Episode 46: Gina Bianchini, Ning CEO on Top Tips for Attracting Members to Social Networks, Viral Expansion Loops and Listener Love
Gina ("bee-yon-kini") has recently rocked the social media world with the valuation she's created ($60 mil on a $500 mil pre) at Ning. A white label social network platform, Ning has over a quarter of a million implementations ranging from "Hip Hop Is Us" to "Powerful Intentions: The Law of Attraction," taking long-tail passions to a whole new level of interaction. A number of these groups sport members over 100,000 strong!
DishyMix listeners sent in nearly 50 questions in a single day for Susan to pose to Gina in this interview. This episode is dedicated to the active DishyMix audience who want to know about the Ning platform, monetization, how to create a successful network, the enterprise space and of course, personal questions about Gina.*
On this eipsode, Gina describes the power of "viral expansion loops," how best to attract members to a social network, social media monetization and how she handles being called a "high tech hottie."
Tune in to learn more about this recent Fast Company magazine cover story CEO.
*Gina shares her Chicken Fajita recipe (the magic is in the marinade) and a list of developers who specialize in business integration of the Ning platform on the DishyMix blog at dishymix.com.
Susan Bratton: Welcome to “Dishy Mix”. I am your host Susan Bratton. And on today’s show I have someone you all have been waiting to here from. Gina Bianchini is the co-founder and CEO of a company called Ning.
Ning is a very hot company. They create a platform for creating your own social network on any subject that you love. They are having amazing success.
And after months of being very patients with Gina’s schedule I actually got an opportunity to talk to her on the show today.
Gina Bianchini: The way we look at virility or viral expansion is; the ability for a social network in this particular case to propagate itself.
I would say one of the key success factors of a social network is a strong network creator.
We look at it from the perspective of; is this an active valuable network to the people who belong to it. And that is really our definition of the success of a network.
It hits a certain point where it is, somewhere between 250,000 and 60 million , where it is such a generic experience or it is just so big that it is overwhelming that people want to find something that is smaller and a little bit more manageable.
We generally speaking are not looking to create a walled garden. We are really looking to create something that is valuable to people and certainly is possible and certainly evolves over time.
Susan Bratton: Welcome Gina.
Gina Bianchini: Hi. Thanks for having me.
Susan Bratton: It is my pleasure. I know how busy you are.
So I just want to let our listeners know a little bit about your background. People are very aware I am sure of Ning and the fact that you are the CEO. You were just on the cover of Fast Company with a terrific article, a hell of a puff piece. I love that.
But before that, you have been in the business a long time. You were the co-founder of another company the president of Harmonic Communications, which was acquired by Densu. You also worked at CKS Group, so back in the day at CKS, Goldman, and Saks.
You got your BA and MBA from Stanford.
So I just wanted to- before we got into Ning- understand what Harmonic Communications was.
Gina Bianchini: Sure.
We provided advertising agencies and large advertisers and marketers a way to track, measure, and optimize their advertising and marketing spend. We started the company in March of 2000, which was probably not the optimal time to start a marketing and optimization advertising company. And we ultimately sold it to Denzu. It was a fantastic experience.
Susan Bratton: Well absolutely. Anytime you are and entrepreneur in the down years it is a really good opportunity.
And what kind of positions did you have at CKS? Which is an ad agency and web development and interactive media organization.
Gina Bianchini: I ran corporate development. So I ran all the acquisitions, equity investments, new business unit developments for CKS.
Susan Bratton: So you worked for Mark.
Gina Bianchini: I worked for Mark.
Susan Bratton: Mark Kwame. Absolutely! Terrific! Know him well and for many years. So that is good.
So you really have a very deeply grounded background in corporate development, entrepreneurial work, and in the advertising world.
Gina Bianchini: Yes, advertising as in ads.
Susan Bratton: That is a good combination because it all goes together.
So normally on this show I have a lot of questions for you. And what happened yesterday was that I though you know so many people are so interested in what you are doing right now, you are really white hot, that I twittered and I said that, “Hey, I am interviewing Gina tomorrow. Does anybody have a question that they want me to ask her.” and I popped it up onto my LinkedIn answers page, as well.
Well I got, I would say, somewhere between probably between 35 and 50 questions. I didn’t count them up, but in 24 hours my in box was flooded with questions.
Gina Bianchini: Wow!
Susan Bratton: So “Dishy Mix” listeners have an agenda Gina. And we are going to honor that today.
Gina Bianchini: Wonderful!
Susan Bratton: So I am pushing my questions aside in the hopes that we will be able to satisfy my audience and the questions they have because they were excellent questions. I mean it is a very sophisticated audience. It is the intersection of advertising and technology.
So I am going to start with that. And some of the things we are going to talk about today are: attracting people to social networks, people were very interested in that; of course, viral expansion loops; what it is like to be a high tech hottie, because there were a lot of questions about that; social media monetization, which was a big big big category; and in general things like “Hip Hop is Us”, so some of the social networks themselves.
So let’s start with our first question, the very first thing that I want to ask you.
So Betty Thomas from former TBW “Shy of Day” at Grade Agency wants to know your definition of the viral expansion loop. We will start with that and then he actually has another question about revenue.
Gina Bianchini: The way we look at virility or viral expansion is the ability for a social network in this particular case to propagate itself basically by its creation and a small group of people using it and then they go out to their networks, bring people in, those networks go out and bring other people in, and it just continues and propagates itself.
Susan Bratton: What is the rule of thumb on that? What do you see in aggregate across all of your networks? Let’s just talk about generation one, person number one. I join a network, like Beach Walks TV has a Ning based implementation. I represent Beach Walks, which is a daily video show. They have a Ning implementation called The Reef. I join that. What’s my rule of thumb as someone who is doing a social network implementation? How many people will I bring in? Then how many people will they bring in? And over what period of time?
Gina Bianchini: It absolutely depends on the network. But generally speaking, I would say one of the key success factors of a social network is a strong network creator. So if you even look back to Tom Anderson and Christa Wolf at MySpace or Mark Zuckerberg at FaceBook it starts with one person and a social network can get very very big all by the initial work of one individual.
That is certainly something we have seen that a network creator – That is the term that we use certainly in the context of Ning. – comes in creates a network, invites their initial group, really sort of works the small group to find the right content and find the right sort of voice, the right brand, and then from there blow it out.
In terms of a rule of thumb on the numbers it really does depend on the network. We have very large networks, relatively small networks, and everything in between.
Susan Bratton: What is large to you?
Gina Bianchini: Large today on the Ning platform is over 150,000 people.
Susan Bratton: I would imagine that in those larger networks… in the over 100,000 person network, what are you seeing as the typical viral expansion loop? Generation one person, how many people are they typically bringing in in that scenario?
Gina Bianchini: In the context of 150,000 or above?
Susan Bratton: Yeah, or 100,000 and above. Yeah.
Gina Bianchini: At that point there really needs to be something that people are organizing around. There is something called the Dunbar Effect , which is over 150 people people can’t necessarily…There is no longer a natural organizational mechanism.
Networks under 150 people tend to be able to expand very naturally. Over 150,000 it is typically around something. So in our case, on Ning there is a social network for Fifty Cent and he has a very, sort of strong brand, sort of strong purpose for being there, then that drives the additional growth.
Susan Bratton: Okay.
I was looking at some of the popular networks on the site today: I mentioned “Hip Hop is Us”; “Hash Space: A Drinking Club With a Running Problem”; of course, Barry Manilow’s “My Manilow Network”; “Go Mighty Eagles!” from the Willowridge High School in Houston Texas. It is a really nice range of people that are developing.
How many unique social networks that have at least 50 people are on Ning today?
Gina Bianchini: Over 70% of our networks are active and that is sort of the metric that we use. That means that they have been used in the last 3o days alone. So we don’t look at it as networks over 50 people or networks over 12 people. We look at it from the perspective of, is this an active valuable network to the people who belong to it. That is really our definition of success of a network.
Susan Bratton: Todd Taskey, who is with Potomac Business Capital, he asked, “What are the most interesting and successful networks doing to attract members?” You said the first thing is a strong network creator. What are some of the other rules for creating a successful network?
Gina Bianchini: The number one thing we see across networks in terms of their success is authenticity. It sounds weird but it is not. It fundamentally is really hard to be a sure way to to a successful social network. People want to see passion and share that passion with other people who are passionate about that particular topic. So from our perspective, the thing that we sort of see across the board is someone comes to Ning, creates a really unique social network for the things they care about in the way that they care about it.
So one of the things that is probably a controversial statement but I really don’t believe in sort of vertical websites of the golf.com variety as a really key way that people want to organize and communicate in the context of social networks. The reason for that is the way people organize organically from the ground up. At least from what we have seen from the 260,000 social networks on Ning is really pretty unique. Like you wouldn’t think, oh yeah, that makes perfect sense that somebody wants to have the Southwest Arizona Cactus Heads Social Network for Golf Fanatics. But that is the way that people want to organize. They want their own chooses and their own unique organic ways.
So authenticity is by far one of the most successful things that we have seen in social networks. The other things are all sort of the regular blocking and tackling of creating a great experience namely: a nice brand, a very nice looking social network, nice content, interesting people, people who are active on the network in the sense that they have uploaded photos and they have contributed profile answers, and it is just vibrant, active and alive.
Susan Bratton: We are going to take a break. But one more question before we go. Thank you for that. It is interesting to that you lead with authenticity because my guest next week is Joe Pine the co- author of a book called “Authenticity”.
Gina Bianchini: That is great.
Susan Bratton: It is a big buzz word in the world of marketing today.
We are going to talk more about how you can actually be authentic. What is the litmus test for authenticity? We will build on that next week.
Gina Bianchini: Wonderful!
Susan Bratton: Debbie Richmond on Clarity wants to know if there are any natural limits for social networks. You mentioned the Dunbar Effect. What other limits are there? Or is it simply unlimited.
Gina Bianchini: I don’t think that it is unlimited. I think that one of the things that you see when a MySpace or a FaceBook get to two to three percent of the total internet traffic is that they start to sort of flatten out. In part because at a certain point in time you are not a member of an exclusive club it is sort of a general one size fits all experience.
And what people want, at least on some level- and we have seen this in the data that we have across networks- is as long as it is something that they feel that they are a part of something unique it continues to grow. It hits a certain point where- and it is somewhere between 250,00 and 60 million- where it is such a generic experience or it is just so big that it is overwhelming, that people want to find something that is smaller and a little bit more manageable.
I was speaking with someone and they describe it as, you go to an event at a stadium every night or occasionally you want to go to a great event stadium concert but you also want to mix it up with some small dinner parties, or a larger party, or getting together with friends for dinner. It is really those different experiences that I certainly believe, that social networks can accommodate online when people have the freedom to create their own social networks for anything.
Susan Bratton: We are going to go to a break. But one of the things that I wanted to let you know that is in all these questions that I got from “Dishy Mix” listeners, so many people were giving you kudos and saying wonderful things. For example, Jay Barclay of Ejay Design wrote, “Gina has been incredibly supportive for Ning developers and often answers her phone at 2 am. She is very inspiring.” Isn’t that sweet?
Gina Bianchini: Oh, that makes my day.
Susan Bratton: Oh yeah, I have got a lot of love for you in all of these. I will make sure that you get all the questions because people were in general, actually across the board, unbelievably happy with you, with the support of the company. They love you. It is always really nice to have that great feed back in addition to the questions.
Gina Bianchini: It is wonderful and it is humbling. Thank you very much.
Susan Bratton: Well you are in service to them and they can tell.
So we are going to take a break. Just before we do I want to remind you to take my listeners survey. If you are listening today I would love to know more about you. It is anonymous. It takes less than five minutes. You can go to the “Dishy Mix” blog at dishymix.com and you can see an ad on the left column that says listener’s survey. Just click on that and take a second and help me out because that helps me, of course, support my sponsors of my show.
Speaking of sponsors we are going to go to a commercial break and you are going to hear who supports “Dishy Mix”, right now.
Susan Bratton: We are back. I am your host Susan Bratton. I am with Gina Bianchini the founder and CEO of Ning the hottest growing social network platform in the industry. I want to let you know that Gina has given us some goodies for “Dishy Mix” listeners. I have a “Dishy Mix: FaceBook fan club and if you are part of my fan club you can just go on FaceBook, search for “Dishy Mix”, and join as a fan. All you get is goodies, goodness, freebies, and love. Today Gina is providing the goodies and the love by giving me an assortment of Ning tchachkies and paraphernalia. All you need to do is join the FaceBook fan club for “Dishy Mix”, post a comment of any kind and you may be selected to win a t-shirt, a mug, or some kind of fun Ning shwag.
Gina thank you so much for that. I appreciate it.
All right, I want to get to some more questions. The first one…Now we are going to go into monetization strategies. The first one is from Tim Fondrick. He is with Outstanding Basketball. And what he says is he would like you to talk about monetization strategies for niche social networks. Are you at Ning going to be offering the opportunity for paid membership or different levels of membership in the future?
Gina Bianchini: We absolutely plan to do that. Today we don’t have that in place. Although, you can actually set it up because you have full control over your network and you can program it to do anything you want. So creating a private network, adding a PayPal integration and you are off to the races. Although, that is probably easier said then done for the vast majority of people. But yes, we are absolutely planning on adding the option to roll out subscriptions, the option for paid membership of a network, and a number of other things that we’re planning on doing that will not only help our network creators generate social money from their social networks but certainly will make for a much more enhanced experience on the social networks on Ning as well.
Susan Bratton: Is there a blog or a newsletter or anything for developers where people can go to find out what the product road map will be?
Gina Bianchini: We actually post on the Ning blog,
Susan Bratton: Okay, Ning blog.
Gina Bianchini: which is blog.ning.com. We also have a network creator social network. We are eating our own dog food and there is about 11,000 -12,000 people on our network creators.ning.com.
And so those are place where we preview upcoming features, changes that we are making, things along that line in both of those spots.
Susan Bratton: Good
Gina Bianchini: We will keep you posted there.
Susan Bratton: That is helpful, both those avenues.
And Tim says, overall he loves the Ning platform, it is very powerful, and he can’t wait to see where it is going.
Gina Bianchini: Oh, that is great.
Susan Bratton: Let’s move on to Eric Moore from “Where’s Your World?” He wants to when your website traffic became interesting for advertisers. How big did you have to be before you could really start monetizing the traffic?
Gina Bianchini: That is really a great question.
We actually just run Google ads today across the free service. So the way Ning works is that you can come and create a social network in less than a minute for free on our platform. For the free networks we reserve the right to run ads. Today we are using Google accents to run ads.
You also, as a network creator on Ning, have the option to take ads off or alternatively replace our ads with your own ads. That way you can either run your own Google accents, have your own ad network or own banner ads that you are running, or even sell a sponsorship for your social network and allow a sponsor to take over the support and branding of your particular network.
Susan Bratton: How many uniques are you getting on a monthly basis across the freebie stuff?
Gina Bianchini: Sure. So we actually don’t put that number out publicly. As a private company we play things relatively close to the fast, but we do talk about the numbers that we have of social networks and that is close to 260,000 today and over 70% of those are active.
Susan Bratton: Okay. Good. Well you gave me some numbers. I will take that. I understand.
Gideon Roberts from “Forward Slash Marketing” -who actually won an autographed copy of Seth Godin’s book “Meatball Sundae”, which if you haven’t read is excellent. He is a “Dishy Mix” fan club winner.
Gina Bianchini: Wonderful!
Susan Bratton: I know. It is a community.
He wants to know…
Maybe I need to do an Ingham Imitation.
He wants to know what you think about FaceBook’s attitude to user, data, and advertising and what would you do differently.
Gina Bianchini: I don’t have strong opinions with respect to what FaceBook does or doesn’t do. I personally…and what we have set up with Ning is a different mode;
which is when you create a social network on Ning they are as much your members as they are resisted on the Ning platform. So for any member that you have on your network you have the ability to contact them, export a CSV file of their contact information, and anything else that they provide you; because you have the option of creating and customizing your own profile questions. They are your members. It is your network.
Then in terms of, as a member being able to manage your friends, and messages, and all sorts of things along those lines, were big believers in anybody being able to take that information off Ning and go somewhere else with it.
Obviously, the standards are really just starting to evolve around how that interchange would happen. But we, generally speaking, are not looking to create a walled garden. We are really looking to create something that is valuable to people and certainly is possible and certainly evolves over time.
Susan Bratton: This is my last business oriented question and then I want to get into some more questions just about Gina. There were a lot of people who wrote in and wanted to know about you.
Steven Comfort from “YouMe”- I know him from “Tickle”. - And David Reimer, most recently of Yahoo, two industry stalwarts asked a very similar question. Steven wanted to know what the broad price range was for white labeled business versions of Ning and if there is any additional integration needed for business customers to access the whole Ning world. Which I think is a very loaded question.
Then David Reimer really dove tailed that. He wanted to know how much traction do you expect to get in the business community and if that is a focus at all.
So really it is about what’s your service to the business world and can anybody get online access to the whole database.
Gina Bianchini: On your network, whether you are an individual or a company, your network data is fully accessible to you. So you have access to all of your member data. You have access to all of your content. You can back it up else where. You can pull it into whatever it is you want to pull it into, the open ATI’s that we offer.
We have really taken the approach of; let’s build the absolute best social networking application that we possibly can with as much freedom as we can enable. Then if individuals want to use it: fantastic. If companies want to use it, that is great too. So one of the things that certainly has folks scratching their heads a little bit about us is we do offer a pretty compelling product that is very very flexible and hopefully gives people the options to make it exactly what they want.
So we don’t, sort of, look at the enterprise market as being something that is fundamentally different than the market for individuals creating their own social network for anything. And as a result of that a company could come …. For example, we have seen a social network for IBM pop up. We have seen a social network for Saturn customers pop up. And they are using it the same way individuals are using it and having a pretty good experience with that.
So that is kind of our approach to white labeling. I would not call it the full white label where we do absolute customs integrations for companies.
That is not exactly our model. But there are certainly people that are doing great customizations using the Ning technology and the Ning platform.
Susan Bratton: Who would be? If someone wanted to get someone to customize it for their enterprise solution, who would you recommend?
Gina Bianchini: Oh there is a number of people that have been doing things and I am happy to provide that list.
Susan Bratton: Do you want to provide it to me and I will post it on the “Dishy Mix” blog?
Gina Bianchini: That would be great.
Susan Bratton: So that anybody interested… You don’t have to go through it now. I will just post it on the blog.
Gina Bianchini: That would be great.
Susan Bratton: Great. That is what we do a lot. We use the blog as a parking lot for incremental information.
Gina Bianchini: Great!
Susan Bratton: Let’s move onto…We have got just a few remaining minutes with you and I want to talk about personal stuff.
Tom of “AKUA” – You and I both know him.
Gina Bianchini: Yes
Susan Bratton: He said, “Susan, I would ask Gina about her own experience networking in business. You and Gina are both expert net workers and I think it is interesting that Gina had turned her expertise into a company creating social networks. From Stanford GSB, to Sequoia Capital, to Silicon Valley icons like Mark Vendresen, Gina knows how to use her network to further her career and her business.”
Gina Bianchini: You know it is funny; I don’t consider myself an expert net worker by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, I feel like my main focus is really on, “What can we do as a company to create not only the absolute best software that we can put out there and something we can be incredibly proud of?”
But I can’t imagine spending my time doing anything other than really making sure that: this is a great place to work, at Ning; that the people who are using the Ning platform and creating their own social networks have the best experience with interacting with us and the best software. That has really been what has taken up the vast majority of my time.
So, while it is flattering, I feel like I never leave my office and spend most of my day huddled in a corner looking at software.
Susan Bratton: Well you recently got married in December. One of the things that you told me about being married is that it was relaxing. Is it that when you get home you can just relax into your husband?
Gina Bianchini: Yeah! He is wonderful and I am very happy.
Susan Bratton: So the time that you have with him you just let it go and you’re just being.
Gina Bianchini: Yes
Susan Bratton: Yeah, that is what I love about my husband. I am super high energy. He is like a deep sigh. He is like a deep breath out for me. Just to be with him, it is so nice.
Maric Palniac wants to know if you can cook.
Gina Bianchini: I can.
Susan Bratton: Good for you. What is your best thing? Italian food.
Gina Bianchini: Actually, chicken fajitas.
Susan Bratton: Chicken fajitas? Aren’t you a sweet Italian girl?
Gina Bianchini: I am.
Susan Bratton: Wasn’t I supposed to here like cantaloni?
Gina Bianchini: I also make my own pasta? I can do that as well.
Susan Bratton: That is good. But chicken fajita, so what is the secret?
Gina Bianchini: The right marinade.
Susan Bratton: And what is it?
Gina Bianchini: I can’t tell you my secret recipe.
Susan Bratton: Not only must you tell me; but I want the recipe for the “Dishy Mix” blog. Are you going to give it to me?
Gina Bianchini: I would be happy to.
Susan Bratton: There you go, all right. See I blog recipes all the time.
You are a smart and gorgeous woman and, you know, the valley wag, the hottie, all those things, you will have a lot of that in you life. People will want to talk about that. How could there possibly be someone who is so dam smart, so dam successful, and drop dead gorgeous. How are you dealing with all that?
Gina Bianchini: I don’t really think about it all that much.
Susan Bratton: Yeah
Gina Bianchini: And in my daily life most people know me as somebody who is pretty understated.
And again, my focus is on building the best software we possibly can and enabling people to do what they want with Ning and really getting them the freedom to create. At the end of the day that is all that matters to me.
Susan Bratton: I am sensitive to your time and my listener’s time. I have had a really really fun half hour. Thanks for supporting the “Dishy Mix” listeners and letting them ask you questions. It was a fun format for me. I had all my questions planned and then I got so many. I need a whole other show with you Gina.
Gina Bianchini: Wonderful! I really appreciate you thinking of us and thinking of me and taking the time.
Susan Bratton: Absolutely!
We will post up the opportunities for all of the Ning goodies for all of you listeners.
For any of you who would like to send transcripts of the show to your friends who don’t listen to podcast or are online audio shows there are transcripts at personllifemedia.com. And I would love for you to forward this show to a friend. We are always trying to grow our audience.
I am your host Susan Bratton. Thank you for listening to Gina Bianchini today at Ning. I hope I will talk to you next week.
Have a great day!