PLEASE NOTE THAT THE INFORMATION IN THIS ARTICLE IS CURRENT AS OF 04/26/2014. AS SUCH, CHANGES MADE TO NING 3.0 AFTER THE ABOVE DATE WILL NOT BE REFLECTED HERE.

All information contained in this article was gathered through  firsthand testing of Ning version 3.0, information taken from Ning’s official website and correspondence with Ning’s technical support team.

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Ning’s new platform – Ning 3.0 comes with a pretty amazing design studio which have multiple design parameters with an option to inject CSS.  There are multiple layout options available  for pages and each page can have a different layout.  Two custom code boxes makes it possible to add scripts for programming. These factors give network creators the power to fully customize the look and feel of their websites which can result in beautiful and unique creations but that beauty will only be skin deep because Ning’s new platform lacks functionality. 

Is Ning 3.0 the right platform for your online community? Well, if you’re looking for a fully functional platform that’s loaded with the modern day features of a social network the answer is NO. You should stay away from Ning if your online community is or will be;

Media Driven: Ning 3.0 comes equipped with a very basic “photos” feature. Photo editing is limited to rotating uploaded images. There is no  native music or video player and no option to upload music or video for browsing or playback. There isn’t even a feature designated for music on Ning 3.0 and the video aka “Social Channel” feature is merely a content aggregator. Just a convenient way for admins to embed videos from YouTube and Vimeo. Members are not able add videos using this feature.

Powered by Blogs and or Forums: The unavailability of a search form will make it very frustrating for users to find what they’re looking for especially in a case where blogs and forums are populated with an abundance of content.  The blog feature lacks the typical sorting/filtering system one would expect to see in a blog (sorting or filtering by newest/most popular/archives etc).

Centered Around Events: You may find this hard to believe but Ning 3.0 does not come equipped with a calendar feature. Users are advised to use alternate methods for such as Google calendar for events but using these methods will put you at a disadvantage because external calendars won’t deliver the same functionality of a built in calendar system.

In case you haven’t noticed, the features mentioned above are pretty basic and are part of the basic building blocks of an online community. Ning has plans to make some of the currently unavailable features available at some point in the future. The most popular features (Video Embeds, Chat, Events, Search, Paid Access, Moderator Roles, etc) are currently listed as being “In Waiting” on Ning 3.0 Product Road Map.  Features in waiting are basically  “projects Ning is collecting information about and that will move into planning as they finish the projects that are in the development phase. These are not listed by priority or their potential order.”

It has been a year since the release of Ning 3.0 and the above mentioned features have been in the road map for about the long so I would advise that you don’t hold your breath in hopes that you’ll see these features any time soon.

Concerned about other features that may not be available ? See our “Features Table” to find out if the features you’re looking for is available on Ning 3.0. Continue reading for an in depth look at the available features of Ning 3.0 after the table.

Ning offers a three-tier level pricing system – Basic, Performance and Ultimate. See the image below for specifics. There lowest price level offers a lot less than a similarly priced plan on a different platform…not exactly the best bang for your buck. All plans come with a 14 day trial period.

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GETTING STARTED

Upon Signing up you’ll be greeted with a welcome email which offers tips on getting started, useful links to how-to articles and videos and links for contacting support (creating a ticket/online community support forums)

Access to all administrative options can be found via a retractable toolbar in the top left had corner of the site. This toolbar is only visible to administrators who are signed in.

ADMINISTRATIVE FEATURES – THE DESIGN STUDIO

Design Studio

The design studio is packed with some amazing customization tools. This is undoubtedly the most standout administrative feature of a Ning network. When you access the design studio you’ll find an array of options.

Themes: There are currently 11 themes available in what Ning describes as a  “growing collection of themes”.  Every time a theme is changed and published, a copy of the last theme is kept in a  “History”. This allows you to revert back to a previous them if needed. A theme import/export tool is available.

Header: This feature makes it easy to customize your site’s header. From this selection you have the ability to change your site’s orientation (choose where the name or logo and navigation menu will appear), upload a logo or change the fonts for the site’s name, and configure the font color, size and type of the site’s  navigation, background and user account bar.

Background: There’s a very wide variety of background images/textures you can choose from. You also have the option to upload your own. The layout and color of the included background images can be manipulated to suit your style.

Text: This option gives you the ability to configure the appearance of various aspects of your site’s pages. This includes but is not limited to font color, font size, font family, module colors and links and buttons hover effects.

Custom CSS: This feature can be considered the holy grail of the design studio. It allows you to inject custom CSS into your site. This feature is geared towards advanced users. For those of you who don’t know,  Cascading Style Sheets (aka CSS) is a coded language used to design web pages.

ADMINISTRATIVE FEATURES – SOCIAL SITE MANAGER

DASHBOARD

Main Dashboard

The administrative dashboard give admins a quick overview of the state of their network. Brief statistics about members, blog post photos and forum discussions are displayed in a graph format. Content or members pending approval and the latest announcements from Ning are shown in the dashboard.

GENERAL SETTINGS

General Settings

This section offers fairly standard options which allows admins to adjust the settings of their network. In this section you are able to edit your site’s name and description, add key words for SEO purposes, choose the default language (English, Spanish, Dutch, French, Italian, Portuguese) , set time zone, choose country and zip code, and set a network icon and favicon.

SITE AND PAGES

Site and Page Option

This is the site-building section of your network. It’s where you go to to add and configure pages and navigational links.  The drag and drop capabilities and simplified nature of the page building elements along with readily available how-to resources (if needed) makes using this feature a breeze.  The admin initiates the site building process when the “add a page” button is clicked. From that point the admin will have to choose the page type to be added. The page options are as follows; Articles, Blog, Forum, Photos, Social Channel, Custom (HTML Page), Link (this option only adds a link to the menu). A “Members” page is included in the site by default and there can only be one members page. The setup and configuration process is dependent on the page type. Generally, admins can get to set the page tile, menu tab tile, page URL, access controls and page layout options. In the case of Articles, Blog and Forum pages admins have the option to enable or disable commenting. They can chose to use Ning’s native commenting feature or choose to use third party commenting from Disqus or Facebook (if integrated).  “Link” pages have limited configuration options because they aren’t real pages…they are just links to external sites.

DOMAIN MAPPING

Domain Mapping

This feature allow admins to use an alternate domain name of their choice instead of the standard “yoursitename.ning.com“.  When configured, visitors (members and non-members) to your site will always see your custom domain in their browsers’ address bars.

THIRD PARTY INTEGRATION

Third Party Integration

Ning’s “Third Party Integration” feature doesn’t offer a whole lot. You have the option to connect your site to Facebook and the music based social networking site known as BandPage. There’s nothing fancy about integrating Facebook. When connected this feature enables Facebook commenting on posted content (a separate connection is needed in order to enable sign-up and sign in). Integrating BandPage offers a little more. Connecting to BandPage gives the ability to add BandPage widgets (Music Player, Mailing List, Photos etc) to your network.

ACTIVITY FEED

Activity Feed Settings

This feature displays a stream of your network’s latest activities. Activity Feed can be added to a Custom page with other elements or used alone on a designated Activity Feed page. In addition, every member’s profile page displays an activity feed specific to that member and his/her content. Administrators can adjust the activity feed’s settings to be selective about what kind of activities gets displayed. Social media integration makes it possible to display activity from a Facebook page.

SOCIAL SHARING

Social Sharing Options

Ning only offers three social sharing buttons – Facebook, Twitter and Google+ sharing buttons are built in and activated by default. Configuration options for these buttons are limited an “on and off switch”. I think Ning could have offered admins more sharing options and more control options like the ability to rearrange the order of the sharing buttons and the ability to select on what type of pages the buttons should or should not appear.

CUSTOM CODE

Custom Code Option

This feature gives admins the ability to inject HTML or JavaScript code into their site. The custom code boxes are usually used to add web analytic tools but advanced users can get pretty creative and may want to take full advantage of this feature’s capabilities. There are two input areas for custom code in this section ( “head” and “end of page”) with each offering a maximum input of 20,000 characters. 

Language Editor

Language Editor Options

Network creators who are looking to customize their site down to the very last word will really appreciate this feature. The “Language Editor” gives administrators the ability to alter the text (word) which appears throughout their network. Here’s how this feature can be useful to you. Let’s take a look at the word “Friends”. When two members are connected they become “Friends”…not an appropriate way to express a connection between two members if you’re running a professional or business based network. The “Language Editor” gives you the ability to change the word “Friend” into a word or phrase of your choice, “Associates” for example. Changing the language throughout your site can be tedious but it’s well worth it.

GOOGLE WEBMASTER

Google Webmaster

This feature makes it a little easier to verify your site with Google for use of their Webmaster Tools. It simply provides a text input field for the purpose of entering Google’s Webmaster verification code that verifies you have the necessary permissions to your network.

FILE MANAGER

File Manager

According to Ning, this is “a way for you to upload and organize files that are most important to your site.” While this feature gives admins the ability to upload and store just about any type of file on their network, there is no option to organize the uploaded files. All files are arranged in the order in which they were uploaded. This feature would have been better if there were a way to at list create  folders for the uploaded files. The maximum limit on the number of files that can be stored is 100. There is a 7MB maximum size restriction per file. Once a file is uploaded, a permalink is created. Admins can grant access to uploaded files by providing users with the permalink to specific files. 

ROBOTS.TXT

Robot txt

This is another feature geared at advanced users. It allows admins to have control over what content will appear in search engine results. All pages of your site can be indexed by search engines (Google, Bing etc) for the purpose providing information during internet search queries. The Robots.txt is actually a file included in your site’s template which tells search engines robot crawlers what pages should be skipped during crawls. Admins can add pages they wish not to be indexed to the Robots.txt section. 

TERMS OF SERVICE

Terms of Service

Ning has a mandatory and very general “Terms of Service” page included in every network by default. Links to the terms of service can usually be found in the footer and signup pages. Administrators are unable to modify the default terms of service but they are able to add their own terms of service or rules and regulations. Any addition to the terms of service will appear before the mandatory included terms. This positioning gives admins the advantage of having a smooth transition between their custom terms of service and the default terms of service.

SUPPORT

Support

This feature offer admins a very convenient way to contact Ning’s support center. From this section you can create new tickets requesting support or view and update existing tickets. Admins also have the ability to search Ning’s FAQs via an available search form.

I can’t speak for others on this but my experience with Ning’s support has always been pleasant. This statement is not based on the support I received during my trial period of Ning 3.0.  It’s based on the support I received during my nearly year-long period as a paying customer on Ning 2.0. Having said that, I did test the support during my trial period of 3.0 and it was at an excellent level just I expected.

I think the most amazing part of Ning’s support system is its nearly 26, 000  member community support – Ning Creators Network. In many cases you will find it easier and faster to find resolutions to your problems using the community support system than you would if you went through Ning’s official support system.

It’s important to note that the level and speed of support one receives is dependent on their subscription plan. The “Basic” plan priced at $25/month offers email support with response within 48hrs. The “Performance” plan priced at $49/month offers email and phone support with email response within 24hrs. The “Ultimate” plan priced at $99/month offers “priority email and hotline support” with same day email responses.

ADMINISTRATIVE FEATURES – MEMBER MANAGEMENT

The “Member Management” section offers nine different parameters of control, each with their own set of administrative options. 

The “Members” Tab:

Member Management

This is selected by default in the member management section. This selection displays a list of the active members. However, filter options are available which allows you to choose to display members based on their categories. Members are listed in an order based on the dates they joined your network. The member list displays the users’ registration email address , the IP Address from which signup took place and the category to which the member belongs (the default category is the “Member” category). From the member list, actions can be taken to suspend, delete or place members into categories or give them roles. Unfortunately, member roles on Ning 3.0 are limited to that of a regular member  and administrator. Granting a member administrative permissions essentially grants them the power to do anything except delete or edit the account of other admins. Note that Ning only allows two admins on their “Basic” plans starting at $25/month, 5 admins on their “Performance” priced at $49/month and up to 10 admins on their “Ultimate” plan priced at $99/month (all monthly prices depicted here are based on annual billing).  New member accounts cannot be created in the member management section but there is an “Invite” tool available that allows admins to invite new members via an invite link, imported email addresses and through Facebook and LinkedIn.

Broadcast Message:

Broadcast Message

This feature gives admins the ability to send out mass messages to members. This is a convenient way to keep members of your network informed and up-to-date on things going on within your network that they may have missed. The “Broadcast Message” feature is a handy tool but I think Ning could have included the option of scheduled broadcasting.

Settings:

The “Settings” option in the “Member Management” section allows admins to set or change member restrictions primarily related to the signup process. Admins can set spam filters like signup moderation (email verification before signup), approval before membership and captcha/security questions design to verify that the user is human. Member to member messages can be configured in the “Settings” option.

Message Templates:

Member Management - Message Template

This feature gives admins access to the default “Welcome” and “Accepted” messages a member receives upon signup and allows them to fully customize those messages. That’s a great option for those looking to fully customize their network.

Sign Up & Sign In:

Member Management - Sign up and Sign in

Within this feature there are sign in/ signup options that admins can activate. There are seven options available – The native sign in/signup forms in addition to sign in/signup options using Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google, Yahoo and Windows Live. Admins can choose to use one or all of the available options. A “blocking” feature that give admins the ability to block users from signup based on their email and or IP address is also available here. In addition, admins have the ability to set a post signup landing page which users will be redirected to after successfully signing up.

Profile Questions:

Member Management Profile Questions

These are a set of questions that prospective members will answer when attempting to join your Network. The default questions of location and gender can be edited or removed. Additionally, admins can create a new set of questions. Admins have the option of making some or all of the profile questions mandatory (required) or “Private” (seen only by the member and admins). If a question is labeled “Required” users will have to answer that question before they are allow to become members.

Email Settings:

Member Management - Email Settings

This option offers a way for admins to manage the email sent from your Network to their members. They can control the amount of text shown in email notifications sent out for member communications and content updates. Admins may choose to activate an “Email Digest” feature currently in the Beta phase. If activated, members will receive a combined email containing a daily summary of notifications.

Invitation Settings:

Member Management - Invitation Settings

This is really just an available tool that allows admins to invite new members via an invite link, imported email addresses and or  through Facebook and LinkedIn.

Member Categories:

Member Management - Member Categories

By default, all members belong to the “Member” category.  This category can’t be edited or deleted but admins have the ability to create new member categories. Any created category can be integrated with a profile question for the signup process and members will be automatically placed in their selected categories upon signup. Admins have the option to create badges (text or image based) for member categories. Those badges are displayed as an overlay on members profile pictures. The transparency of the overlay can be adjusted so that it won’t obscure profile images. I think this is one of the few cool features Ning offers.

ADMINISTRATIVE FEATURES – CONTENT MANAGEMENT

Content Management

I think this feature should be renamed…it should really be referred to as “Content Moderation” . This feature should not be confused with or mistaken for a Content Management System (CMS). It’s really just a holding box for content (from blogs, forums etc) and groups awaiting approval. Admins have the option to either approve or delete content in holding. In addition, a spam folder is available for content that has been classified as spam by Ning’s spam filter tool.  According to Ning, “this tool checks a post for content their spam classification system considers spammy, and if it looks spammy, it is marked as such, and place it in a special administrative folder for you.”

USER FEATURES

THE USER TOOLBAR

User Toolbar

The full features of the user toolbar are only accessible  to members who are signed in. Users who aren’t signed in will see links giving the option to sign up or sign in.  Once signed in, members will be able to use the toolbar to gain access to their profile page, messages and friends list by clicking on the respected link icons. A count of all new messages and friend request will be displayed on the friend and messages icon. The user toolbar is static (remains in the same position during scrolling) and so it can be accessed from any page regardless of what portion of a page is being viewed.

MEMBER PROFILE

Members Page Alternate Layout

Just about every feature available to members are tied into the members’ profile page (photos, blog, forums etc). In addition the members’ profile page comes equipped with an activity feed which displays feed items that is specific to the member profile being viewed. There’s a “Comment Wall” available for other members to leave comments or post other content and an about section which displays user info. The amount of information contained in the “About” section is dependent on the number of custom profile questions available upon signup and if the user answered those questions. Customization of profile appearance is limited to changing the user profile picture and cover image. The layout of the profile pages can be altered (globally) but those changes can only be made by an administrator. Members do however, have the ability to customize their profile settings. They have the option to set their profile pages to public or private (seen by members or friends only), adjust email notification settings and manage external accounts used for signing in. They may add, edit or remove information to their profiles.

PHOTOS

Photos

The photos feature is lacking a lot. For starters, it could have offered users a better way to organize their photos. There is no way to group like-photos together except by the use of tags. Giving the option to create albums would definitely make the photos feature more appealing. A basic photo editing tool which allows for cropping should have been included. Given the times we’re in…Ning could have done a much better job at this. Seems a bit ancient.

SOCIAL CHANNEL

Video Page

This feature is meant to be somewhat of a replacement of the video feature found on other platforms. Admins can embed YouTube and Vimeo user play list using this feature. Besides being able to customize the menu title and URL, this feature only gives you the ability to choose who can view added videos. There are no other options available.  I think that Ning should have a list gave admins a choice in selecting the number of videos to be displayed. The default is set to 8 videos and that cannot be changed. If you’re embedding multiple Channels and some of the channels have less than 8 videos you’ll be left with a lot of empty space on your social channel page (s).

Gap Between Videos

ARTICLES & BLOG

Blog Index Page

The “Articles feature is the latest feature (to date) to be introduced to Ning 3.0. Its functions are similar to the blog feature and so they are being reviewed together. Ning advertises the “Articles” feature as being “designed for content that’s a little more formal, fact-based, and impersonal than what you might get in a blog post.” The introduction of this feature brought along another new feature – the “Author Box”. “A way to provide some additional information about the author of an article or blog post and have it displayed at the bottom of the page.” This feature is not turned on by default and has to be activated on a per article/blog  page basis. When turned on authors of articles and blog post have the option of including a short bio in the “Author Box”. This bio will be displayed at the end of all prior and  future articles/blog posts. Any information included in the Author Box can be edited during the composition or editing of posts but these changes will affect all previous posts. Authors of articles and blog posts also have the option to include excerpts of their posts. This is made possible by the optional excerpt input field found just below the text editor.

 I’m not a fan of the Ning’s Articles/ Blog feature. The only appeal here lies in what Ning refers to as “multiple instances (or pages) of the Articles/Blogs feature”. This allows administrators to create user specific articles/blog pages each with their own configuration. For example, you could create a blog page in which only network admins can contribute to while having a separate blog for regular members or you may choose to create informative blog pages where commenting is turned off.  I said it earlier and I’ll say it again. The article/blog features lacks the typical sorting/filtering system one would expect to see in a blog (sorting/filtering by newest/most popular/archives etc) and the lack of a search form only adds to the frustration of sifting through content to find what you’re looking for. Articles differ from Blog posts slightly. The former does not display profile images, names, or links to the author in the title section.

FORUM

Forum Index

Ning also boast of the Forums feature having “multiple instances”. This is similar to the multiple instances of the blog feature so there’s no need to go into a detailed explanation. I’m not a fan of this forum feature. Forum index pages does not have the tabulated and organized look one would expect to see when visiting a forum. Instead, forum items are displayed in a manner that is more consistent with a RSS feed. There are filter options available that allows you to browse forums by the latest activity, newest discussions or most popular discussions but once again the lack of a search form will frustrate users who are searching for information in an active forum.

GROUPS

Groups Setup

The Ning Groups feature is pretty powerful in that gives users the ability to create what is essentially their own network within your network. Of course, the limitations of the primary network applies to created groups. Any member who creates a group automatically becomes the administrator of that group. Group admins can adjust the settings of a group (privacy control etc.). Network admins get to regulate the level of control a group admin may have.

Here are the level of controls as outlined in the group page settings:

Basic: Group Admins can add and remove Group content modules in Group pages, but can’t change layouts or modify non-group content modules. Any content added to the Group Hub page will also appear on each Group page.

Advanced: Group Admins can choose alternate layouts for Group pages and add and remove Group content modules. Content Added to the Group Hub will not appear on Group pages.

Complete: Group Admins can choose alternate layouts for Group pages, add and remove Group content modules and can update the Below Header and Above Footer HTML boxes on Group pages. Content Added to the Group Hub will not appear on Group pages.

MESSAGES

Messages

Administrators have the option to turn the messages feature on or off. When turned on members will have the ability to send private messages to other members. Administrators can choose between  “friends only” messaging mode (members must be connected in order to send messages to one another) or “open” messaging mode (members can exchange messages without being connected). Having the ability to turn the messages feature on and off is good but I think that the option to turn the messages feature off is flawed. Here’s why; Turning the messages feature off prevents administrators from sending private messages to members. It should be noted that members have the ability to block private messages from other members.

OTHER FEATURES

FEATURED CONTENT

Admins have the ability to feature or highlight content posted to blogs, forums and “photos”. In addition, admins can also feature members and groups. Featured content or members will only appear if a module configured to show the items being featured is placed within a page. I think Ning missed the mark on this one. The module placement is a good idea but I think featured items should have been shown automatically on the respected index page of the items being featured. For example, a featured blog post would be stuck at the top of the blog index page no matter how many other blogs are posted after the fact (kind of like “sticky” forum posts).

EDITOR

All Ning networks comes equipped with a rich text editor (WYSIWYG editor) which doubles up as an HTML code editor. The editor offers components that goes a little beyond the basics. Aside from the usual text alignment, font size, font color (etc) buttons, you’ll find options to insert images (via URL or upload), videos (via embed code), and tables. There’s even an option that allows you to upload and attach just about any file format to the content being posted. Any attached file is made accessible via links. A full screen toggle is available for users who prefer to type in wide screen mode. If you’re not a fan of full screen mode you have the option to expand the text input field vertically.  I think users will appreciate this text editor. It’s simple yet versatile.  Note that the rich text editor is the default editor for composing blog and forum posts and it cannot be changed. The editor is available for use when commenting on posted content but it has to be activated by an administrator on a per forum or per blog (etc) basis.

RSS FEEDS 

The RSS feature is turned on by default on all  Ning networks which have their privacy set to “Public”. This feature generates RSS feeds for some of the other features on your network, such as Forum Discussions and Blogs. Network members and even visitors of your site will have the ability to generate feeds from your site using a RSS Reader.

 CLOSING THOUGHTS

I still can’t understand how Ning, a big, established, well-known and well respected company could put their reputation on the line by selling customers a half-baked product. Customers new to the Ning platform may not know this but a lot of the popular features absent in Ning 3.0 is available on the previous version of the platform – the beloved Ning 2.0, however, this version of the platform is slated to be phased out and new customers cannot signup for version 2.0. I think Ning took a major step back with the roll out of  their version 3.0. They lost a lot of customers (including me) with the introduction of the product.  The new 3.0 platform  has amazing potentials but the product isn’t ready for prime time and I don’t think it will be any time soon.