3 PR lessons from the recent Ning announcement

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Loudcloud Chairman Marc Andreessen Keynote at Oracle Open WorldIn case you missed it, Ning recently announced it will be phasing out its free service to users–one of the core tenets of the platform since it launched years ago. There have a been a few interesting posts about the decision, including a great rant by Shel Holtz.

But, let’s set the actual decision aside for a moment. I’d like to take a closer look at how Ning communicated this key decision. In many ways, they could have improved their approach. But, instead of being critical, I thought we’d look at three PR lessons we can all learn from this experience:

• When making drastic changes, alert your key audiences first. As a Ning creator, I should have been among the first to hear this important news. As it worked out, I heard about it through the social media grapevine. As a company, whenever you are making major changes in policy, direction or strategy that affect your customers or key stakeholders, it’s always a good idea to make an effort to communicate with them first. In this case, a simple email from the CEO would have went a long ways with Ning creators.

Tap into your community early–and often–in the process. The funny thing about the way Ning announced the news: They didn’t even bother to say anything on their blog until the day after the announcement. Wouldn’t you naturally announce the news there *first?* And, if you noticed, the post had a whopping 246 comments. Most of which were fairly long. Clearly, this is a passionate community that cares about the product. Why not take advantage of that passion instead of popping this news on this group suddenly, setting up a situation where people are more frustrated than supportive?

Speak to your audience on their terms, in their environment. If your company operates and makes its living in the social media world, why not include a blogger outreach component to your PR efforts? If you’re Ning and you serve the digitally-savvy, why wouldn’t you attempt to communicate with these folks through the media they use and consume every day (read: blogs, Twitter, etc). Sure, TechCrunch had a post on the day of the announcement, but was there much else? Why not reach out to a handful of key influencers online in advance? Give them access to the new CEO. Give them more behind the rationale. And then look to those blogs as feedback loops on the day of the announcement as the comments start to pour in (and respond to quell rumors, inaccuracies, as appropriate).

What else could we learn from this example? Other lessons to share?

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  • http://www.teresacantwell.wordpress.com Teresa

    Arik,

    Great post and great points. I think one of the most important things to do when launching a huge change like that with a dedicated community is knowing your audience and being able to judge their reactions rather than just blasting information out there and hoping for the best. Be proactive. Take a small selection of your community (and creators), run the plan by them and see what they have to say. In Ning had done something like that, they would have been able to put an appropriate plan of action into place.

    I guess it is time for them to pick of the pieces.

    Great post

    T

  • http://twitter.com/amanda4bes Amanda Forbes, APR

    Great post and I completely agree. I enjoy using many of these niche social media platforms, but as they continue to grow and evolve, it’s a shame that some don’t see the value in utilizing their core audience when making big decisions like this one. After all, these are number one fans – brand champions, so to speak – who have a vested interest in helping you, the company, make your product that much better. Who’d want to turn away that kind of free advice? Of course, you can’t please everyone, but in the end, when the customer feels like they’ve made a difference or given their two cents, they’ll usually be more likely to accept these changes.

  • arikhanson

    Amanda/Teresa:

    My point exactly. Why not use these creators as a big focus group to sound off on your thoughts? At the very least, just give them a heads up the big news is coming (maybe after announcing to staff). Like you said, great and free feedback from an engaged group of fans.

    @arikhanson

  • jeffespo

    You hit this one spot on. The move on a PR level is going to be a nightmare. How many communities did this alienate and how much new business did it give to similar sites out there on the Web? I can see a ton of Facebook community groups growing for this reason.

    Real question is – will you keep using them?

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  • http://twitter.com/adriandayton Adrian T Dayton

    All valid points, but I think it is interesting that a company that has offered a FREE service for so long has to walk on egg shells when making any changes.

    Bottom line, they weren't making money and they wanted to continue existing. Why do they need to hire a PR firm to put that message across?

    When I first heard the news I though, “well that obviously had to happen eventually.” Why didn't loyal Ning users, who had been enjoying a great product at a great price (FREE) feel the same way?

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