My August, 2009 Montana InBusiness Monthly
In the past, I’ve written about how businesses and organizations in western Montana use social networking sites such as Facebook to promote themselves and bring in customers and members.
But what if you’ve investigated Facebook for your organization and want more functions than “friending” and more capable ways of holding online discussions? And what if the real or perceived baggage of social networking – party pictures and inane conversations – make you shy away?
One way is to set up your own Web site with forums, event calendars and other capabilities, but that comes with its own work load and technical demands. But another answer – and one that is technically accessible to most – is to use one of the many services that let you build your own social network around your own interests.
Some of these build-your-own-social-networks are very specific in their applications, some are just for business conferences with a limited lifespan, others are optimized for use with the iPhone. (Search for “build a social network” and you’ll find a wide variety of these services.)
But a service called Ning provides more of a general-purpose way to build your own social network for a business. As a result, in just a few years they have become one of the leaders of the build-your-own-network pack, and a few months ago reached the milestone of hosting over 1 million social networks.
Services such as Ning require more of an investment of time and maintenance than Facebook. But you get a turnkey system, a custom URL that looks good, and many more capabilities than simple social networking sites. There’s a learning curve, but it’s less than having to set up your own Web site. I’ve tried Ning, and I know it’s got an easy interface, and I think the average user can can start up a full social networking site after a few hours of playing around.
A few diverse examples of Ning users include the Montana Musicians’ Network, which has hundreds of members, and the Hutterites, who have thousands of members. The Missoula-based statewide organization Humanities Montana has recently jumped into Ning, too.
According to their main Web site, Humanities Montana is an independent nonprofit organization “dedicated to bringing the humanities, their insights and values, to the people of Montana, enriching the intellectual, cultural, and civic life of the state.”
Their companion Ning site hopes to further that mission, according to Ken Egan, the executive director. His was some of the feedback I received when I asked about Ning in the forum thread he started titled, “How Can Humanities Montana best serve Montana?”
“We see the Ning site as one of several ways for Montana citizens to participate in Humanities Montana’s programs. We appreciate the ability to customize the site to our needs. … we can feature upcoming events, post blogs, and facilitate discussion, all without the distraction of paid advertising.”
Egan allows that it is too early to know the impact of Ning; six months will reveal much more. But Egan said that “we would like to create an online experience that matches our motto: Learn and reflect together.”
Egan is also working with Facebook, in order to leverage that large network, and with Flickr, to present photos of Humanities events around the state, and feels all services will work together.
I could write more, but it’s a better idea to check it out Humanities Montana’s Ning network yourself at humanitiesmontana.ning.com and join in. Or search for other networks in Montana or start up your own at ning.com.