meet your expectations?” Do this at the beginning of the beta to get a baseline, then again at the end of the beta to see if you’ve delivered on their expectations. This will prevent you from overselling in your marketing and is important information to pass along to your sales team. Overpromising and under-delivering will only burn your brand’s credibility.

3. Find your target audience

The beta is a good time to reevaluate the people you want to target with your announcement. When your beta users have diverse profiles, listen to customer feedback to see which subset of your target market finds the product most valuable and ask yourself:

  • Who will my announcement be most relevant to?
  • Does it satisfy one segment, but not another?
  • Do I need more specific targeting?

Getting answers to these questions in the beta will help you avoid over messaging and allow you to identify and prioritize the most valuable opportunities to pass along to your sales team.

4. Choose the appropriate announcement level and channels

Don’t be the boy who cried wolf. Not every update to your product needs a huge announcement – you have to prioritize. A beta is a good opportunity to make sure you have your priorities straight, offering a glimpse into the impact the product will have on your customers. During the beta, reassess your announcement strategy incorporating user feedback to ensure your plan is aligned with the value it delivers to your audience. Are your beta users completely stoked? Match their excitement. Or are they more ‘meh’? Adjust the scope of your announcement plan accordingly.

At the end of the beta, double-check whether your announcement plan is appropriate relative to your other scheduled announcements during that time. We faced this situation during our beta for Respond Reports, a feature with a significant value-add for current customers and the potential to attract new ones. However, when we looked at our holistic release schedule and saw our ship date was within a week of a high-priority release, we made the call to significantly scale back the announcement.

5. Identify customers for testimonials

Use betas as a tool to build key relationships with customers and make a request for a testimonial. Choose a handful of customers from the beta to reach out to and then set expectations. Make it clear that you want honest feedback and that they are in no way obligated to provide a testimonial if they aren’t satisfied with the product. However, if they do like it you would be immensely grateful for a bit of public praise come launch time.

I’ve only just scratched the surface here. When it comes to betas and product marketing, the more you put into them the more you get out. You’d never ship a product without properly testing it with real users, so why wouldn’t you do the same with your marketing? If you aren’t using betas to improve your planning and positioning, you are missing out on an amazing opportunity.