Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi
 


Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Community Building: How To Create Your Own Social Media Network With Ning

Stop [social] networking: Build your own network! - If you ever thought about creating your own mini YouTube, MySpace or community site, in which members can upload media, write and contribute directly, the time of your dream has finally come... thanks to Ning.

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It is now possible to create your very own special interest social network in a matter of minutes, bringing together like-minded people from across the web. Social networks create easy to access online communities out of shared interests and passions. If you can think of a hobby, demographic or special interest chances are that there is a social network dedicated to it - whether you are an aspiring model, a young Muslim, a mother, or even a Japanese animation addict.

But with the power to create your very own social network, why settle for out-of-the-box solutions? For just as the most successful blogs take the long tail to its natural conclusion and focus on a specific niche theme, so the future of social networks would seem to be in creating tightly-focused interest groups. A new service allows you to do just that.

One way to expand the depth and range of your existing blog or website is to add a social dimension that goes beyond traditional user comments. Given that you can now smash together a social network in a few short minutes, it is easier than ever before to bring your site visitors into contact, and create a two-way communication stream between them and your content. In this case, your preexisting blog provides the thematic focus, and the social network expands it out into wider discussion and interaction.

While even a year ago putting together your own social network would have required at least some programming knowledge, however, a new service makes it as easy as starting your own blog - guiding you through the simple process of customization with a simple online wizard, and yet offering a host of intricate customization tools for the more advanced user.

In my video review of this newly launched service I talk you through the simple process of creating your own social network in a few short minutes, deciding along the way:

  • The niche focus of your brand new social network
  • Which of a range of content creation tools you will hand over to your members - from video sharing and blogs to photo slideshows and discussion forums
  • How you would like the layout, color-scheme and design of your network to look
  • Who your network will be open to, and what you'd like to find out about them
  • Whether you would like to make use of advanced and premium features such as the ability to run your own advertising and further customize your site design

If this sounds like a lot of decisions and a potentially daunting prospect, let me show you how truly easy and user-friendly the whole experience is. It really is possible to be up and running in under ten minutes.



Don't like Ning? There are plenty of Ning alternatives.



Ning 2.0

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Ning recently launched its all new version 2.0, transforming what was a geek-only, code-hackers mash-up tool into a truly Web 2.0, easy-to-use social network creation application. Only a year ago Michael Arrington of Tech Crunch was sounding the death knell of Ning for the simple fact that it could only be used by the tiny number of people able to wrangle with PHP code and APIs.

All of that has changed in the space of a month, as Ning 2.0 is now as easy to use as MySpace, Blogger or YouTube. In short, if you can follow a simple wizard that will guide you through a series of easy-to-complete forms, and some drag-and-drop layout decisions, you will have the basis of your own social network in the space of a few minutes.

In the following video clips I walk you through this simple process step-by-step:



Creating your own social network

When you arrive at the Ning website the first thing you see is a colorful showcase of some of the top Ning networks. One of the nice things about creating your social network through Ning is the fact that users only need a single Ning ID to access any number of the networks hosted through the service. With a single profile, image and description, you effectively have a passport to literally thousands of niche-interest networks, and so will your users.

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Effectively this means that you can tap into a much broader audience-base, and have your network promoted for you by the Ning directory - a searchable listing of all of the Ning social networks currently live to the public. If you plan to use Ning to complement your existing blog or website, Ning could well prove to be another way of driving fresh traffic to your online destination. Obviously the degree of success you achieve here will depend upon the popularity of your social network, but nevertheless, with the right niche theme, this could prove to be an integral part of your independent publishing outlet.

There is absolutely no need to have your own blog or website to get started with Ning - it is a fully hosted, standalone service that anyone can sign up for an make use of. For your network to thrive, you will however need to think long and hard about the focus you want to build your community around. If there are already twenty-five "social networks" devoted to your favorite TV show, it may be worth thinking about covering another area of interest - preferably one that hasn't yet been explored. Make the most of the things that you know about and love, and you have the good foundations of a popular social network.

If you do have a professional or semi-professional blog, however, you already have both a niche-theme to build your community around, and at least the germ of a community in the reader-base you have managed to build up. Taking a tour of the Ning directory, there are more than a few Ning social networks that have been set up as an extension to existing blogs, and this seems like a wise move on the part of the bloggers involved. Your regular readers likely share your key interests, and have their own thoughts and ideas about them - what better way to tap into that than through the creation of your own branded social network?



Choosing your focus

Identifying your network niche

In this first video clip I talk you through the initial two screens of the Ning wizard. It is here that you will make key decisions such as:

  • The name and Ning subdomain you are going to use for your network
  • Creating a tag-line and description, and adding keywords to help other users find your network from the Ning directory


ningnetworkinfo.jpg

In both cases this is as simple as filling out well designed online forms to enter the information necessary. While neither should take more than a couple of minutes, the thinking you do beforehand might take considerably longer if you are building your network from scratch. You'll want to think carefully about choosing a memorable and descriptive name, and picking out key words that are going to get you noticed and make it easy for users to find you among the thousands of other networks.

If, on the other hand, you are creating a social network mirror to your preexisting blog or website, these forms will virtually fill themselves out - the name, description and even keywords should already be stamped into your mind from your existing blog identity.



Video One - Identifying your network niche



Design elements

Once you have made these initial choices Ning takes you into the finer details, allowing you to easily put together the overall look and feel of your social network. Here you have the option of using default settings, picking from the broad palettes of predefined templates, or else selecting by hand the layout, color, fonts, logos and background images used in your network pages.

ninglayout.jpg

In the next video clip, I talk you through the process, which involves:

  • Selecting from a range of features you would like to include - from text boxes, blogs, forums and RSS feeds to video and photo sharing capabilities
  • Selecting the placement of these features in your site layout, using a simple drag and drop interface
  • Choosing an overall color theme for your social network, from a range of ready-to-publish templates
  • Optionally adapting these presets by selecting fonts, the coloring of different sections and even the addition of background images and logos that you have uploaded from your personal collection
  • Optionally delving into the advanced customization options, including the ability to add web widgets, and even modify the CSS code of your page to your exact specifications, if you have the requisite skills

The extent to which you customize your network is really up to you, and it is perfectly possible to select a predefined template and leave it at that, just as it is equally possible to start changing the CSS-code and embedding web widgets to make for a highly customized, personalized layout. In the next video clip, I walk you through the options.



Video two - design elements



Defining your user-base

By now you have a nicely focused niche for your social network, and a distinctive look that marks it out from the competition. The next step is in defining who your target user-base is comprised of, and the information you think would be useful for them to share with other network members. Here you can:

  • Choose whether your network will be public, and open for anyone to join, or private, so that only people who are invited can join up
  • Decide if non-members visiting your network site will be able to see all of your community content, just your main page, or simply a sign-up page encouraging them to join the network in order to participate
  • Choose whether you would like to moderate photos and videos before they go live, or leave them unmoderated
  • Invite members to join, using their Ning ID, email address or contacts from your imported address book



With your privacy settings decided and your invitations sent out, the next thing you set about doing is designing the questions that will be asked to new sign-ups to your social network. These questions can be anything you think would be useful for other users to know about, and will ultimately define the profile of your community members.

ningquestions.jpg

While you can ask as many questions as you like here, it should be kept in mind that lengthy registration processes tend to put people off signing up in the first place. That said, it is possible to decide which questions are compulsory, and which are optional, thus giving those members that want to disclose more about themselves the possibility to do so, while respecting the privacy of others.

Questions are created by typing them into a text box, and answer types are selected using simple drop down menus, and can be selected from the following types:

  • One line answers - such as an address, country, or job title
  • Longer answers - in which users could state their preferences, tastes or favorite recording artists
  • Multiple choice answers - for which you supply the choice of possible responses, such as might be used to indicate salary, blog category or political affiliation
  • Date - should you want to ask about your user's birthday, how long they have been blogging or when they signed up
  • Website address - for those circumstances that a hyperlinked URL might be useful, such as to link to the user's blog, favorite website or company portal

Questions can be trimmed down so that the user is only required to answer a single question, or added to as far as your user's patience might stretch. Successful profile questions will pull out key information specific to your social network, but it is worth bearing in mind that users will first have filled out a Ning profile before even arriving at that of your site. As such, a minimal approach is probably wise if you don't want to put off new sign-ups.

Once you have completed this final step in the set up process, you are done - from here you are taken to a summary of the sections you have completed, and when you are happy with the decisions made, you can click on launch to make your social network live. Now all you have to do is add some content and wait for your members to start contributing.



Video three - defining your audience



Beyond the skeleton network

In a matter of minutes you have managed to put together the skeleton of a social network, and it's impressive how easy it really is to do. The Ning interface has been very well thought through, and its main strength is in allowing casual users to create their social network 'off the peg', while packing the features capable of creating a more tailor-made experience for those with the time or inclination.

What's nice is that the customization process doesn't have to stop at this initial setup phase, as you can modify and manage your social network at any time after it has gone live. This is done through the 'manage' tab at the top of your network interface, and from here you are presented with a well featured control panel.

From this control panel you can easily dip back into any of the sections you passed through in creating your network - adding and removing features, changing your site appearance, adapting privacy settings - but there are a good many other functions besides. These include:

  • The ability to send out a message to every member of your network, whether there are three or three hundred of them
  • The ability to import photos from a Flickr account directly to your social network site
  • Administrative features that allow you to promote your users' blog posts, videos and photos to the network front-page, or delete members, videos, photos, blog posts and forum posts as you see fit
  • Access to premium services, which are discussed in further detail below
  • Access to site statistics, which allow you to track visitors and trends on your social network
  • Access to useful advice on how to use Ning's advanced customization options
  • Access to a Network Creators Community, where you can meet other network creators, pool ideas and get support from the Ning team
  • The ability to create a new additional social network and take your existing network temporarily offline


ningdash.jpg

Using these resources and additional tools, the Ning team have made it a very simple prospect to finely tune your social network once it has gone live. In many ways, this seems like a sensible approach to network management, and the ability to adapt to your users' needs over time is a very welcome one. What might start out as a primarily text-based network driven by its forum could evolve into a network led by video sharing over a space of time, and the ability to tweak and adapt the layout and operation of the network accordingly makes a lot of sense.



Premium services

In addition to the very well featured free version of Ning, there are some useful premium services that largely focus on making your social network less Ning and more you. The services offered are:

  • Run ads on your social network - as standard Ning adds advertising to your social network and keeps the revenue in exchange for your use of the free service.

    ningads.jpg

    However, if you pay $19.95 per month, you can use your own advertising instead, and this can be through any ad-serving service of your choice. Alternatively, if you want your social network to be ad-free, you can switch off ads altogether

  • Use your own domain name - if you would like to use your own domain name (your-name.com) for your Ning network rather than the standard Ning subdomain (your-name.ning.com), you can opt to do so for a charge of $4.95 per domain, per month
  • Protect your design - if you want to prevent other users from copying your social network design, which they can do by default, you can remove the 'create your own social network' button from your site and prevent them from doing so. This service is free.
  • Get more storage and bandwidth - as your social network grows, so it takes up more space on the Ning servers, and requires more bandwidth to serve to your users. Should you worry about exceeding your initial quota, you can buy units of 5GB storage and 100GB bandwidth at $9.95 per unit.



Your social network in action

Once you have gone through the setup process, and added any premium features you are interested in, you have a well-featured social networking platform at your disposal. While I have touched on the functions you can add or remove from this network, it would be worth going into a little more detail about what each of the functions actually does, and the overall experience the end-user will have of them.



Social networking functions

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In addition to being able to create their own profile from the questions you selected in the setup process, users also have access to:

  • Personal privacy settings for each photo, blog post or video that they post to the network
  • Their own message center, which has the capability of importing an external address book
  • The ability to invite friends to join your network



Photo and video sharing

ningvideo.jpg

Keeping up with MySpace and the better featured social networks, Ning network users have the ability to import, embed, comment on and create players for photo slideshows and Internet video files. These capabilities include:

  • The ability to upload photos and video from your computer, mobile phone, Flickr account, or any video sharing service on the web
  • The ability to share, tag, comment on, rate and select favorites among network videos and photos
  • The ability to create photo albums, flash slideshows and flash video players
  • The ability to view all videos and photos across the social network



Discussion forums

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Discussion forums usually play an important role in cementing social networks - this is where the majority of social interaction tends to take place, with discussions on topics relevant to your network niche. Ning networks featuring discussion forums allow users to:

  • Start a discussion at any point, and add tags to it
  • Add discussion posts to existing discussions
  • Click through to the personal profiles of anyone engaged in a discussion, to find out more about who they are talking to
  • View all discussions taking place across your network



User blogs

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As an extension of user profiles, which can be individually customized, user blogs are a great way of keeping members coming back to your network. As users share their thoughts and build their presence within your community, so their commitment to contributing to it steadily grows. Ning network blogs allow users to:

  • Create blog posts with photos, files and moods
  • Moderate any comments they receive, and manage existing blog posts should they need editing or changing after publication
  • Save draft files and publish their posts in the future rather than straight away



In addition to these blogging features, members can also add their favorite web widgets to their profile, and set up their own user photo and video collections.



Conclusions

Ning is a well featured and incredibly easy-to-use way of putting together your own social network without having to spend any money, or bring any existing programming knowledge to the table. If you feel comfortable putting together a PowerPoint presentation, or picking out a color scheme for your blog, you are unlikely to feel threatened by creating your own social network using Ning.

Using a simple online wizard, you are guided through a short sequence of online forms, drag and drop layout choices and pull-down menus. These allow you a lot of flexibility in creating your own niche-themed network, giving you the opportunity to:

  • Name, tag and describe your network
  • Choose a color-scheme and layout, and incorporate your own branding in the form of logos and background images
  • Choose the functionality of your network from a range of options , including or excluding a blog, forum, video-sharing and photo-sharing capabilities for your site-visitors to make use of
  • Decide what you want to know about your site-visitors by designing your own profile questionnaire
  • Choose whether to have a private or public network
  • Opt into premium features, such as the use of your own URL, extra storage space and user-controlled (and monetized) advertising



Furthermore, this impressive list of out-of-the-box features are nicely complemented by advanced features that will appeal to power users. Web widgets can be plugged into your network pages, you can add your own custom CSS coding to the layout of your network, customize and brand your photo slideshow player - the list goes on. So, here is a flexible tool that will please both absolute beginners and those that want to get their hands dirty with advanced customization options.

In short Ning makes it very easy for anyone to create a customized niche-targeted social network from scratch, whether as a complement to an existing blog or website, or as a new standalone community building project.

The free version of Ning is ad-supported. But with just $19.95 a month you can turn off all ads and start monetizing your online social community site in the way you find most appropriate while keeping revenues all for you.

By using Ning you can rapidly create a targeted niche-themed social network as a successful addition to your existing independent publishing efforts or as the fastest way to create a growing community around an event, product or service you are about to launch.

If you ever thought about creating your own mini YouTube, MySpace or community site, completely customized to your needs and style, the time of your dream has finally come... thanks to Ning.



Additional Resources

If you would like to learn more about Ning, you might want to check out the following links:




Originally written by Michael Pick for MasterNewMedia as: Community Building: How To Create Your Own Social Media Network With Ning.

Michael Pick -
 
 
 
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posted by Michael Pick on Tuesday, March 6 2007, updated on Tuesday, June 8 2010


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