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Mashable's Ning Perspective Misses Social Networking Business Fundamentals

Ning Removes Free Community Support, Fumbles Over PR Communications Strategy

Ning is removing free community support for their social networks, and cutting staff from 167 to 98, CNET reports.

The company had the story leaked from an internal memo, but as of 10am EST nothing about the news on their blog.

This is a PR disaster for Ning. I think we all understand the economic realities of the current recession. But when you run an online social community platform, and are not prepared to release information on your website shortly after chatting with your employees, be prepared for the consequences.

I'm sure a lot of Network managers will understand the issues with the company, but I really think Ning could have approached the delivery of news in a more coordinated way.

I helped set up the Ning social media community strategy for the Boston Chapter of the American Marketing Association.

4/16/10 Update: Shel Holtz has written a great post about the Ning PR disaster. His comments regarding the super non-profit social networks are well taken. He suggests the removal of the free option, and intention to drop support for existing networks is a betrayal of trust with customers. I think he is right. Though my complaint is more about how the situation was handled I actually believe it would be possible for Ning to remove free support, but they should grandfather any existing free accounts, and give them a lot of incentives to move to the premium model. I also think Ning should be open about the situation and using their blog and twitter to talk to people. Otherwise the company will continue to lose credibility from its communications fumble.

4/16/10: 2:00pm Posterous commits to providing support to Ning network managers and transfer accounts over to their service.

4/16/10: 2:49pm Manny Hernandez, author of Ning for Dummies, writes an open letter to Jason Rosenthal, CEO of Ning.

4/16/10: 3:40pm Joseph Porcelli recommends network members contribute small amounts to cover the cost of Ning. I like this idea. Currently I'm a member of another non-profit site, and someone in the group typically gives money to cover the yearly expense. Again by working and talking with the community, Ning could be solving its financial issues and building a good communications strategy.

4/16/10: 9:01pm Jason Rosenthal, CEO of Ning, writes about the news his company is removing the free service. Not much in the statement, and he ends by saying "We look forward to talking to you further on May 4th." When Ning will reveal more details. Not much damage control, though at the very least the company actually has something on their website. I expect given this response, Ning wasn't going to say anything until May 4th.

4/17/10: 8:09am A campaign has started on to keep Ning free for non-profits. I actually don't have a problem with the change in business model for organizations. Though I think to keep their brand promise Ning should Grandfather existing free accounts, and find incentives to move orgs to premium. I'd encourage Ning to reach out to their community, explain their situation, and ask for advice on how they can solve their business model problem. From all of the ideas I've seen in the last day or so, I believe Ning could resolve its PR crisis and help themselves on the road to profitability.

4/17/10: 8:15am BuddyPress provides resources for transferring your Ning account over to their system.

4/17/10: 8:18am Mark Hathaway's post about his software church is Social and why Free is important for a social network provider, but how his company still needs to make a profit.

4/18/10: 8:14pm Doug Haslam writes a great round-up of the Ning PR crisis, and provides some additional links to community conversation about the reaction to the event.

4/18/10: 8:21pm Jon Dale believes Ning's reversal of the Freeimum model is a great idea, especially because he runs a premium account and wants better support. To me the Ning story is one of how by being free, the company helped to build its business. I know I regularly promoted the company's services over the last few years because it gave some good options for companies, and access to a large network of existing subscribers. Ning's success was intrinsically tied to its free model, people set up networks because Ning was free and helped promote the social networking system to their members and customers. Who in turn joined that network, and so had access to all of the other networks, including premium networks on the Ning model. I personally thought that Ning was not the best social network when I recommended it to the Boston Chapter of the American Marketing Association, but one compelling reason for my recommendation was because with so many existing community members who already had membership in the site, that would make it easier to get other marketers to sign up to the AMA's site. The issue of social network compatibility is not such an issue today in 2010, with Facebook Connect, Twitter and OpenSocial Id. But having a large group of users familiar with a social networking technology is an incentive for people to develop applications and build communities. The more I think about this move on Ning's part, the more I believe its a strategic blunder, precisely because it removes less chance for WOM to work, so I suggest it hurts premium users.  As for Jon Dale's point about support, this is a case of Ning focusing on its premium members. I don't think any free Ning community manager would expect to get very much support. And Ning as the opportunity to sell support packages. To me its more a matter of pricing and product innovation.

4/20/10: 8:25pm Chris O'Brien, Tech writer at the San Jose Mercury News and Ning administer of the Next Newsroom Project writes a post about his concerns regarding the Ning announcement and his assessment of the developer community's opinion about Ning and open source software.

4/20/10: 9:41pm Seems as if I spoke too soon, my apologies to the folks at Ning, it looks as if they have been more active in getting the word out about their news on dropping free on Ning. Dan York points to the Ning Creators network, where a Ning employee posted an updated on April 15th.

5/1/10: 3:00pm Looks as if Ning is continuing to talk with its community and exploring some alternatives to just switching off all of the free networks, as least in the education sector.

John McDonald of Ning writes "Mythbusters: Three Things We Aren’t Doing on May 4," where he explains that Ning networks will not shut down on May 4th, but continue for 10 weeks, he attempts to allay some concerns about the new pricing models for commercial sites and non-profits.

Cheryl Oakes writes about her concerns about her Ning network for students and educators.

Bone Head SEO provides an extensive list of Ning alternatives.

Network vendor Third Note, supports Ning transfers.

Tim at the Technology in Education blog regrets the loss of Ning for free.

One Ning Administrator switches from Ning to, and in the process reveals how easy it is for a web brand to lose its lead within a category.

Kru suggests thousands of patient run Ning communities are threatened by the announcement that Ning will no longer offer a free solution.

Save My is a service that allows you to back up your Ning site.

Steve Hargadon discusses the survey distributed by John McDonald, VP of Advocacy of Ning, in Ning exploration of the education market.