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Engaging Your Community (33)

Also called "The Social Media Scientist", Dan Zarrella shares boatloads of useful advice to help others achieve social media success.

His latest blog post was as fascinating as the finding he published The Science of Retweets. In today's post, he states that articles published/shared on Facebook in the course of the weekend are shared A LOT MORE than articles posted in the course of the week.

It kinda makes sense, if you come to think of it. Besides the reason Dan shares (that so many companies block Facebook to help with productivity), the weekend is also the time when we slow down, so we may catch up on the latest in the lives of our Facebook friends.

Anyway... just thought I'd share this useful post with you all, in the wake of the recent update to our networks integrating them with Facebook more.

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I created nearly two years ago as a means for young adults to connect with their neighborhood. During this time, the site has become the most trafficked in the entire borough of Queens and one of the most heavily trafficked in all of New York City. Members have made countless new friends, businesses have prospered, and as we approach our second birthday and 4,000th member, our page rank keeps getting better and better.

However, we've now grown to a point where we have an exceptionally deep penetration into the target market of 25-35 year olds in Astoria. So now the challenge has become, rather than making the network bigger and not necessarily serve our target market as well as we could, lets make it better. In case you're curious, to us, better means:
1) More time spent on the site by users
2) More traffic via search (both of these equating to more advertiser dollars)

Over the course of the last two years, moderately tech savvy businesses have created user profiles for their restaurants, boutiques, dog walking services, etc. However, the issue here is, standard profiles often don't adequately address the needs of a brick-and-morter business.

Additionally, there is no effective way to filter or categorize proprietors from standard users in a generic site search. This is why I have created a new ranked business directory that will help my users identify the best establishments that meet their needs.

It's been a major challenge integrating this functionality into Ning--as the API can be a little frustrating at times when trying to access dynamic content and pull user information. However, after a year of planning (and mostly failing) my small development team and I were able to roll out a creative solution to allow users to create Business Pages featuring dynamic data pulled from my site, while still maintaining a direct URL that can be crawled by Google and deeply linked from other sources.

The first challenge to overcome here was creating a way to determine the logged in user. Once we could identify the user, we then needed to create the ability for them to build a new page on my Ning network. Once this functionality was created, we built in the ability for someone to become a fan of a page--giving us a database of users. Next, we built a form that could be embedded in an iframe that will allow the user to input a business name, address, photos, category, tags, and various other parameters. We also built in a conflict detector that will determine if a similar business is already in the directory. Once the information is submitted, it's sent to my database which then runs a chron job to post the new page to Ning.

Once a new page is created, users are able to rate and review any establishment, become a fan, add a tag, submit photos, request an edit, and even use the default Ning sharing utility to reach beyond the Ningosphere!

Now, business owners logged in as members of the site are able to "Claim this business", giving them the ability to attach their RSS feed to the business page (Twitter, blog, whatever), correspond with the page's fans, and view some simplified page metrics.

Coming up:

  • When a member becomes a fan of a page, we know they like the business. When they rate an establishment four or five stars, we know they like it, too. This gives us the ability to make recommendations of other establishments they should also consider--based on peer review.
  • Members of my site have actual membership cards that feature a magnetic stripe on the back uniquely identifying each person. When they make a purchase at a partner business in Astoria, the proprietor swipes the card--which hits my database to determine who the cardholder is, allowing the proprietor to issue a discount and us to track offline user activity. The discounts accrued over time (and nights spent on the town) are stored in my database and will be displayed on business and member pages--allowing our community to find out where was last night's most popular venue and also which members are saving the most money by staying local.
  • Since we know certain categories and tags for business pages, we can target page advertisements to keywords like "brunch" or umbrella categories like "Restaurants"--giving us a much deeper ad inventory. Additionally, businesses we choose to feature will appear more prominently in search results and be recommended more highly in the suggestions.

The directory is still very much a work in progress, but was a very important first step in our growth--as now users will be maintaining and growing the site while we focus on making it better.

We launched this new feature on Friday and by Sunday had over 150 new pages submitted by users. In the last week, we've seen an approximately 50% increase in pageviews and anticipate this will continue to climb as more pages get indexed. This was a big win for my network and I look forward to adding even more creative solutions like this throughout the spring and summer.

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Growing a Ning Network by populating it with lots of members is often considered to be the Holy Grail for many Network Creators. As a result, we see Ning Networks that are so excited to grow — and grow quickly — that their invitation lists more closely resemble the population of a small country. But, as the saying goes, it’s about quality not quantity. The key to building a vibrant Ning Network is to attract people that will love to be part of it and regularly contribute. Think before you hit send; are these invitees likely to be active, engaged members? That’s why it’s important to invite the right connections and friends that share your passion. To reach them, we’re highlighting four simple ways to best share with and invite the people that can make your Ning Network stellar.

1. Be choosy

We give you an easy way to invite friends and family by importing your email address book from Gmail, Yahoo, AOL and Hotmail. While you may be tempted to invite all of your email contacts, it’s also important to appeal to the people you think will most enjoy jumping on the bandwagon. Sometimes, it pays to be choosy; otherwise you might accidentally invite your vegetarian friend to join the Griller’s Index.

2. Leverage your online presence

If you’d like to invite your friends from Facebook and Twitter, or include an invite on your blog, you can post or send an invitation link to join. This link will send them directly to your Ning Network’s sign up page. To grab this link, go to the Manage page and select Privacy. At the bottom of the Privacy page, copy the invitation link and share it wherever you have a web presence.

3. Personalize your invitation

Adding a personal note to a friend or highlighting your favorite part of the social network gives more context to any invitation. You can also include links to interesting things posted by members, which fosters engagement within your Ning Network.

4. Share what matters most to you

Your Ning Network might have hundreds of photos and videos posted by you and other members. Sharing the content that matters most to you is likely also meaningful to your connections and real-world friends. Look for the Share link available on most pages to spotlight compelling content through email or posts to online services like Digg. As we just announced, if you have Facebook and/or Twitter integration set up on your Ning Network, you can share content on these sites in just two clicks! This is a great way to draw people back to content you think is fantastic and it’s a nice way to tip your hat to members contributing positively to your Ning Network.

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Ning Networks are "mini" Facebooks for different topics. They are social networks created around a central hobby, interest, lifestyle, etc... It's best to keep a "Facebook" attitude in mind when creating your network. In this post I'll show you the key steps to setting up and maintaining a thriving Ning network.

The Setup

  • Domain Name: The best domain name for your network is or Remember to also buy and have it automatically redirected to your domain name since this is a common misspelling. You must choose the option to use your own domain name or you lose all of your SEO efforts.
  • Theme: When you start out your ning site, pick a theme from the options Ning gives you and don't waste too much time customizing it. Pick something simple, that will not turn away visitors.
  • Colors: Feel free to change the colors of the site to match the branding of the site, but you most stick to these principles: Keep the background color white and the text color black on text heavy sections of the site (message board, forum, blog postings). Keep background colors light. For the tabs, make sure you have a good hover color so users know what they are scrolling over.
  • Tabs: This is one of the most important areas of setup. Limit the main level tabs to only 11 or less. Make efficient use of the sub tabs. Your most important tabs should be located on the far left of the top bar since that's where readers eyes naturally start first. Under the home tab, place the two subtabs titled subscribe in a reader, and sign up for daily email. It's important for members to keep connected with the site.
  • Keep the site open to the public. There's no faster way to stunt growth than to have a closed network.
  • Make the sign up process as easy as possible. Do not require a picture and do not require new members to answer 50 questions.
  • Nobody likes going to an empty party. Ask at least 10 friends to join your network in the beginning. Create a few fake profiles and get the activity going. But, as soon as you reach 60-70 members delete all the fake profile accounts.
  • Only have the forum function. Do not have both forums, blogs, and groups in the beginning of your site. This will confuse visitors and spread the user generated content too thinly around your site.
  • Find relevant videos on YouTube and place them on your site. Make sure the titles of the video are optimized for search engines. This is a great way to bring in long tail traffic with little effort.

Making Your Network Go Viral

  • The best way to spread your network is through efficient use of the Invite Tab within Ning. This tab allows users to invite their contacts through Gmail, Hotmail, and Outlook. This tab should be displayed prominently. You will see the best conversion rates on visitors invited by members of the forum. People hate receiving spam, so when members use the invite tab to invite friends and family, they will most likely only invite those they know would have an interest in the site.
  • You must incentivize users to use the invite tab. Throw a contest. Your first contest should be for a prize between $20 and $30. Make sure you get a photo of the person who won the contest to display next time you run another contest as proof that you actually give out a prize. Once members see that there is cash to be made by inviting friends they will participate.
  • Your second contest should include three prizes. This will encourage the fence sitters who think they have nothing to win. Once this contest is over, post how many invites each winner sent so that your community knows what it takes to win.
  • Enable both the share and twitter tabs on your ning site. You must give people an easy way to spread the content around your network.
  • Link Building: find sites of similar interests and contact them about your new social network. Ask them to mention your network on their next email campaign and to give you a link from their site.
  • If you have an existing email lists, mention the network on your lists. Better yet, find other email lists that can mention your site. Email lists are one of the best ways to grow your site. The key here is to find a list that is relevant to your topic.
  • Google AdWords is another strategy to implement. You can have ads show up whenever someone Google's keywords related to your ning site.

The Care and Feeding of Members

  • Initially you want to welcome each member with a comment on their profile. You can easily make a template to use over and over again. Make sure to add a personal note to the comment. You should include links to change their profile, invite new friends, new member guide, and other useful pages on your site.
  • If members post in the wrong place in the forum send them a private message showing them the correct place to post things.
  • Feature members who have a profile photo.

Social Media Integration

  • Include Facebook and Twitter buttons on the sidebars so that members can interact with your network on those sites.
  • Creation of a Facebook fan page is a must for your network. This will help spread the word about your network faster than any other social media tool.

Broadcast Message Basics

  • The broadcast message serves two functions: Update members about your site, and bring them back to your site.
  • Send no more than 2 broadcast messages a month.
  • The top section of your broadcast message should highlight the most popular discussion in your forum.
  • Feature an interesting blog post.
  • Make the message short and to the point.
  • Include pictures if possible (show a photo of the latest contest winner)
  • At the end of each message always remind members to add a profile photo and to invite other members so the site.

Home Page Layout

  • Home page layout can make or break your Ning site.
  • Create a home page layout that is very simple and easy to understand.
  • Have a sidebar on the left, main content in the middle and a sidebar on the right.
  • Left Sidebar Setup
  • Show 3 rows of members in the top left most sidebars. This is one of the first places people will look when they come to your ning site. Make sure the profiles featured here have good pictures.
  • Below members, have the latest activity showing the last 12 items. Select the following items under display preferences: new items, new comments on items, status updates, ning apps activity. Select profile photos under "Profile Photo Latest Activity Displays"
  • Place a medium sized badge underneath the latest activity feed. This will allow those with blogs to showcase their membership.
  • Main Content Setup
  • Have a short text box welcome message with a link to your new member's guide.
  • Underneath this box place the forum. The forum should be visible "above the fold". On the main page edit the forum to display "Discussions", "Titles Only", "Newest Discussions", "10 Items". Under the manage tab be sure to select "Latest Discussions by Category" under the "Main Forum Page Style" This setup is key to encouraging members to participate in the forum.
  • Place blog posts underneath the forum. On the main page select "Detailed View" "Featured" "4 posts". Your blog posts will be filtered more than your forum, this is why you want the detailed view. Give your visitors a paragraph or two of what the blog posts is about. That way they're more likely to click on it.
  • Right Sidebar Setup
  • Place a text box titled Subscribe and put links to the invite friends feature, facebook fan page, RSS subscription, and email subscription
  • Place 3 featured videos below this box. This gives the site some nice graphics on the side and encourages visitors to stay and watch some videos.
  • Place an RSS feed with news items from your industry or hobby.

Forum Layout

  • A good forum layout is key to engaging your visitors and members.
  • In the beginning of your site, you should have no more than four categories
  • Under discussion style select "Flat: replies are shown in Chronological order"
  • The most popular categories should be placed at the top of the forum page.

Blogging Setup

  • The blogging should be reserved for premium content.
  • Under feature controls, select "Approve blog posts before they appear"
  • Only use the blog to display content that is well written and approved by you. The forum is the playground of the novice. The blog is for the expert.

Tabs Best Practices

  • Tab setup is key for a successful ning site.
  • Limit the amount of tabs to 11 or less, and limit the amount of subtabs on a single main tab to 6 or less.
  • The most important tabs are on the far left, these are the tabs that visitors will see first.
  • Under the home tab, add the following sub tabs: Subscribe in a Reader, Sign up for Daily Email
  • My Page: Inbox, Edit Profile Settings, Change Profile Picture
  • Forum: List all forum categories then popular contributors, add a discussion
  • Videos: Top Rates, Most Popular, Add a Video (this should link to the add a video from Youtube page)
  • Members: Members near me, search for members, member map
  • About Us: New Member Guide, Privacy Policy, Facebook Fan Page
  • Blog: Names of Featured Bloggers, Submit a Blog Post

Insider Tips

  • Sending the broadcast message at least twice a month (and no more) is imperative to encourage participation in the community.
  • Keep the entire site open. This will increase visits from search engines.
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Take 1:
One night, you go to a party in a place you haven't been to before. You enter the house and everybody is going about their business... you go in, have a drink get some food and still nobody talks to you... eventually, you leave.

Take 2:
One night, you go to a party in a place you haven't been to before. You enter and, no sooner have you finished opening the door you are greeted by someone, bidding you welcome! You are shown where things are (not that you couldn't find the food or the drinks by yourself, but you get the idea...)

Which party would be more memorable to you?
I hope you answered "2". :)

This is the basics of the idea behind treating your members as guests in a party where you are the guest. While your network is small, this is a task that you should do yourself.

There are some networks that are well over 10,000 members in size and still the network creator takes it upon him/herself to greet every new member, but there's a chance this may become a bit overwhelming. So, in cases like these, I am going to recommend you set up a group of members to help you with the task.

On TuDiabetes (and EsTuDiabetes) we created a Welcome Committee (which later evolved into the Care Team). Nowadays, it's a group of 122 members who take turns to greet new members, show them the link to the Welcome Center (we call it the New Member Guide) and answer any immediate questions they may have. The group has evolved into a team that comes to the "rescue" if any of our members seem like they are in need of extra support (since ours is a network for people touched by diabetes, health issues appear left and right).

Typically, members will feel welcomed AND grateful to have entered a space where they were not only alone (clearly in the first party you were not alone, were you?) but they didn't FEEL alone, which is VERY important!

Here is a video we did inviting people to join in the Welcome Committee and telling them how to go about welcoming new members:

Find more videos like this on TuDiabetes

P.S. As you will notice in the video, another way in which a Welcome Team can help you is by keeping an eye on new members.
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Thomas Knoll writes a brief but meaningful post with one simple tip: talk to your customers.

Now, I'd replace customers with members as it relates to Ning Creators, but the concept still stands. Specifically, Thomas points out the importance of finding out when and where your members are when using your Ning Network (product). And, what are they doing immediately before and after (ie, what triggers their visit)?

We've discussed the topic of when people visit your Ning Network here. It's important to think of this in context then - are your members at work, home or elsewhere? What else might they have, distracting them (perhaps rightly so) from your network? What sort of impact does this have on what content you are serving and when you first add it to your Ning Network?

To bring it back to his basic point, talk to your members to find out answers to these questions. It will help you be a better manager and potentially drive even more traffic!

Leave your thoughts on this below, including ideas on how and where to reach out to members!


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NC for Hire

I stumbled upon a very interesting type of content, today. I had a client request a custom design that is similar to This is not the first time I've received this request, by far. Beats the heck out of me, but a lot of people love the design. I think mostly, they can't see beyond the popularity of this particular site. I think they think, if I have a design like thisis50, I'll get a 1/2 million members, too. But, that's beside the point.

I took a long hard look at thisis50, longer than ever. In fact, I don't know that I've ever stayed on a Social Community Site outside of my own, and technical sites, than I did on thisis50. I simply could not stop reading, or watching videos. Not many sites could get away with their approach - - black, white, not. But, if you're clever enough, you could apply the same principle, with your content type in mind.

Here's one of the reasons the site is so popular, aside from the fact that it is the one and only: "thisis50", and beside the fact that it's filled with sexy male and female members, it's their content - - and the "style" of content that gets the traffic. Notice I used the word "style", not "type". Bottom line: A lot of the content is controversial, and drives "passion".

The team who administrates, obviously, on a daily basis - - do their homework. They post baiting and controversial content. And let me get controversial for a moment, in this blog posting. It's practically a breeding ground for heated discussions. To be politically correct, let's just say, a lot of the content is: "he said", "she said", "not".

Here's how it's done. Videos and Blog topics are posted that start HUGE topics of conversation - - fighting, yaya'ng, back/forth, competition, etc... If you apply the same principle, but with your topic of expertise, you will get more hits, and eventually more new traffic. I don't think the content has to spur "word wars". Just come up with content that is so enticing about your site topic, that your members feel compelled to react - - "react", the critical word, here. Make it the type of content that brings out the passion in your members - - whether it's about politics, activism, favorite authors, etc... Like I mentioned earlier, you're going to need to be clever about this.

Take these lessons, throw in a positive spin, based on this "proven" success story, and add interesting and compelling content!

And here's a fun note: I'll probably get reaction and passionate response to this blog. ;-)

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We recently concluded a very successful online survey of our members on our social network for people interested in finance and investing, and would like to share with other Ning creators why we did it, how we went about doing it, and what we learnt about our network.

Let's start off by explaining why we did it. We did it for the simple reason of wanting to get to our members better, and find ways to grow our network by understanding how to serve them better. While we were getting lots of qualitative feedback through constantly interacting with members who were active on the network on a one-to-one basis, we also wanted to reach out to the sizeable population of registered members and non-registered visitors who are less active in discussion forums and networking, but were still visiting our network regularly just to browse content.

How we went about doing it? We set up our survey using a 3rd party survey software provider. We used Survey Monkey as it met our needs best, but there are tons of other providers out there such as Survey Gizmo and Poll Daddy, to name a few, each offering their own online survey tools that you may find better and / or more suited to your situation.

We then set out an invitation to our members in our weekly newsletter (followed by a reminder email a couple of days later), but what really helped us drive responses was the incentive of a free ebook download, as well as a chance to win a small cash prize.

When we were done collating and analyzing the final results of the survey after we closed it, we also made a choice to publish the results to our members and the general public, as we felt that that was another way to communicate with our members and not ring-fence what was essentially our member's contribution and work.

Besides, as the survey results were generally positive, we also felt that publishing our results helped us in our marketing - it reinforced the credibility of our network as a place for like minded people to come to for authentic, unbiased and quality finance and investing content and interaction.

So what did we learn about our network and its members? A lot of the discussion posts on our forum were started by college students studying finance, which led us to initially believe that we should prioritize our attention and extend our out-reach programs further with the student audience. However our intuition and common sense always told us that there were probably lots more employed professionals than students out there who were interested in the finance and investing content we had to offer on our network.

Sure enough, we found from our survey that over 80% of our members were in full-time employment, and virtually all of them have a bachelor’s, graduate or professional degree. As a matter of fact, graduate or professional degree holders represent two thirds of the respondents. This finding dispeled notions that our network was only for students, and in fact reached out to a much broader professional audience.

Why was this happening? While younger students are the most active in the forum and are certainly the most visible part of our audience, it is clear that the significant bunch of older employed professionals out there were simply sitting back and silently observing all that was going on on our network. Taken in context with the qualitative feedback we’ve received, we guessed that it’s not a matter of all take and no give, but perhaps more a matter of familiarity with social media and the perennial issue of the time that our members could allocate from their busy lives to active social media participation on our niche network.

So that wraps up our post about how we conducted a successful online survey on our Ning network, and if you have comments or feedback to share, please leave a comment and I'll try to respond as soon as I can.

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Tom Humbarger has written a fascinating read on the importance of active management to the success of an online community.One of the most interesting sections to me is the Google Analytics snippet. We don't often get to compare our network metrics to others. In a year and a half, the group grew from 0 to 4,000 members, and in the final full year saw just under 200,000 pageviews.
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I had no idea, when I started my social network, it would turn out to be an almost full time job, requiring leadership without social networking experience, management like an offline organization and communication without any of the normal cues.I didn't anticipate the responsibility or time involved, or know what I expected to happen over time.
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