What is a soft launch?
A “soft launch” is a launch without a prior public announcement or a launch which is only announced to a limited portion of the target audience.
The opposite of a soft launch is called a “hard launch”, an official launch with prior public announcement.
A soft launch is relevant for various industries, such as online marketing, IT and gaming. However, it can also play a part in the introduction of physical products or outside the context of business.
Updates or further developments of existing products should not be mistaken for a soft launch.
Origin of the word
The concept originally comes from the hotel and catering industry. They differentiate between a “grand opening” and a “soft opening”.
You can well imagine it: The grand opening is a widely announced, glamorous opening ceremony with VIP guests, press and a fantastic advertising effect.
The soft opening is an unofficial trial run with the intent to test and optimize operations in advance of the subsequent grand opening.
The soft launch is derived from the soft opening. The hard launch is the equivalent of the grand opening.
Website soft launch
The launch or relaunch of a website is perhaps the most common use case of a soft launch.
When does it make sense to soft-launch your website?
- If your domain and your company are relatively unknown, you can save the costs of a staging environment by programming directly in the production environment. This equals a soft launch.
- In some content management systems and hosting environments, the migration from the staging environment to the production environment is not that easy. For example, plugins, hyperlinks, interfaces and other areas of the website may require additional maintenance after the migration. In such cases, there is no exact launch date. Instead, you should plan for a launch phase, which may take several hours or days – which means you are soft-launching your website.
- If your website is developed by an online marketing agency, your marketing department or other internal stakeholders may request that they can inspect it before it is made public. This inspection is meant to take place in the production environment online, contribute to quality assurance and accommodate for last-minute corrections. Depending on the complexity of the site and feedback process, a website soft launch may be your only option.
- If professional and managerial staff from various time zones are involved in a website project, not all of them may be available at the same time. A soft launch can circumvent this problem.
- Some websites are so complex that there will probably be bugs that are difficult to reproduce. Realistically, you can only detect certain bugs can in the live operation of your website. If you expect your website to fall into this category, we recommend a soft launch: In this way, only a portion of your target audience will have to experience these bugs.
- Content management systems enable you to change or correct your website contents directly online. You should treat your CMS-based website like a living object, which you can optimize continuously. In this light, a previously announced, quasi-ceremonial hard launch in the spirit of a “grand opening” seems old-fashioned.
There are many good reasons to soft launch your website. However, exceptions apply. Which type of launch, soft launch or hard launch, suits your website better, should be decided case-by-case.
Soft launch in other use cases
Good to know: A soft launch also exists in other areas, beyond websites and online marketing.
Software, apps and video games
Frequent use cases of a soft launch include software, apps and video games. “Alpha tests” (feature-complete) and “beta tests” (content-complete) intend to identify bugs and get an early feedback. In contrast, soft launch is meant to generate experience with and feedback from “real” users and clients in the production environment.
However, in practice, the boundaries between “alpha test”, “beta test” and “soft launch” are fairly blurry, because there are no compulsory standards that must apply for these processes.
Physical products and hardware
In the development of physical products, such as hardware, manufacturers commonly produce them in small quantities at first and test them via soft launch with a small buyer segment. This is meant to collect feedback and information, which will help to figure out if the product is ready to be broadly announced to the public, or if further development efforts are needed.
Limited production capacities or material shortages can also encourage decision makers to opt for a product soft launch.
Hotel, catering, retail
In the hotel, catering and retail sectors, the terms “soft launch” and “soft opening” are sometimes used interchangeably. However, in this context, it is more common to refer to it as an opening, rather than a launch.
Relationship soft launch
Can you believe it? The term “soft launch” is also used in the context of relationships on social media.
The actress and comedian Rachel Sennott has observed that some social media users introduce their significant other using hidden or subtle messages. Examples include images that show their truncated elbow or back, but not their face.
Sennott compares this with companies introducing their products via “sneak peek”. In this way, she has coined the phrase “relationship soft launch” or “Instagram soft launch”.
Lean startup & minimum viable product
Moreover, there is an overlap between the concept of a soft launch and the launch of a minimum viable product, as commonly seen with so-called lean startups.
The intuition is: It is better to launch an unfinished product and observe the response of the target audience, rather than to perfect the product first, based on internal ideas and assumptions. This is because fine-tuning a product involves higher R&D costs, which is unnecessary if it turns out the market does not have a high-enough demand.
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