Monthly Archives: February 2012

Turning a hobby into a social business

Hobbies. Whether knitting, collecting stamps, running, enjoying a good bottle of wine or indulging in foodie culture, we all have something adding layers to what makes us, well, us. And what tops a hobby? Making a business out of it.

At Ning, our team is fascinated with how we can provide you with the best social technology weaving together people with the things that you hold near and dear to your heart — no matter the hobby, business, topic or focus. One way we do this is by speaking directly with our customers about what’s worked for them, and the ways they’re leveraging Ning to turn their passions and hobbies into hyper-focused communities populated with people sharing their same excitement.

We recently spoke with filmmaker and Ning Creator, Zack Coffman about Choppertown Nation, the Ning Network he spun out after the wild success of his documentaries about custom motorcycles built from the ground up, and the people making the custom bikes.


Directors Scott DiLalla (left) and Zack Coffman at the Sundance Film Festival (2007)

  Directors Scott Di Lalla (left) and Zack Coffman at the Sundance Film Festival (2007)
 

Co-directed with Scott Di Lalla, the first of their documentaries came out in 2005, with follow-up documentaries released almost every year thereafter. With the films generating a worldwide cult following, Coffman’s Ning community, Choppertown Nation, began about 3 years ago under the premise that it would be neat to have a place where the fans could have a hub to celebrate the documentaries and their excitement for building custom rides. “We had a lot of friends on our MySpace and Facebook pages,” said Coffman. “And we thought, we ought to make a network with our own brand and title. We wanted pure, constant, and consistent branding with our own site.” Coffman chose to use Ning to build the community, and with that, Choppertown Nation was born.

Since its launch, nearly 4,000 people have joined Choppertown Nation, and the site has seen over 50,000 images of custom bikes uploaded directly by its members. With such a bevy of content, the result has been a lot of interested eyeballs checking out what’s being said and made by the greater community, and Coffman has leveraged the site as a way to authentically promote DVD sales for his other films. “We’re able to advertise in an organic way by offering members and visitors our DVDs and other items they’d probably like to buy. In many ways, what we’re selling is just a natural extension of what they’re already enjoying on the community.”

Building on top of a stream of great content and engaged members, Coffman also regularly offers contests and competitions to the community. In Choppertown’s latest competition, wrapping up at the end of this month, members can upload 2 pictures of their bike builds and tell everyone about what they’ve built. Top contributors have the opportunity to win apparel, accessories and other prizes from industry-known sponsors like Biltwell, Dickies, Licks Custom Cycles, Baker Drivetrain and DicE Magazine. Contests like this provide an endless loop for engagement and friendly competition, while bringing sponsors front and center to an already-active and influential biker community.

Coffman also cites that SEO (search engine optimization), where a website appears in search results like on Google and Yahoo!, remains high for his sites given that his community lives on the Ning Platform. By linking between his Ning community and his online store, this helps his business come up higher in search results as cross-linking between the sites builds relevancy for his brand. In turn, this helps as people search sites like Google for information about building custom motorcycles to come across Choppertown Nation and its online store.

For Choppertown Nation, which started out as a hobby turned documentary series turned full-fledged community combining a business, it’s a shining example for how a Ning customer is creatively and naturally driving engagement and increasing visibility on the web. As a phrase motor enthusiasts know well, we’re glad to see that the Choppertown community and Coffman live by the mantra “Run what you brung,” all day, everyday.

Have you turned your hobby into a business using Ning? Tell us your story — we’d love to hear about it.

Product Roadmap: What’s next for your Ning community

Last year, we did something a little different than we have in previous years; we published a public Product Roadmap. It was a big success. It bolstered direct customer-company communication, and it really helped Ning Creators know what was coming next.

It was an ambitious roadmap, and by year’s end we had finished all but one of the projects we initially listed on the roadmap (we’re still working on Mobile improvements; it expanded in scope and became larger). All told, we completed many more projects in 2011 than we did in the 2 previous years combined. In fact, we actually added additional projects to the 2011 Roadmap as the year went along, making it our biggest year of improvements ever. All of those additional projects were based directly on the suggestions we received from our customers — thank you!

We’re going to keep up regular roadmap updates for 2012, although this year we’re going to do things a little differently. We’re still going to keep you updated about what we’re working on with our Product Roadmap page on Creators, but we’re going to shift to offering a more “living” document that shows:

  1. What’s already in partial release
  2. What we’re working on now that’s not yet released
  3. What’s still in the planning stages

The goal is to update it frequently as we go along instead of offering one giant laundry list of features. We want the projects we’re reporting on to be focused on high quality — incorporating feedback we hear from our customers so we can be nimble and adjust what we’re building based on your valuable input. And, we’ll be adding to our roadmap as we complete projects throughout the year.

With all of that said, here’s what we have partially released, are working on, and are still planning…

Partially Released

Activity Feed: If you haven’t seen it yet, we also recently added “Top News” as a beta in the Ning Labs section of your Dashboard. Among other things, this feed pulls in Facebook and Twitter account posts into the Top News activity feed. We’ll be making additional visual improvements to this feed, implementing some real-time abilities for new activity items, and moving this feature out of beta. Check out the latest set of improvements we recently released. There’s more to come on this project that will help increase engagement on your Ning Network.

Member Categories & Badges: We know a lot of Ning Creators want to create different levels of membership for their community. We’ll be adding the ability for you to assign members to custom-made categories. The work on this project kicked off a few weeks ago with a reorganization of the member roles and moderation data to make finding and filtering members easier. Next, we’ll roll out the ability to create and administer categories in this area. This project will also include a way for you to create custom badges using these new member categories. This will be an excellent way for you to reward or identify admins, featured members, special people and all-stars on your community.

Working On It

Mobile Update: Not everyone is aware that there’s a mobile version of every Ning Network — it’s located at networkname.ning.com/m. If you are aware of it, you’ll be very happy to hear that we’re working on a redesign of this mobile interface that will be a giant improvement. This is one of the largest projects we’ve undertaken to date, and it’s really important. We want to get it right so that Ning Creators won’t just have a better mobile experience to offer their members, but will have a way to configure and customize the mobile version to really fit their community. We’ll be posting about this on Ning Creators and accepting volunteers for the beta group.

Help Center Redesign: Our Advocacy team is most excited about their revamp of the Help Center. It’s time for a refresh of the content, the look, the advice — all of it is currently in the process of being redone to be more friendly. Let us know if there are specific resources you’d like to see in our updated Help Center.

Planning it

Blog Update: The blog functionality on Ning Networks is ready for a redo. We’ve gotten a wealth of feedback from Ning Creators about what they’d like to see done differently with the blog feature. We have a lot of work planned to make the blog more powerful and much more visually appealing. We’ll share more details as this project unfolds.

Sign-Up Controls: We’ll offer expanded control over sign in and sign up options that will allow you to, for example, have an “open registration” during specific times and “closed registration” at other times. If you’re more interested in using Ning as a publishing platform over a community platform, you will be able to turn off all “Sign-Up” links and messaging visible to non-signed-in visitors.

New Commenting Options: Provide the ability to allow non-members to join in the conversation by using third-party commenting services (e.g., Facebook comments).

How we move forward

One thing we want to do is invest more resources in beta testing and iterating on the design of each new feature — very similar to what we did with the recently updated Chat. We started the complete Chat revamp with an early announcement about the feature, followed by the creation of a small test group, gradually opened up the beta to more people, announced our progress ahead of final deployment, and then rolled the feature out to everyone. It was one of our most successful product launches, and it incorporated a lot of opportunity for the most engaged Ning Creators to provide feedback. Being laser-focused on one project at a time (rather than being more generally focused on a giant list of projects) helped us make Chat even better than we had originally planned. We’d like to pattern more of our releases in a similar way.

We still plan to innovate in a big way, and, as always, there is additional work going on that’s not reflected in this product roadmap. For example, it may not be apparent that over the past year we greatly expanded language support for our marketing pages (Ning traverse le monde! FYI: We’ll be re-translating French and German soon), reorganized and consolidated domains, adopted new behind-the-scenes web services that make things run more smoothly, and many other projects. We continue to grow and become stronger as a platform when we do these types of essential, less visible projects. Building out all facets of our business — and not just the forward-facing product features — means a more reliable and robust product.

We’ll be continuing the conversation on Ning Creators and the Ning Blog about these projects, so look for ongoing announcements about beta access and updates on our progress. If you didn’t find your favorite request in this update, we’ll be updating the roadmap regularly with new items. As always, thank you for all of the suggestions and feedback!

The top 10 things burgeoning Ning customers are doing to drive success

We love seeing real world businesses thrive when they integrate Ning into an online media and marketing strategy or as their homepage. We’ve gathered the top 10 things burgeoning Ning customers are doing to drive success.

1. Your branding, your way

We know your brand is important to your business’ success, and you want your brand equity to work for you. Adopt, use and iterate your own design and color scheme from any of the rest of your web properties. Want to use the same colors as your Twitter stream, or the cover photo of your Facebook page somewhere? No problem. We make it easy for you to get your design perfected with the Ning Design Studio. Use CSS to make design customizations, and other changes. You’re only limited by your imagination, or branding guidelines!

2. Optimized for advertising

If you want to monetize your site by showing advertisements, go for it! You have the ability to run your own ads on your Ning Network, right out of the box. You can easily place ads in the header and footer with special ad boxes available with your community.* Have existing ad partnerships with the likes of Glam Media, Google AdSense or Adbrite? Bring your ad account into your Ning community, embed your ad code, no problem.

3. Use your custom domain URL

We’re all about letting you make your Ning site appear as seamless and integrated as possible. You can use domain mapping* to mask and customize the domain to your liking. Want to use Ning as the community portion of your site? Not a problem.

4. Ning as part of your social strategy

Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Google+. Having a presence on these sites is important. The great thing is that Ning sites play well with others. With social sharing, people on your Ning site can share what they’re talking about from within the community, out to the rest of the world, easily, automatically.

You can also pull into your Ning site RSS feeds from other services, status updates from Facebook, and Tweets from Twitter. It’s all brought into your Ning site, no sweat.

5. Make new pages and build content

Within your Ning site, you can build beautiful new pages by using a blank canvas fitting nicely within the frame of your site. With full HTML support and Javascipt, the pages are 100% part of your members’ experience on your site. You can also copy any of your old webpages into a new page.

6. Passwords are a thing of the past

Enable social sign-in* to let your members frictionlessly sign up and sign in to your Ning site with their social identities: Facebook, Twitter, Google and Yahoo!. Just click to connect. They’re all set.

7. Capture more business through leads

Building up a contact list of perspective customers is a piece of cake. Just embed your own forms directly to your Ning site. Create forms with services like iContact, Google Docs, Silverpop and Constant Contact, and add them to the pages of your Ning Community. Use the list as a way to directly touch people expressing interest in your community.

8. Gather the demographics important to you

Collect demographic and relevant information about people when they join your community. The insights you can gain from your members goes beyond gathering their gender or geographic location.

Collect member names and email addresses, add custom questions and solicit responses in the form of location, gender, one line answers, long form answers, multiple choice, dates, and website addresses. Export the information into a .CSV format anytime, anywhere.

9. Optimize your site for search engines and discovery

We hand you the keys to webmaster options like full control over how sections of your Ning site will appear in search results, and what’s crawled and indexed by search sites like Google. You have full control over your sitemap or you can let it be managed automatically so that you can focus on your community and your business.

10. Leverage Ning for help

Need a hand building your Ning site? Use our Build It For You service and work with our in-house community specialists to create and design a vibrant Ning site to help you meet your goals.

Questions once your site is up and running? We offer great customer support through Ning Help and Creators, a Ning community for our customers.

* Feature is available in Ning Plus and Pro.

What does it take to nurture and build a community?

In January, I was asked to go back to my alma mater, Colgate University, to speak to students about what it’s like to work in the social media space. Before I dive into the details, I’ll take a step back and say that much like many of the communities built on Ning today, Colgate is a close-knit and hyper-passionate community of people, so the chance to share my story and experiences working at Ning and Glam Media was something I couldn’t pass up.


©2012 Colgate University / Andrew M. Daddio.

Sian-Pierre Regis of Swagger New York (left) and Jason Rand, Ning & Glam Media. ©2012 Colgate University / Andrew M. Daddio.

A number of alumni also speaking at Colgate work in the social media and community-building space, and I wanted to hear their perspectives on creating and managing successful communities — something that’s definitely on the minds of Ning Creators and Glam Publishers. Sian-Pierre Regis, a classmate of mine, has created a media empire through his street lifestyle site, Swagger New York. Swagger introduces readers to the people, the music and the trends that are hot in New York. And they’re expanding to cover everything from news to fashion to technology to culture. Coincidentally, Swagger is also a Glam Publisher, meaning that premium brand advertisers can reach Swagger’s trendsetting community in authentic and engaging ways.

I also met with Matt Hames, Colgate’s Manager of Media Communications. His job entails managing Colgate’s digital presence and reaching out to people to showcase Colgate’s offerings as a nationally-renowned learning institute. He’s also an avid competitive curler, and leads a private Ning Network for the sport.

For all intents and purposes, Matt and Sian-Pierre are community managers at the helm of building recognition for a brand. For Matt, it’s Colgate University, and for Sian-Pierre it’s Swagger New York. More generally, they’re focused on bringing people together to share their excitement for something. This is the exact thing we see our Glam Publishers and Ning Creators doing everyday. Given their leadership, I asked Sian-Pierre and Matt to discuss their approach in building successful communities, and the things they’re doing to yield engagement, lively conversation, and valuable and impactful relationships.

How have you gone about building successful online communities?

Sian-Pierre: I have a very strong vision for the brand, and have always maintained that if the brand came off as cool, smart, different and YOUNG that Gen-Y’ers would stick by us. And they have. Through our Facebook channel specifically we have an intimate relationship with over 125k people, writing back to them when they comment, liking their posts and genuinely showing an interest in their personalities, loves, dislikes, etc. We’ve been able to get brand evangelists who have reblogged us or hyped us up with international press outlets, etc. We even used three of our fans in a GILT Man campaign, so our followers feel like they are actually a part of something bigger.

Matt: The first step is to decide what value the product or service can offer in return. It can simply be “getting people who are fans of this” into one place. Or it can be the exchange of ideas. There needs to be a thing that people get out of joining the community.

What was your uh-huh moment that an online community was not only important, but necessary?

Matt: Unlike a marketing campaign designed to get people to think a certain way about a brand, a community can be harnessed to continually learn about fans and members. Part focus group, part evangelists, this is the first time brands can give back to their best customers while giving them a voice.

What advice do you have for community organizers looking to get started?

Sian-Pierre: No one’s watching you when you start. So just start. And then build every day until you’ve got your identity…and then ATTACK.

Matt: Try to learn what your best customers/supporters want or like. They will be the beginning of your community. Learn from them. Also, they self-identify as fans. Try to let them as far inside as possible. Show them the making of TV spots. Give them access to important people.

How are you measuring success?

Sian-Pierre: Up until this point, I measured success in visual quality of the brand, press mentions, all the more superficial stuff. Now, it’s engagement, and website traffic. The fact is, if your fans and members aren’t engaged then your brand isn’t really marketable.

Matt: Good question: we’re setting some initial goals on the Facebook page. One is to attract more current students, so we’ll compare that age group’s growth in stats.

Measurement starts with specific goals. Attract more students to Facebook. Use Google+ to attract more international students. Get people who come to Colgate.edu to engage in social media.

Facebook fans and Twitter followers are important – what’s the next step beyond getting these likes and followers?

Sian-Pierre: Taking them off Facebook and Twitter and having them live on your own site.

Matt: Involve them. Most other advertising (for example, Super Bowl TV spots) tries to entertain people. Social media needs to involve people in the inner workings of the brand or organization. Let them see as far under the hood as possible.

How do you weave all the conversations together happening across the web about your brand?

Sian-Pierre: We try and interweave all the conversations together by referencing what’s happening on our other channels and driving people between where we have a presence.

Matt: First listen. Find out where people are and what they are saying and get involved.

How do you reward your community or active individuals contributing?

Matt: People like stuff. But more importantly, they like an inside look at stuff.

How do you keep people engaged and coming back to your community?

Sian-Pierre: Showing up every day, giving them what they tell us they want through their comments, and building the community with their guidance.

Matt: Work at giving them a reason to come back. Content. Think about the goals – who you want to attract and why you want to attract them. If you can answer that, you will have an idea how to engage them.

I like to think about the community in real life. If all those people were standing in a room, what would I tell them? How would I get them talking? How often will I talk?

Then, I do what I can to plan what I’ll say.