In this part we cover tips for community leaders on Ning, how the Ning platform has evolved, the importance of customization and Gina’s views on which social platforms will survive.
Top tips for successful Network leaders
Douglas: What are the top five things that Network Creators [the founders and leaders of Ning Networks] should know when they start out?
Gina: I wrote a blog post when we first launched Ning Networks about what a Network Creator needed to know when starting out: http://blog.ning.com/2007/03/eight_steps_to_creating_a_grea.html. I came up with eight steps then – and they remain the same success factors two plus years in – so don’t make me choose five
What I think is fascinating is that a different combination of features and design are important when you’re first launching a Ning Network. For example, photos, videos and blogging are the best features to use to get a new social network off the ground. Later, discussion forums or events may make a ton of sense, but keeping it simple upfront and investing in only a few features and great design is the greatest indicator of success.
Once you have that, launching with a small, initial set of members and a focused answer to “what should I do first?” by your new members should get you on your way.
Community and leader lifestages
Douglas: The community leaders I’ve interviewed have said that there are lifestages in community-making. What’s more, they grow and change as their community grows. They evolve into different types of leader, as their social network evolves.
Gina: Exactly. The other thing, especially in the early stages of a Ning Network, is it’s really important for the Network Creator and core members to be actively involved. You can’t just throw up a Ning Network and let it run itself before it’s developed its own norms and rhythms.
It’s like being a host or hostess of a party.
For example, one of our Network Creators, Chris Anderson talks about how at the beginning of creating his Ning Network, DIY Drones [about creating your own Amateur Unmanned Aerial Vehicles] he needed to contribute photos, videos and blog posts every single day. As the social network grew to 150-200 people, he could take a step back. Now that it has over 1,000 people, it runs itself.
This is only one example of what we see across our 2 million Ning Networks that have been created in terms of how Ning Networks grow and evolve through a healthy ecosystem of different types of members or roles within a Ning Network.
By looking at the commonalities across what are otherwise very distinct social networks on the Ning Platform, we can build into Ning Networks smarter and better ways for Network Creators to accelerate the growth and ongoing management of thriving, rich, immersive social experiences.
Evolution of Ning
Douglas: It sounds like you’re creating the infrastructure for high functioning organizations.
Gina: That is our mission. So, hopefully, the answer to this is a very loud, “heck, yes!”
Douglas: And the software you’re creating is enabling the leadership to identify where they need to focus. And it’s recognizing that each social network has slightly different needs at each stage of its life?
Gina: Absolutely. We can see, for example, the portfolio of features used by active social networks versus those sets of features that are used on Ning Networks used for experimentation or never take off. We can take that small but critical insight into defaults for new Ning Networks and give the Network Creator as much help as possible to create something special and successful.
Douglas: So you’re identifying the behaviors that are predictors of success and then developing software that predisposes other social networks to do the same thing?
Gina: That’s the goal. We want to help each Ning Network be as easy and compelling as possible based on the data we have across over two million Ning Networks created.
Douglas: So what are the top things that you might see in an early stage of a community that you’d like to help optimize? What can you can help them do?
Gina: Stay tuned.
Douglas: Fair enough!
You might have already answered this, what’s missing that you wish you had built on Ning?
Gina: That’s a tough question just because, as a perfectionist, product-oriented founder and CEO, I could probably spend the next two days telling you all the things that I can’t wait to build or that I wish we could get out next week.
Engagement vs. page views
What I would say is that the biggest thing that has evolved in social technology since we launched Ning Networks almost three years ago is the transition from thinking about success and the product in terms of feature-driven pageviews to member-driven engagement. Member engagement is this notion of identifying who your members are, what roles they are playing on your interest-driven social network, and how you drive deeper engagement from there.
The Internet is moving from a race for eyeballs to a race for engagement and, while it is too soon to tell where this is all going, I think it’s a fantastic, dynamic trend that we love.
Douglas: So, as Ning has grown, you’ve realized what you’ve got is an enabler of a range of different relationships around a series of passions and interests?
Douglas: And you want to evolve the product to enable these relationships to work better. One of the ways to do that may be identifying the different roles that the different members play and helping them play those roles more effectively.
Gina: Well, we’re already doing this. These are the things that people are starting to see pop up on their Ning Networks and will only get more pronounced from here. That’s the thing that’s also really fun about this kind technology is that because it’s the Internet you can get things out the door quickly.
Douglas: So we talked a bit about what you want to do in the future. But how is Ning designed right now to enable high-functioning communities? What do you think you got right?
Gina: The thing that we did and continue to do differently – and better –than anybody else is develop features for extreme flexibility and uniqueness.
We think about everything in the context of how can our Network Creators and their members customize what we’re about to put out. How can our Ning Networks take a feature and put their own unique spin on it?
We are constantly looking for ways for our Network Creators to take a standard feature like photos or even virtual gifts and make it uniquely their own in a rich, immersive experience that is only limited by their creativity and the market for members joining.
It is not the kind of thing that most people wake up in the morning and think about in software development and design and yet it’s fundamental to everything we do.
Douglas: So why do you think customization is so important?
Gina: There are multiple reasons. First, because we love to see what happens when you give creative people the opportunity to take an idea and turn it into a totally new reality. Second, customization is critical to support distinct interests and identities from veterans to offbeat brides and zombies. You can’t have The Hook without customization and, as we talked about earlier, The Hook is what makes a Ning Network different from every other Ning Network or any other social platform out there.
For people to find their community and know whether or not it’s the right place for them, customization is a prerequisite.
Douglas: I’ve been talking to two big Ning Network Creators: Steve Ressler who runs Govloop and Joseph Porcelli who runs Neighbors for Neighbors. They seem to be trying to customize all the time.
Gina: Yes. And our job as a partner and a social platform is to take the things that people like Steve and Joseph and their members are doing on our service and make it easier and faster to customize those things.
Which social platforms survive?
Douglas: Great. So here’s another big question: if you were to imagine the world in five years what would community platforms look like? Who survived? Who didn’t? How are they being used?
Gina: So on one level I think that the social technologies that are here today have staying power and are poised for continued explosive growth. That’s because this stuff is actually quiet hard to do and network effects are alive and well. It’s why, for example, there isn’t a number two to Facebook, Linked In, Twitter, or Ning. Different social networks have carved out their area and are rapidly innovating to deepen their relationship with people for that particular area of their life.
I also think that the ways people use and connect across different social technologies will only get more sophisticated, richer and more immersive on the web while being connected everywhere via mobile experiences.
What this should mean in practice is that every person on the planet will have an opportunity for a richer life because of what they are able to access from a simple mobile phone. The political, economic and social ramifications of this are profound.
Douglas: So, coming back to today, if you had to advise anyone…ordinary people…to pick just three pieces of social software, what would they be and what needs would they satisfy?
Gina: So I think Facebook because they will continue to do the best job of connecting people that you already know and everyone went to school somewhere.
I think Ning would be the second one because I think we will continue to give people a more and more compelling way to express and connect with other people around the things they care about the most in their lives.
Tied for third place is Twitter and Linked In. Twitter is an amazing service in terms of providing a real time stream of interesting news and events. I’m finding that I can rely on Twitter for my news today in a much more compelling way than reading a news site online.
And then I do think there will be always a need for professional identity online. I think Linked In is going to continue to dominate professional identity. They’re going to do more and more interesting things around people’s professional identities and I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes.
That would be my answer although I recognize I chose four not three.
Douglas: That’s fine. I just wanted to see which ones you picked and what you think distinguishes them.
So here’s a personal question. What is the most useful or satisfying community you’ve belonged to and why?
Your most satisfying community
Gina: I came from a family of teachers. I knew nothing about business when I came to college. Through the help of friends and mentors, I got a job at Goldman Sachs right out of college and drank out of the firehose of new professional experiences.
I was incredibly fortunate to start out on this adventure with 70 other 21 year-olds of varying backgrounds, degrees and personalities who became some of my best friends to this day. Fortunately for me, California has better weather than New York, so many of these colleagues have since moved out to Palo Alto, CA, so my social world came with me.
Without this set of friends and support network, I’m not sure I would have built the expertise or confidence to start a social technology company and create a service used by millions of people every day in the expression of who they are as people. That’s the power of community and something that I hope Ning can continue to provide people across all walks of life.