Free Ning No More: My Two Cents

Open letter to Jason Rosenthal, CEO of Ning and Marc Andreesen, Co-founder and Chairman of the Board of Ning

Jason, Marc:
I am directing this post at the two of you not in a personal way but as the visible heads leading Ning, a platform that has given network creators the tools to create and maintain millions of niche social networks.

Yesterday some of us learned of the announcement made by Ning about the 40% staff reduction and the elimination of free networks. In my case, I learned about this important decision through a tweet posted by a colleague network creator that linked to the TechCrunch article breaking the news.

I could dwell on how surprising it was to learn of such important news through others (not from Ning directly), especially after more than 3 years of using and telling others about the platform and its benefits; after having written Ning For Dummies; and being an active part of the recently created Network Creator Council program.

But I want to focus on what I think is most critical about this announcement. Two groups that I deeply care about that will be affected significantly by the decision to eliminate free networks are nonprofit networks in general and, more specifically, education networks. I was glad an update was posted addressing the concern voiced by many network creators in Education. But I am not clear yet as to what this will mean for all types of nonprofits.

It appears that nonprofits that currently pay for premium services will not have to worry too much about the change in Ning’s strategy. But I am wondering how many (thousands, perhaps) small nonprofits and grassroots groups will be unable to stick with Ning on the basis of cost. I am thinking of groups that run networks that fall in the “long tail”, well outside the 75% of your monthly US traffic generated by the tens of thousands “Premium Ning Networks” alluded to by Jason on his email to Ning employees.

Jason’s message went on to say “… those Network Creators need and will pay for many more services and features from us. So, we are going to change our strategy to devote 100% of our resources to building the winning product to capture this big opportunity.”

This language speaks of a service that is different from the concept that I first learned of three years ago: a service that empowered all people to create and discover social networks for their interests and passions. This language speaks of monetizing alone and leaves out the small groups trying to do good through Ning.

Just because something CAN be done (both, technically and legally) and because it makes business sense, doesn’t make it the RIGHT thing to do in the big scheme of things.

I know you have a fiduciary obligation to make the company profitable for the shareholders and you want to make sure the 98 employees remaining on staff can continue to keep their jobs for a long time. But I urge you to consider the impact your decision will have on the nonprofit space and ask you explore options comparable to initiatives like Google Grants, YouTube’s Nonprofit Program and the Salesforce Foundation so that the nonprofit groups that have been increasingly adopting Ning (while possibly buried in the long tail) will not be left to fend for themselves.

Don’t hesitate to let me know if you want any input in the coming weeks, as you prepare a more detailed plan to move forward.

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19 thoughts on “Free Ning No More: My Two Cents

  1. Manny (and Jason and Marc). I think there’s a way to monetize NING while making both investors and users happy. It may take creativity, and a re-focus on core values, but it can be done. Twitter is doing it with Promoted Tweets, which are sponsored organic tweets that Twitter users approve (or not). NING could do something as creative, I’m sure.

    Manny, you wrote, “But I am wondering how many (thousands, perhaps) small nonprofits and grassroots groups will be unable to stick with Ning on the basis of cost.” Low cost doesn’t have to be free, does it? Even with the premium services, NING is still much less expensive that say, a custom BuddyPress site.

    I love NING, and would hate to see someone like Google snatch it up. Can’t we all work together? :-)

  2. Thanks for this, Manny. What worries me most about the pay-only option, even if it isn’t a huge $ amount is that for many of the smaller, grassroots campaigns and groups that use Ning, there isn’t a one-and-only-one leader dynamic where there could be one person that would be paying and forth. We are the midst of change for community dynamics where people no longer need a director, a secretary and then a bunch of members. We can all be leaders and contributors to a network, a community, a movement. So the administrator on a group, at least groups I’m a part of is not one person, but a long list of people. Responsibilities are shared and actually change fairly frequently depending on capacity and availability. Requiring payment for all groups can definitely mean the end for many groups using Ning.

    But, like John said, I really hope those at Ning can take the next couple weeks to think a little and be a bit creative. Please.

  3. I agree with John that Ning is relatively inexpensive, but after working with nonprofits for the past seven years, sometimes ANY cost is too much.

    When you have to get every expense approved by a business manager who has no concept of the value Ning can bring to your organization, even $20 a month can be too much.

    A free option allows people to build something tangible that can be used to demonstrate Ning’s value.

    37Signal’s free version of Basecamp is a great example. It provides enough that anyone can use it effectively and demonstrate its value, but not enough that you would be happy using it in the long term.

    37Signlas has done a great job of restricting the right features to make the free version usable but unattractive for successful full time use. For us the feature was file uploads. Basecamp’s free plan doesn’t allow file uploads, so once we proved it was useful at all we upgraded.

    I would expect Ning can figure out what that feature is that people are willing to do without until they are successful. And I’m sure there is a large nonprofit community that could provide real world guidance about what that might be.

  4. Jacob – great point! I think there are lots of examples of free-leads-to-paid services. Like Basecamp, there’s also the example of Huddle, which limits project spaces so you can have three for free but once you’re going crazy with it (or enterprise with it may be a better term) you have to pay (but it is still not a lot).

    I think it’s a great point and really would be interested/willing as a Ning community member and creator to participate in some conversations and brainstorms to find a way to balance services and other options to ensure a free version is still there.

  5. Thanks for this thoughtful response to Ning’s surprising change in strategy. I really hope that they’ll find a way to balance their (understandable) need to remain profitable with the ability to keep a free plan available to nonprofits and educators. Although there are many organizations who won’t think twice about paying a monthly fee to keep their Ning community alive, even a nominal fee can be too much for a number of very important grassroots organizations. Ultimately, I think that it’s up to us to let Ning know just how important their free service is to our community. In an effort to speak with one voice, I’ve added a petition at change.org ( http://bit.ly/dw7HSN ) and posted the link to our twitter account. I hope that others will join me in asking Ning to make an exception for those of us working hard for the greater good.

  6. I wonder if perhaps Ning might consider letting the non-profits continue and treating the premiums that would normally be paid as a charitable contribution. Makes Ning look good and could offer them some tax benefits

  7. As the leader of a small nonprofit running entirely on Ning, I was a tad freaked out yesterday by Ning’s announcement. And though not nearly as in the Ning thick of it as you are Manny, I have been there since there were only 1500 networks, and felt a real sense of betrayal at what seemed like a tectonic cultural shift in an unhappy direction.

    That said, it has caused me to reconsider the wisdom of parking so much effort and content in a place from which I cannot export easily. Much as I love Ning and have a high level of comfort with the usability of the platform, this announcement has perhaps pointed out a fatal flaw in Ning – at least for me and possibly others.

    It’s not only the members that create value, it is all the content those members create and the evidence of the contributions they have made in comments, photographs, blog posts, etc. In my case, I now realize that I value my members and their contributions too highly to put their hard volunteer work at the whim of a corporation whose core mission does not jibe with mine.

    This is not to say I’ll be moving us soon. Much depends on how Ning evolves. But if the new version does not include, with its premium options, complete exportability of content, I am going to be in the market for other options. Hey, maybe we should start one last free Ning network called “Not Ning: Options in Social Networking”!

  8. Dear Jason, Marc:
    I couldn’t agree more. I am the Founder of a very active Ning Community that serves as a directory, and specializes in assisting fellow Ning Network Creators. I also play an active role with Ning Networks overall, including the Ning Creator site, and asked to join the Ning Creator Council. I have already answered 200+ emails in regards to this announcement, fielding questions, chat, IM, and started a special discussion between Network Creators.

    I certainly understand the need for monetization and moving forward. But I do feel this can be handled in a more approachable and creative manner. It’s not too late, to do this right. So, I too, urge you to reconsider the method of how this handled, especially with non-profits, and the grassroots sites that helped build your name.

    I run premium sites, and see both sides of this. Regardless of how it effects my business, I have great compassion for the shock of it all. I certainly see the value of this for our premium sites, moving forward. And quite frankly, this is what I thought I was buying into. In the beginning I did not care for the “free” within my “premium”. But, I don’t think it’s a valuable idea to “take free back” – - not this way at least.

    My main concern is for non-profits, such as those that deal with disabilities, support groups, victims of violence, victims of abuse, cancer awareness sites, educational sites, environmental sites, and sites that have given many people, a new lease on life…

    So, there you go – - my-two-cents. :-)
    Best Regards,
    Jen

    Thank you for writing this letter, Manny.

  9. Totally agree with most comments.
    (… , it has caused me to reconsider the wisdom of parking so much effort and content in a place from which I cannot export easily. Much as I love Ning and have a high level of comfort with the usability of the platform, this announcement has perhaps pointed out a fatal flaw in Ning – at least for me and possibly others. ) Yes, that is me, right there! :)

    Even though the some of the premium services for Ning are relatively inexpensive right now, they are saying that price will double very soon… so that is not something we can count on, I think…

    Also, for networks where their creator lives in other country… like Venezuela, even if it is a very small amount of $$$ it may represent a huge challenge to pay a small fee to keep your existing network running, because of currency control issues.

    Let’s sing the petition! Ning has been a tool that empowers people… no matter where you come from, or how much you have in your pocket… let that be the case if you want to change the world and make it a better place, it it be free!

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  11. Lastnight and today, each time I remember that Ning is trying to kill off the small nonprofit networks, I get depressed. I run two tiny little networks that must take up very little of Ning’s resources or server space. Surely the cost of hosting them is just a small fraction of the $120 (or $240, or more) that Ning is now going to require. Why not come up with an entry-level cost, let’s say just $10 or so per year for networks with fewer than 100 members and no blogs…or something? Or why not find more advertisers — on all the free nings, purchases ought to lead to commissions at Ning, right?

  12. As a Network Creator, guide on Creators.ning.com, and member of the Ning Creators Council, what I’ve enjoy most is the sense of community between and among fellow creators and Ning staff. We’re like extended family!

    While I understand and appreciate the business logic of this move, as a family, we must ensure everyone is cared for.

    Manny’s suggestion of exploring options comparable to initiatives like Google Grants, YouTube’s Nonprofit Program and the Salesforce Foundation is where we need to look. Jacob’s recommendation of 37signals free basecamp model also makes sense. Offer a network without groups, forums, events, photo’s and videos.

    A solution for helping small non-profits cover premiums would be to create a feature that makes it possible members to contribute small amounts like $1 per year to cover the costs of the premium services. This would remove the burden falling on one person. And yes, low cost does not have to be free – give us a tool to cover the low cost and we will!

    I do however feel strongly that given this surprise move, that if a creator chooses not to pay for premium services, the ability to export content must be made available. It’s a matter of integrity.

    Jason and Mark, as you move forward you can count on us to roll our sleeves up as we love and Ning and want you to be profitable and continue to provide us with the awesome platform. In return, we ask you to do the right thing, honor the culture and expectations you’ve set and ensure those are doing the good work, in service to others, may continue to do so.

    Joseph Porcelli
    http://www.neighborsforneighbors.org
    http://www.josephporcelli.com
    http://www.mugproject.com
    http://www.nametagproject.com

  13. I have been following this debate with interest because for nearly 2 years I have been a strong opponent of Ning.
    I came to the internet reasonably recently and only really know of Social Media.
    Social Media is Twitter, Facebook, Buzz and You Tube.
    Anything outside this is not conversational so is not social and is not media as it does little or no promotion for what you are doing.
    These 4 platforms are the INternet.Everything else is the OUTernet

    3 years ago I joined an organisation called XL Results Foundation
    Over 3000 of us paid around $10,000 for a life membership and the idea was that we would work together to eradicate poverty and hunger in alliance with the UN Millenium goals.
    The organisation originally had an extremely expensive website but it was unwieldly so we left that and gravitated towards Facebook around 2 years ago.
    A few and not many at all members complained because they wanted privacy and did not like Facebook.
    18 months ago and to my absolute horror a Ning site was started.At that time we were growing rapidly and drawing many of our friends into discussions and events on Facebook.
    Almost immediately I watched the organisation begin to die as no one saw any of our conversations from then on.All charities or groups are going to have attrition of members.
    There was fervent daily discussion among hundreds of daily visitors for the first few months and literally hundreds of groups started
    I was extremely outspoken and predicted death of XL within a year if the Ning site was not removed. Now around 2 or 3 people a week discuss anything at all on the Ning site.XL is for all intents and purposes dead and from having regular monthly meetings in over 50 cities in over 30 countries there is I do not think anything happening any longer
    We removed ourselves from the conversation.We were at the party but in a separate room only talking to ourselves.
    For the sake of a few members wanting to be more comfortable.

    If there are some things your organisation really need to discuss in private (I cannot imagine what that might be) I suggest that you use http://www.huddle.net.
    Otherwise stay as far away from platforms like Ning as you can

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  15. Right now, Ning is focusing on survival; philanthropy is probably not prominent on their hierarchy of need right now. This is likely what has led them to make their announcement with a seeming disregard for some of the communities they serve. Fortunately, Manny and others like him will remind them that they could have done a better job of communicating their plans and what the results will mean to their stakeholders. We can all hope that when they do remember, they reach out to the nonprofit communities to find a creative way to ease the pain.

    My experience is that online services either find a way to monetize or disappear entirely. Because online life – like financial life for small nonprofits – has only minute-to-minute stability, a social media Plan B is a necessity. When you’re wrapped up in your mission, this can be difficult to find time for. It usually comes back to the short-term and long-term. You can give up (or procrastinate) on long-term planning in favour of serving the need short-term, or you can take time away from serving the need to ensure that you’re still around in the long-term. Balancing your short and long-term commitments can be difficult when one’s heart is involved so deeply in the mission, but it’s worthwhile and necessary, even in social media.

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