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So What Do You Do, Ning CEO Gina Bianchini?

The founder of social networking site Ning.com finds innovative ways to thrive in the new media landscape

- June 10, 2009
Social media is fast stepping on the heels of big, traditional media: In April, Ning -- which lets people create social networks around any theme they like -- announced its one-millionth network had been created. While only some 200,000 of its networks are regularly active, a million of anything is worth noting. comScore reports Ning had some 5.2 million unique visitors in March 2009, an almost unbelievable 314 percent year-over-year increase. The company is at the vanguard of Silicon Valley's attempt to wrest control of the media world -- and its advertising profits -- from New York City. These days, digital media companies like Ning.com pitch ad sales around concepts like "highly-targeted" campaigns to the "right" audience. But if consumers continue migrating to digital media, it may someday sweeten its pitch with the huge audiences once reserved for print circulation reports and television ratings points.

We sat down with Ning co-founder and chief executive Gina Bianchini to discuss the pitched battle for control of the media landscape. True to her reputation, Bianchini talked directly about how media is changing, why the omni-media company is a relic, and the way Ning is organizing the topics people create networks around into a standardized database of pre-defined categories.


Name: Gina Bianchini
Position: Ning CEO and co-founder
Resume: BA, Stanford University; analyst, Goldman Sachs; director of corporate development, CKS Group; MBA, Stanford Graduate School of Business; president and co-founder, Harmonics; CEO and co-founder, Ning.
Hometown: Cupertino, California
Marital status: Married
First section of the Sunday Times: The home page of NYTimes.com.
Favorite TV shows: Saturday Night Live, MI-5, Veronica Mars ("The greatest show ever!")
Last book read: "I read a lot; I just haven't finished any books lately. Right now I have open David Kilcullen's book, The Accidental Guerilla, and a book on the history of Sesame Street."
Guilty pleasure: "I love [the band] The Lonely Island. My husband will come in, and I'm listening to 'Incredibad' and I'm laughing, and he's like, 'Really?'"


Social media is a real struggle for big media companies. It takes up people's time and attention without a business model that supports the massive revenues they're used to generating. Do they understand this new media category and how to harness it?
I would say traditional media companies really are experimenting. While I completely agree that we [digital media] continue to take lots and lots of people's time away from more traditional media -- which I think creates all sorts of interesting opportunities -- I wouldn't describe this as the move from radio to television. This is a pretty fundamental shift in terms of how people are connecting with other people, and what is entertainment.

That's for sure. CBS just canceled the soap Guiding Light! From Glam Media through iVillage, digital media wants the female demographic, and apparently it's winning.
But at the same time, [Guiding Light] ran for 72 years. It was built for a country that had a very, very different technology profile, a different work profile, and a different social profile, and change is okay.

That depends on where one sits in the marketplace... To put it simply, can social networking fit within the role of traditional media companies?
From my perspective, there doesn't necessarily have to be a direct fit within a traditional media company.

What is Ning's goal then?
We believe by graphing the world's interests and passions -- which is fundamentally what we're doing -- there is an opportunity for us to create an independent franchise company that can get very large and provide a tremendous amount of value to our network creators, as well as the members of different social networks across Ning.

And big, independent media companies are fighting just to survive. The editorial model of niche social networks seems to come down to more work for things such as community management for fewer revenues.
I think that's looking at it in the wrong context. If what you want to do is [build] a traditional media company, one: [our social network creators] are not built for it. The second thing I would say is if the earnings calls are any indication, you're comparing it [digital/social media] to a business model [traditional media] that may or may not be there. That question in and of itself sets you up to be miserable for the rest of your life.

There are a lot of miserable traditional media companies these days. Here's the thing: social networks are focused on very small niches. Are they too small overall to build a company that can generate the kind of massive revenues media expects?
If you're built from the ground up to have a cost structure, infrastructure and just general scalability that results in a healthy profit by people paying for subscriptions, as well as for an ad rate that is not a broadcast television upfront ad rate, then I think it's a moot point.

"The entrepreneurs I know are looking to build a brand online, and they are going to do it through the most efficient means possible."

But then how do you build social media and other digital media categories out into major businesses like News Corporation?
Wa-, wa-, wa-, wait: How many people do you think really want to scale this out into News Corp.? Because if you look at News Corp., there's one person in the entire world that wanted to scale it out into News Corp.

Rupert?
Yeah.

But isn't Murdoch just a really successful version of a good media entrepreneur, building a company that creates lots of editorial content that consumers crave?
I would suggest that the media model today is different. I don't know a single person who -- and this may just be because of where I'm sitting [in Silicon Valley] -- who is thinking about your omni-media approach, where it's print or broadcast or I'm going to have my on-demand cable channel. The entrepreneurs I know are looking to build a brand online, and they are going to do it through the most efficient means possible.

"When you have a company that is mapping the world's interests and passions, there's a lot of very rich, interesting data."

The argument makes sense, but is it possible to take that cheap digital distribution that people employ for niche Web audiences and scale it into a huge media business like News Corp.?
I challenge the notion that it's one or the other. I think the goal needs to be about empowering or enabling people. Only 12,000 of our network creators purchase our premium services; the rest do it because they love it. It's not a traditional media model. I think the biggest thing is -- and where we are different -- is providing a means by which people can scale [their network on Ning]. So I think I challenge the notion that these things can't possibly get big or that they can't turn into News Corp. One individual network [on Ning] may not turn into News Corp., but I think that's an artificial sort of structure.

In the case of Ning, how do you create a business model that throws off lots of cash? For instance, do you make a deal with a publisher to sell ads across Ning?
We certainly have had conversations, but at this point we're making money in a nice way through both premium services, as well as targeted advertising [via Google AdSense].

What type of premium services?
I'm a member of 38 social networks today. I'm on a social network for zombies, and this is a social network that has paid us $24.95/month to take off our advertising. They are paying us $4.95/month to use their own domain name. They paid us another $24.95/month to remove a few Ning promotional links, so basically these guys are paying us $55 per month so they can have a little bit more freedom and flexibility for this zombie social network.

So you're focusing on the recurring subscription-based revenues for technology add-ons, as opposed to the traditional media model of direct ad sales.
We actually think there are a lot more interesting and better ways [than ad sales] to make money by taking advantage of the Ning platform today.

How do you get at the concept of "graphing" the world's passions?
We have over a million self-contributed [meta-] tags related to the one million social networks that are on this platform. So we know, for example, that networks across Ning span 10,000-20,000 unique interests and more.

But the problem with self-contributed tags is that the lack of standardization often means that elements are accidentally mis-categorized. Do you re-categorize them?
[Yes,] on our back end. That's how we're able to get at what are the interests and passions that people are connecting around across the Ning platform today.

So in effect you're building a massive media-planning tool that can be used to categorize people across what initially look like disparate interest areas?
From a pure media planning tool perspective, we do not have something in place, but certainly again, when you have a company that is mapping the world's interests and passions, there's a lot of very rich, interesting data.

You still take big media seriously. When Viacom launched competitor Flux in 2007 in partnership with Social Project, you took the unusual step of writing Techcrunch to say Flux's technology was inferior and Viacom partnerships often end in lawsuits.
I didn't necessarily see it as unusual. I was just laying out facts in a way that I hoped was readable.

Would you call the move a success?
Sure. We're sitting here talking about almost a million social networks on Ning and one does not hear a lot about… other companies.

That's why they pay you the big bucks! When did you realize that you had the drive and vision to found and lead companies?
For me, it was really about I have an idea and a vision for what it was we can do and I want to go make it happen. I want to create software used by millions of people in their daily lives in a way that is meaningful and in a way that is completely and utterly innovative.


James Erik Abels is a freelance writer based in New York City. Before founding Three Minute Media, a Web video news network, he covered the media/digital beat for Forbes.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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