A while back I posted a step by step experience of setting up a social network on Ning. After trying it out, I put forward a proposal to my employers to develop a Ning social network. I have to say that I’ve been really pleased by the results. It’s by no means a perfect platform, and in the long term if you have budgets to custom build then something like this looks pale in comparison, but this was a low cost route to getting a really dynamic two-way conversation started not just between us and our customers, but between those researchers who could now talk directly to each other. It’s a joy to behold (no, really!). So, with all this in mind here are a few pearls of wisdom on getting started with setting up a social network on Ning.

  • Do keep it simple. Like most things in life, you need a straightforward idea to make something like this work. Start out with a clear objective of what you want users on the network to do. Think about the big players – Facebook wants you to connect with your friends, Twitter wants to know ‘What you’re doing right now’, etc. And think about other dynamic tools such as blogs: the best ones are those that have a very simple objective, such as Problogger’s aim to, in essence, help bloggers blog better.
  • Don’t get feature-itis. Simple simple simple. Do you really need that ‘what cat are you’ game? Does it really meet your site objectives? I didn’t think so.
  • Do map your user profiles and identify top needs. At the end of the day, what you want doesn’t matter. We sat down and drew up a list of who we thought the site’s key users were, and prioritised a list of ‘user needs’ that they might have, for example “I am a lecturer, I want to share resources with my students”, or “I am a researcher, I want to share information about upcoming events I am organizing”. After prioritizing these, we put together a site that offered the functionality to fulfill just these needs, and nothing more. And as I’ve alluded to, while we got some of the priorities right, in other cases we were wrong. Wrong wrong wrong. Users will show you the things that they want and show you the things that they need once the site is up and running. It’s not static you can change it once you see how they are making the site their own.
  • Do try everything out. The site can be really clever, and sometimes just plain annoying. One of the best things about it is how easy it is to move features around. See what it looks like, and if it doesn’t work, just shift it or remove it. If you don’t like the functionality of certain segments, take them out. The only things you can’t remove altogether are things like the ‘My page’ and the individual blogs. But even there if you experiment with textboxes and blank pages you can find ways to work around any difficulties. The help section is pretty good on Ning so look it up if you get stuck.
  • Don’t go in blind. In this arena don’t be afraid to take advantage of the wide body of good and bad examples and learn from them. Ning is a social network platform – there are a vast number of networks on there. Spend some time taking in others in similar areas to yours or completely different.
  • Do edit the text. One of the least intuitive functions on there but HIGHLY useful – to change certain phrasings across the site, select ‘Language Editor’ from the manager’s tab, then click in to edit the language that the site is set to (don’t confuse which version of English you are using: select either US or UK and stick to it!). Then from within there, you can search for specific words or phrases and choose to re-write them. For example the automatic invitation text reads “Come join me on…”. That wasn’t something we thought worked for our target members. Very useful.
  • Do edit the registration information. Once someone is joined then they no longer have to give you any information about themselves. Think carefully about what you want to know about them (the edit is under ‘Profile questions’). Keep the registration short, and if you don’t need something to be compulsory, think about whether you really need it to be there at all.
  • Don’t be put off by power users. It’s well known that the majority of social networkers are lurkers. You’ll get a small handful of people who are regular contributors, and that is absolutely no bad thing, as long as the discussion stays on topic and open-minded.
  • Do set guidelines. This is for the site users but also for anyone within your organization that is contributing. There are some fantastic examples out there on best practice for blogging that apply equally well to social networks.
  • Do monitor daily. Only by actively participating will you understand what is working and what isn’t, and more importantly will you understand what your users are getting from the site.

Interested in seeing how ours turned out? Visit www.methodspace.com

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