This is the first of two parts of a conversation I had with Gina Bianchini. Gina is CEO and Co-Founder (with Mark Andreessen) of Ning.
Ning is a social platform that enables people to form communities of interests and passions. Well, you’ll see what it is and why Gina thinks it’s different from other platforms in this conversation…
This part covers why Ning was founded, what makes it different from other social platforms and what defines a successful Network.
The next (to be posted in a few days) will cover the evolution of Ning, it’s next significant development, what social platforms will be around in five years time and what Network Creators need to do to ensure success.
Douglas: Gina, why did you start Ning?
Gina: We started Ning with a simple premise: what if we gave everyone the opportunity to create their own unique social experiences online?
We saw early on that the native behavior on the web – or what people wanted to do on the web differently from any other medium before it – was connect people with other people. Looking at eBay, Craigslist, chat and discussion boards, it was clear to us that people wanted to connect and engage online in a fundamentally social way that the Internet and no other media type enabled.
With this as our foundation, we sought to create a social platform for people to create rich, immersive social experiences for the things they cared about the most.
Ning vs. other Social Platforms
Douglas: So what distinguishes Ning from other social networking sites?
Gina: We are focused on enabling unique social experiences for people’s interests and passions.
The fascinating thing about how social technology platforms are evolving today is that each social platform focuses in on a specific area of the human experience. It’s a bit like the five families actually. You have Facebook for connecting you to people you already know; Twitter for news and real-time events; Linked In for your professional identity and Ning is designed for meeting new people around your interests and passions.
For example, the IAVA (The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America) has created a private social network on Ning for returning veterans to be able to find and talk to other returning veterans in a safe place and share their experiences.
Or TuDiabetes (http://tudiabetes.com), which has over 10,000 members touched by diabetes who are there to dive deep and build strong relationships online with others affected via videos, blogs and discussions around topics critical to living with diabetes.
From the politically important to the emotionally critical, Ning is the broadest platform for unique social experiences on the Internet today.
Douglas: So do you think online relationships based around a passion or a need are inherently stronger than, say, those that are on Facebook?
Gina: I don’t know if they’re stronger, they are just different. There will always be a place for you to have a relationship with the people with whom you grew up or went to college. That is one of the things that makes Facebook special.
I think relationships built around interests and passions are typically about meeting new people who have a shared love or identity to you. Where you can’t control where you are born or who you went to school with, what you care about – your favorite music, your critical causes, the reason you get out of bed in the morning – is what makes you uniquely you.
Connecting people around the things they care about requires a different approach than Facebook or Twitter, which are really set up for a different purpose. Interests and passions require context for that particular topic and the ability to go deeper with a smaller set of people filtered for the truly engaged.
Douglas: I agree. I was talking about this to Linda Stone. We discussed what needs were being satisfied by which social networks. Twitter versus Facebook versus Ning versus Meetup and so on. The only two that lean into the passion/interest/ cause/needs area effectively are Ning and Meetup. Except there’s a fundamental difference between the two. Ning is enabling people to cluster around these things online…not necessarily anchored by geography. Meetup is at the intersection of passions and local.
Gina: Yeah. I think they’re very complementary actually.
Douglas: I do too.
So here’s another big question. What is community exactly?
What is Community?
Gina: A community has historically been defined as a group of people organized around common values and social cohesion within a shared geographical location.
With the Internet, you don’t need the geographical location, so the opportunity for community has increased exponentially with the types of communities expanding in ways that have no analog in the real world. From offbeat brides to steampunk aficionados, entirely new communities can emerge in minutes around interests that may only exist or be possible in an online world.
Ingredients of a successful Network
Douglas: What constitutes a successful Ning Network? What are the ingredients?
Gina: Our successful Ning Networks share one thing in common and that’s “The Hook.” Regardless of topic, category, or member base, when a Ning Network has a Hook you know immediately what the social network is about, who it targets, why you should be there, and whether you belong in this contextual world.
How is the Hook communicated? The Hook is communicated via the name of the social network, the brand, the visual design, the features, and the layout. From these small sets of levers, we’ve seen tremendous diversity in the rich, immersive social experiences on Ning.
For example, when you show up at the Offbeat Bride Tribe, it’s got a Goth boot – like a Doc Marten boot – under a wedding dress. In a split second, you know this Ning Network is about brides who want a wedding that doesn’t conform to the traditional.
Or Lost Zombies, which is a Ning Network creating a crowd-sourced documentary of people who are contributing themselves as the majority of the zombie army. You immediately know when you’re on it that it’s about zombies: the look and feel, the photos, the videos and overall design tells you immediately what it is about.
These different Ning Networks are really clear about why they exist and why you should join them. They make their case immediately when you first land on the homepage and it goes from there.
Douglas: One of the things I wrote about in the Culting book is the ‘Four D’s of Difference’. It’s about how effective communities must communicate their difference to potential recruits. Everyone is trying to find their tribe. We have a profound human need to be amongst ‘like-others’. The successful cult-like communities…the ones that generate enormous stickiness…are the ones that telegraph their difference to those that are the most likely ‘match’. They say: “you’re different and we’re different in the same way… so come on in.”
Douglas: And they can do this in a number of ways. But they absolutely must declare their purpose very clearly. It could be in a Manifesto. By the way the membership behaves, maybe how they dress, the design of the site, the church, the meeting place, how they talk to each other.
And what’s equally important is to communicate not just to those who could belong but also to those who shouldn’t. It needs to say, “Hey, you’re not like us. That’s cool but you probably don’t belong here so find the place where you do and you’ll be more comfortable”.
In other words you need to be very clear about who you’re appealing to and who you are not. And be very clear about what you get, and what you don’t if you join.
Gina: Absolutely. And I think that that’s going to get more and more obvious as we move forward.
Gina: Because people are becoming more sophisticated in how they use social technologies and, especially, how and where they define what they stand for and who they want to stand with online.
If people want to be one of many in a rigid, uniform social network, they have that option with where social networks have been, not where they are going.
As the number of options for social experiences continues to grow exponentially, social experiences must both be unique and interesting, but they also must telegraph who belongs and who doesn’t. And they need to do it quickly and effectively on the first impression or they may not get another chance.
We see this playing out everyday across hundreds of thousands of active Ning Networks and it’s absolutely critical in separating out the successful from those that merely exist.