Ning passes 100,000 social networks

As I’ve previously discussed, my new company Ning exists to give everyone the ability to create your own social network for anything — in less than two minutes, for free — with the ability to customize your network any way you want.

Today we passed 100,000 social networks on Ning.

This chart shows the number of social networks on Ning since we rolled out the current version of our service earlier this year:

As you can see, 70,000 networks have been created in the last seven months alone!

What does it mean to have 100,000 social networks?

As you might expect, the 100,000 networks on Ning follow a power law curve for any metric you choose to apply: number of members, say, or number of page views.

Internally we think of the networks on Ning as falling into three buckets:

     

  • Big networks — the top, say, 200 networks at any point in time that each have a large number of members.
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  • Long tail networks — smaller networks with, by definition, more than 1 member but fewer members than the big networks — could be dozens, hundreds, or thousands of members.
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  • Throwaway networks — networks that were created, maybe have a few members, but are not being used.
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A couple of interesting things about those buckets:

First, we are not as dominated by big networks as you might think. In fact, well over half the page views on Ning are generated by networks other than the top 200 — the long tail is alive and well on Ning!

Second, it is our goal to have a meaningful number of throwaway, or unused, networks on Ning at any point in time. The whole point of Ning is ease of creation— how easy it is to create your own social network, and play with ideas around that concept.

Think of how easy it is to sign up for a Yahoo account — that’s how easy we want it to be to create your own social network on Ning, and a natural consequence of that is going to be a certain number of throwaway social networks, just like Yahoo has a certain number of throwaway user accounts.

This has been misunderstood by some otherwise very bright people, but think about it: what would be good about a service that’s so hard to use that there are no throwaway networks?

Third, they’re not static buckets — new networks pop into the first category regularly, older networks fall out of the first category into the second category, and sometimes networks that were created for a specific purpose (say, a fundraising drive) stop being used altogether. That is all good — even in the last case, those networks’ users have been introduced to Ning and many of them will go on to create their own networks for other purposes.

Why is number of networks a significant metric?

This rapid growth rate of number of networks is significant to us because the number of networks on Ning is the leading indicator for all of our other key usage metrics, including registered users, unique users, and page views — plus our key revenue metrics: advertising impressions and premium services fees.

This is because Ning is different than your typical social networking service.

On a typical social networking service, users join a single large social networkdesigned and run by the service’s owner. Users then invite other users to join that same single large network — this is the viral adoption loop by which the network grows.

On Ning, users both join existing user-created networks — one of the 100,000+ networks that already exist — and/or create their own networks. This is a double viral loop. Loop one is users being invited to join a network created on Ning. Loop two is some percentage of those users creating their own new networks and then inviting other people to join those new networks.

On Ning, these two viral loops feed one another: the more networks on Ning, the more users who are getting invited to join — and the more users who join, the more new networks that get created, leading to even more users being invited to join. And the loops repeat over and over again.

And as a result, the key driver of this whole dual viral adoption cycle is new networks being created — on average, existing networks continuously bring in new users over time, and those new users create new networks, which add to the base of existing networks bringing in new users, ad infinitum.

And in fact, although as a private company we are quite happily exercising our freedom to not publish all of our internal metrics, the ones we focus on are all growing nicely:

     

  • Page views are growing about 40% month over month — i.e., roughly doubling every two months. (Our internal definition of page view corresponds to the number of ad impressions we will be able to serve.)
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  • Registered users are growing as a big healthy multiple on the number of networks. This is despite the fact that Ning, unlike most other social networking services, does not require users to register in order to view most content. On Ning, you only have to register to participate directly in a network or to create your own network. (This is both because this is a friendlier model for users, and because we believe page views is the key revenue driver, not registered users.)
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  • Unique users are growing as an even bigger healthy multiple on the number of networks. (Because we don’t force registration to view content, our uniques as a multiple on registered users will be higher than many other services.)
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Digging into more specifics about the 100,000 social networks already created on Ning:

     

  • The networks on Ning range across an unbelievable spectrum. Here you can see a cross-section of the creative, vibrant networks that have been created on Ning over the last few months.

     

    We love this diversity because we’re building a broad-based horizontal service — and the more different topics people build networks around, the more diverse the group of people who will come and join and create their own networks.

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  • And to that point, the diversity of the user base on Ning is enormous. Some social networking systems start by appealing to a specific vertical — undergraduates, or Los Angeles club kids — and grow from there. Ning has been horizontal and diverse from the start. Kids to adults, many socioeconomic backgrounds, many levels of technological sophistication, many countries of origin.

     

    The theme is that there isn’t a theme — which we love, as confirmation of the universal appeal of this kind of service.

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  • Number of users per network is similarly across the board, from single digits to tens of thousands.
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  • As I’ve discussed previously, Ning is a platform that allows infinite customization of social networks that users create. On Ning, you can customize practically ever aspect of your network, from the look and feel and feature set if you’re a normal user, all the way down into the source code if you’re a programmer.

     

    As a consequence, the 100,000 networks on Ning span the gamut from completely uncustomized, to extensively customized, to completely reprogrammed.

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I’d like to close with a few general comments about where we’re at and what we’re doing.

First: interestingly, rapid growth of all of these metrics on Ning has coincided with the explosion of public interest around Facebook — as people learn about social networking on a system like Facebook, they get even more interested in creating their own social networks and engaging in targeted, topical social networks on Ning. Or, put more simply, the market is very large and growing fast — people love this stuff.

Second, without tooting our own horn too much, passing 100,000 networks and growing rapidly means that we’re the clear and overwhelming leader in the business of enabling people to create new social networks.

In particular, in the last several months there have been a number of companies announced that are in the business of providing so-called white-label social networks for businesses. Ning is different — we’re building a broad-based consumer service where anyone can create a new social network for anything, in less than two minutes, for free. The white-label services, in contrast, typically charge businesses tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars per network, and it takes a lot longer than two minutes to tilt them up once you pay the fee.

Ning’s success is going to make it very hard for these business-oriented white label services to exist. We already have a broader feature set and more customizability than all of the white label services that we know of, and that gap is likely to only get wider as the superior economics of our self-service consumer model let us develop more features and more platform capabilities faster than, and operate at much higher scale than, any white label service that has to acquire customers one at a time through an expensive direct sales effort.

Third, to make our service better and to ensure that everything I just said isn’t a load of hot air, we have an incredibly aggressive slate of product development projects ahead of us over the next 6-12 months. More on those shortly. We will in no way be standing still.