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When launching a brand new web-based community product what are the best methods of staggering the user base through testing phases up until final launch? This product relies on user accounts with profiles, friends, relationships, etc.

I am launching a web product and I'd like to understand the transition development accounts, to beta users to finally public. What are good methods of limiting the user base and how do you allow a specific number of users in at a certain time to test, etc.

Some ideas tossed around were, giving the first 10-20 test users 'codes' used to login, for the next 100-200 users allow them to sign up but shut down registration after 200...

My thought is: 1) Initial testing is done with generic/default accounts with generic login all under a development server (1-2 accounts with logins/pass)

2) Create a public facing server/page with a signup field that uses an email with a referral ID to authenticate - limited to 10-x users. (Signup form -> Email passes ID -> complete registration)

3) A completely open signup field with the above mentioned method of authenticated/confirming the email to continue registration

Are there better options than this? What are user expectations and what is the most efficient means of development time?

*note this topic: Best way for sign up process after invite asks a similar question

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The are several methods up implement this, utilised by many high profile sites today.

Invitation Only, pyramids

Google did this by providing limited invitations to phase 1 users. For phase 2 they provided those users with limited invitations so they may grow the database but only after a certain usage time is met.

Incrementally provide access When Dribbble launched, they allowed users to register but only a long time member can sponsor users to become elite members with higher access.

Stack exchange does this as well through their "privileges through points" community system.

For initial release you can tier your access to reward users who were onboarded first. These will be people who sign up for the early beta but limited to first come first serve basis. Many social games (Mmorpgs in particular) are quite fond of this approach.

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