- Social Media
- Active Citizenship
- Good Giving
- Corporate Responsibility
- Be Fearless
Manny is a social media expert, nonprofit leader and diabetes advocate based out Berkeley, CA. He is the president of the Diabetes Hands Foundation (DHF), a 501(c)3 nonprofit that connects people touched by diabetes and raises diabetes awareness. He has written Ning for Dummies, published in April 2009 and collaborated on Twitter Marketing for Dummies, published November 2009. Follow him on Twitter: @askmanny and read his personal blog at www.askmanny.com.
A few years ago, creating your own social network from scratch may have seemed a daunting task (it was): one that would require a significant amount of technical expertise and a deep pocket to underwrite the expenses associated with it.
In early 2007 the social media landscape was transformed: a company called Ning started offering a platform to help you create your own social network. For the first time, creating and managing a social network was literally a drag-and-drop process, putting a very empowering tool in the hands of Network Creators (as they refer to the people who create social networks using their platform).
We had the fortune to be among the first 15,000 networks to launch on Ning (nowadays there are more than 1,5 million!) In March 2007, we launched TuDiabetes.org (in English), a social network focused on diabetes, followed by EsTuDiabetes.org, a sister network in Spanish. In 2008, we brought these two networks under the umbrella of the Diabetes Hands Foundation, a nonprofit we formed for this purpose.
In this blog post, I hope to share some of the lessons we’ve learned from running our two networks on Ning and how this platform can help you create and run your own social network.
Why start a social network?
In spite of how easy it is to start your own social network on Ning, you should first think if it is something that will benefit your organization. You don’t want to find yourself having invested the time to create a social network to later realize it is not something you really need to further your mission.
A social network gives you a new way to engage your constituents/members and for them to communicate with each other. By offering them tools such as blogs, a discussion forum and videos under one roof, you are effectively empowering them to become content creators and participants in the discussion around the issues you work on.
A social network also helps foster and solidify offline connections (even develop new connections that were not there before). Features such as Events and Groups let members coordinate activities together and connect around specific matters or regional areas.
Through a social network you can increase your outreach thanks to the mechanisms it includes to let your members easily share content from the network elsewhere (blogs, Facebook, etc.).
Last, a social network on Ning gives you something many nonprofits miss from Facebook pages. You can capture your members’ email addresses, allowing you grow your mailing list. Through separate mailers (using your preferred email marketing platform) and making use of your network too, you can fundraise, advocate for your cause or simply inform your constituents about the work you are doing.
All these applications of a social network may sound appealing, but is it for you? To answer this question, you should explore your social media options and evaluate them in the context of a cohesive Social Media strategy. To help you with this process, I recommend two resources: Amy Sample Ward’s great post 5 steps to a successful social media strategy and Beth’s Blog - How Nonprofits Can Use Social Media.
How to start your social network?
Starting your social network on Ning is easy. No. Let me rephrase that: it’s VERY easy. Choose a name and a web address for your network and go to Ning.com. Enter them in the fields, as shown in the figure below:
When you click the Create button, you are taken through a wizard-like process that prompts you for more details about your network, which features you want for it, how do you want it to look. All these steps you can revisit and update any time later.
Adding features and moving them around is literally a drag-and-drop kind of activity, as you can see in this figure, where I have also highlighted some of the most popular features. Having a Forum, Chat, Groups, Photos and Videos tends to be a good starting point. Fortunately, because you can add or remove features very easily at any point in the future, it’s OK if you change your mind about which features to offer your members.
What features to offers tends to be as important as where to place them. In general, I recommend placing the most popular features as close to the top of the main page as possible. Popularity is something you can gauge not only by looking at how many entries there are for a particular feature (how many videos or how many discussion topics) but also by looking at the Google Analytics traffic data for your network on a regular basis.
Customizing your network’s appearance is something you can do at many levels. You can choose one of the native themes Ning offers (much like you would do if you were customizing your blog’s look). Doing this and adding a nice-looking header to your network with the help of a designer can go a long way. But if you are competent with CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), you can customize your network’s look as much as you need to with very few limitations.
How to run a social network?
The essence of a successful social network depends not only on its name, the features it contains or how good it looks. It is also very important to pay attention to the kind of community experience you are offering your members and this is possibly the most challenging element about running a network on Ning (or an online community for that matter).
Developing your community is something that your network can help you do but it means you need to dedicate time to it. Here are three concrete examples of how you can develop your community:
- Moderate new members: soon enough you will find yourself wanting to moderate new members, as a way to ensure that the network remains a space that is “safe” for people who come to it to discuss the issues you are focused on.
- Manage/feature content: the network allows you to easily feature all types of content (forum topics, blog posts, photos, videos, etc.) This is something to take advantage of in order to keep the home page focused on the elements most relevant to your mission. This needs to be done on a regular basis (it can be as little as once per week and as often as once or twice per day) in order to keep the home page fresh for members who come back to the network.
- Moderate discussions: because you and your members all care about many of the same issues doesn’t mean everyone will be happy and agree all the time. Be prepared to address disagreements (and even potential personal attacks between members) by having clear guidelines that establish what is and what isn’t acceptable in your network. This may result in you needing to close discussions to comments, remove certain content items that may be inappropriate for your network and even banning members if they insist on behavior against your guidelines.
Sounds like a lot of work? It can be, but you don’t have to do it alone. First, you would be surprised by how much your network’s members help with self policing and keeping the network clean, when/if they see something that they feel you must address. But besides the help from your members, I highly recommend developing a team of Administrators: members whom you give permission to manage entire areas of the network or even the entire network. Manage Administrators as you would manage other volunteers in your organization.
As a rule of thumb, once you are approaching 1,000 members, it can become too much to keep an eye on by yourself, so gear yourself to ask for help before you are swamped.
What to do to grow your network?
What good is an amazing social network is there are no members on it to make it social? Along with managing the network, you need to grow it. If you have a limited finite number of members your network is designed for (for example, if you are creating your network to connect the librarians within a certain county –this is a well defined and limited group of people) you may not need to spend much time growing the network: simply inviting all people that need to be a part of it would suffice.
If you want to reach out to people who don’t know you or your mission, you to need to inform others who can benefit from becoming members of your social network: be intentional but be specific and as targeted as possible in this approach. If you have a network that deals with animal cruelty in a single county and your mission is constrained to that geographical area, you should be targeting people who love animals within your county.
As you created your social media strategy, most likely you identified channels you can benefit from to get the word out about your work. You should regularly participate in these channels, being an active part of the conversation, offering relevant information about your work and resources in your network that others can benefit from where applicable.
Using the animal cruelty example again, if you spotted a conversation on Twitter from someone upset at a piece of legislation that will make it harder for organizations like yours to get some type of funding, that sounds like someone you want to tell about your network and your work.
This kind of intentional approach can take a few hours every week, but it pays off because of the conversational nature of channels such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media sites. Other ways in which you can grow your membership include:
- Through your own members – once you’ve created and continue to nurture a space that they value, your members can become the biggest advocates of your network.
- Through your network’s RSS feeds – your network offers by default lots of different RSS feeds (all blog post, all forum posts, all posts within a specific forum category, etc.) These can help others learn about new content on your network as it gets published.
- Through bloggers - make sure to contact bloggers in your sector and ask them to write about your network. This is a form of very targeted PR that can get you in front of people that are likely to be interested in your network.
- Through existing offline efforts –whether you distribute literature about your organization or you contact media to get coverage, make sure to reference your network in all your offline outreach channels.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Ning
Ning has great things for it and also things that may make it a less-than-optimal solution, depending on your needs.
- It is very affordable. It is free to run if you don’t want to pay for any of the premium services. Even if you pay to run your own ads (or show no ads), to use your own domain name (instead of your networkname.ning.com) or any of the other premium services, it continues to be orders of magnitude cheaper than developing and hosting your own social network.
- It is a solid product. The platform is very well designed and continues to be improved all the time, with features getting improved upon and new features being made available through Ning Apps.
- You can customize your network to have it match your brand very closely. The ASPCA network is a great example of this: they changed the appearance of their social network to match the look-and-feel of the ASPCA main web site.
- You can’t “host” the network yourself. The network is hosted by Ning. So, the very few times that Ning is down (this is rare but it does happen once in a while) your network is down.
- Once you start your network on Ning it can be technically challenge to migrate it to another platform.
- The members of your network are also members of Ning.com, in a way slightly similar to Facebook Pages or Facebook Groups: there is no way for people to be members of your network without also being a member of Ning.
Where to get more information?
This is a very basic introduction to Ning as a platform for you to create your own social network. There are more dimensions to Ning, but I think it’s best to refer you to other resources than dragging this post any longer: