What is it?
Ning is a web-based interface that bundles a number of separately available technologies in a single unified, hosted, people management platform.
Specifically, Ning integrates a blog, wiki, forum, photo/video gallery, “latest activity” micro feed, events calendar and member manager.
Extended functionality includes the ability to add widgets, form sub groups and organize projects.
Basic usage and functionality
The first thing that you’ll want to do as a new community owner is to modify the theme. Like WordPress, the initial theme is bare bones.
Network creators can select from roughly 30 cookie cutter themes to add a layer of basic styling to their site.
There are a few built in values you can alter to further personalize look and feel such as entering hex color codes (e.g. FF0000) and swapping masthead imagery with your own.
More advanced users have the ability to actually modify the CSS of their social network, which I appreciate
The network I evaluated had roughly 13,600 indexed pages in Google, ranked highly for seemingly uncompetitive terms and carried a page rank of 5/10, if you believe in that sort of thing.
I see no reason why a Ning network could not be ranked for competitive terms except for the ridged hierarchal/site structure and limited control over meta variable granularity.
Something interesting of note; most of the cached pages seem to be group and user profiles belonging to the members rather than targeted, landing and information specific pages. Again, because the user demographic is not typically trying to sell something or channel traffic to a conversion, the above characteristics may be acceptable.
The best of Ning
1. Ease of use
What makes Ning unique is the ease and speed that you can deploy a new “social network.” Literally 5 fields and you are up and running.
2. You are part of a greater network
In other words, you are on Ning’s grid right out the gate which means that your network has a better chance of attracting new members and interest. When you create a new network profile on Ning you are in essence building a node on a greater network and making yourself accessible through Ning’s global search function.
It will be interesting to conduct some testing on how Ning weights its listings; it doesn’t appear to be driven solely by the number of members a network contains.
3. You can choose to be a node or a stand alone
Your addition to the Ning network is listed as a sub-domain of ning.com (e.g. yournetwork.ning.com). You have the option of paying monthly for the ability to domain map your social network to your personal domain (e.g. yournetwork.com). Both options have their benefits mainly centered on intended longevity of the network and brand-ability of the network.
Later I envision Ning’s homepage to evolve into something of a wordpress.com and ebay.com hybrid that informs both users and passersby of new networks, biggest buzz networks, RSS updates and featured networks.
The worst of Ning
I foresee a power user exodus as early network builders attribute peers to worth. Say for instance a community of 10,000 members generates 6,000 hits a day to a glass blowing social network. At a certain point a network creator may find that he/she is spending too much time maintaining the community and decide to sell the user base to a stakeholder in the glass blowing industry. Because ownership originates and stays with Ning, there is no technical transfer of asset, rendering it a non-saleable commodity.
Ning Ownership Rights
You agree that, as between you and Ning, Ning owns all right, title and interest, including, all intellectual property rights, in and to the Ning Technology. Additionally, there are two types of data provided by or collected from Network Members – Network Member Data and Ning Member Data. If you are a Network Creator or an administrator designated by a Network Creator (“Administrator”), you agree that, as between Ning and you, Ning owns all right, title and interest, including, all intellectual property rights, in and to the Ning Member Data. You shall not acquire any right, title or interest therein, except for the limited rights expressly set forth in this Agreement. Any rights not expressly granted herein, are reserved to Ning. You agree to abide by all copyright notices, information, or restrictions contained in any part of the Ning Platform. You must not alter, delete, or conceal any copyright, trademark, patent, or other notices contained on the Ning Platform, including notices on any Ning Technology you download, transmit, display, print or reproduce from or using the Ning Platform.
This is interesting because technically you have to be a Ning member before you can join a social network built on Ning. Therefore, one may interpret the aggregation of all implied interest by affinity to a given subject as built and compiled by Ning members, technically owned by Ning. Or in ten words or less; you do not own your network once it’s built.
Out of the box Ning advertises on your network, which is how they can offer you a seemingly free service. If you begin to attract enough interest on a given subject it may be beneficial to lease the rights to advertise with Google Adwords. However, keep in mind that ads are worthless without a pointed demographic and either search traffic or a large member base.
The ownership clause implies the only way to monetize a social network built with Ning is either to lease the ability to place third party ads, send qualified traffic to an offsite conversion channel, or leverage your network to rally interest in an existing business model or product, which you may also advertise on your network.
3. What’s built on Ning, stays on Ning
The fact that Ning is a hosted solution is both a blessing and a curse. On the upside it is essentially free to maintain, on the other, one may find it difficult, if not impossible, to migrate to another platform. There are no migration, API bridging, export or transition aid tools of any kind to allow a network creator to transfer users or content to more common, creator hosted, technologies such as phpBB, vBulletin, Dolphin or Drupal.
Ning is geared for groups and hobbyists without the resources or intention to develop a salable asset. I can see it being used for some grassroots organizations, fan sites, clubs, band groupies, hub affiliations and assemblies with a finite interest, like followers of a TV series or trendy phenomenon like Twilight where the population emulates the expo effect (e.g. large swell or congregation of participants followed by an inevitable scattering).
Stakeholders, entrepreneurs and small businesses should invest the time in a platform with a higher return on their investment of community strategy and user engagement.
Base Cost: Ning advertises on your network
Ease of Use: (9/10)
Search Friendliness: (4/10)
Business Value: (2/10)
Overall score: (4.5/10)