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Create Your Own Social Network with Ning

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Tom Bunzel points out a common trend in the tech world: Organizations are seeing the potential of creating their own social networks (outside of Facebook). One program/web site that empowers anyone to create a full-featured social network is Ning.com, which now boasts almost 900,000 members of various networks.
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As an IT professional, there are many things you can do, and programs you can use, to communicate more effectively with your colleagues, staff, and superiors.

Probably the most recent trend that you may want to investigate is to create a social network that supports a wide range of interaction using some well-known features of Web 2.0.

While the king of social networking, Facebook, lets you join a group or sub-network you create from an organization with discussions, inevitably any network created within Facebook shares the space with potentially irrelevant or inappropriate content.

Ning networks, now serving more than 900,000 members, let you communicate in a branded environment that you completely control. And creating and using such a network is free; if you want to sell your own ads or control other aspects of the right column (where Ning places ads to subsidize its free networks), you can purchase different tiers of Premium network options.

A Ning network is a customized online community with lots of features; its Main page gives you three main columns (part of the ad column on the right is still available for your content) with components that let you post pictures (of members, to represent groups, and for any other purpose you determine), video, blogs, discussion forums, news (latest activity) and quite a bit more.

When a member joins Ning, or a specific network or set of networks, the options are listed and available upon login.

A member can also see and choose among the most popular networks, or search according to personal tastes for other Ning networks that might be of interest.

The key to creating and organizing a new network is the Manage page, which lets you select options to set up and arrange the features you want on the Main page, and also on the tabs at the top of the network interface.

The following sections describe Ning's current features.

Default Features (already in Layout):

Latest Activity

Latest Activity
Description
Members Photos
Videos Forum

Additional Features (add with drag and drop) under Manage or place into tabs:

Events

Groups

Blog

Chat

Music

Notes

Text Box

RSS

Get Badges

Birthdays

While some of these features (music or birthdays, for example) may appeal to members you would consider outside the IT or tech arena, I suggest that any enterprise or organization that allows some of these elements into a central communications network will get more activity, loyalty, and value than a company that restricts its web site to business only.

It's called fun—and if you let workers have a bit of it, I suspect they will also have more loyalty in terms of keeping up with serious topics on discussion forums, blogs, and notes.

One ecommerce site I know has several members of its network assigned only to responding to birthdays, which pop up in that component daily. By providing a personal birthday greeting the network promotes "stickiness." (Members and visitors don’t want to leave and return frequently).

Some of the many appealing aspects of a Ning network are its visual elements. (Compare this to the old Lotus Notes or how many enterprises employ collaboration sites such as SharePoint).

Pictures can populate many pages, and members can create their own sets of images and a slideshow, all in a picture display player that can now be popped out and played outside the web browser (along with a video and music player with similar capabilities).

The potential benefits of these features are clearly designed to keep staff, colleagues, clients, customers, or any other community members coming back and continuing to actively participate.

On the more serious content side (and remember, in a business or IT setting you can certainly control and discourage Facebook minutiae and antics), the Activities, Events, Discussion Forums and Groups (with filtered Email—to groups or to the entire network in a broadcast) provide tremendously versatile communication capability.

For example, a Help thread can be within an appropriate Group (e.g., Server Maintenance) and therefore moderated by the appropriate SME. When a new Discussion is added to the Forum, users can attach pictures (screenshots of problems) and then benefit from the Help Desk feedback or other users' suggestions. Every post is listed under Latest Activity, and email posts and comments are sent out whenever there is a response.

As with any productive web site, a Ning network is completely indexed so that members can find discussion threads, comments, textboxes and tagged media by using the search feature. Members in a tech community should also be encouraged to use the (meta) tags when the post content to support the search capability within Ning.

Of course, videos don't need to be comedic fluff—they can be on target, either posted to and referenced from YouTube, or created within the organization and uploaded directly to the Ning network. In the case of PowerPoint presentations, you can use Camtasia or a similar screen-capture tool to first create a narrated movie of an important slide show.

Of course, more-conventional talking head videos (message from a department head or CEO) can also be posted on the network and become the subject of a discussion thread or some other interactive feature.

Another key feature is the personal (My) Page for each member, for which the network administrator can set customization options. But here a member can get a bit of private web real estate that could be used, for example, in an IT/Help environment to post images that pertain to project issues (screenshots) or provide news and information about members and their particular departments or areas of expertise.

Third-party applications (truthfully, these apps are mostly consumer-oriented at this point, but a savvy developer could easily add an app that is relevant to your enterprise) can also be loaded into a personal page (and soon also to the Main page for all members to access easily). In this figure, a simple poll can sample the opinions of all network members and give immediate, up-to-the-minute results.

The new Chat window (now available on every Ning page from the status bar at the bottom of the browser) could also be a very helpful area to take care of immediate help-related issues. You could make sure that all affected users are online at the same time, and all could be invited into a private chat.

Similarly, you could use the same feature to connect with clients for a quick online conference.

In each case, you could refer them to the relevant images available on your (or someone else's) personal page, and brainstorm a problem or a project together.

Obviously, there are other tools for this purpose; for example, Go-To-Meeting or Go-To-MyPC enable this sort of brainstorming with a more robust feature set.

But having one central location where members feel at home and can at least accomplish 90% of what they need to, in a controlled and branded environment, can keep channels of communication open and flowing.

Speaking of controlled, there are plenty of options for the Administrator to grant or restrict the ability of members to exercise their own individuality or freedom within the network.

The Feature Controls (under Manage > Your Members) lets you decide exactly what privileges you allow your members.

There is also an area under Manage Members where you can assign various Roles that will empower some members (to whom you assign a given role) to exercise some administrative powers. You can also make any member an administrator, or if necessary, ban him or her from the social network.

What's nice about a Ning network is that it combines the elements of social and structured interaction, according to the blend that you determine when you design it. Ning networks are also quite flexible; you can change the structure at any time, add or remove components, and change the way members participate.

It doesn't even take a major design effort to brand your network effectively. The online customization features let you upload your own image to the main network banner and also include a logo. A bit of extra effort lets you also coordinate your own fonts, colors, and backgrounds for a unique look for your network, if desired.

Ning itself is always evolving; new features and enhancements come online regularly.

While many organizations already use blogs, wikis, and other so-called Web 2.0 applications to communicate internally and externally, some of the more innovative applications such as social networks are being used mainly by entrepreneurs, small businesses, and consumers.

But Ning provides the chance for larger businesses to combine many of these features into a network that can grow organically and keep staff or clients coming back and participating actively: a full-service, branded social network online community from which you can benefit—and also control.

About the Author

Tom Bunzel, former the host of InformIT's Microsoft Office Reference Guide, is an eight-time book author working as a presentation and video consultant in Los Angeles. He can be reached through his web site. His new eBook, Create Your Own Social Network with Ning, is now available online.

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