Blog Post

Ning Kills Free Service, Would Like to Get Paid Now, Please

Ning, in a dramatic about-face, is shuttering its free social networking platform to concentrate solely on fee-paying networks and cutting 40 percent of its staff. Jason Rosenthal, who became CEO in mid-March after Gina Bianchini left, said in an email to employees that he’s “taken a hard look at our business in the 30 days since I became CEO, and I’ve decided to focus the company 100 percent on our paid networks business.” Rosenthal said that the free part of Ning would be phased out “soon,” and that existing networks would either have to convert to paying for the premium service or “transition off Ning.”

The shift from mostly free to 100-percent paid is a major strategic shift for Ning, which gained a lot of media attention not just because of co-founder and ex-CEO Marc Andreessen, whose former company Netscape Communications helped usher in the modern web era, but also because — in contrast to the “walled garden” approach taken by Facebook — Ning’s free platform provided a place where anyone could build their own social network. But Ning’s recent move is also a sign that the much-hyped “freemium” model might not be the road to riches many seemed to think it was. In a post on the 37signals blog, David Heinemeier Hansson notes that “Eyeballs still don’t pay the bills.”

The obvious implication from both the shutdown of Ning’s free offering and the staff reduction — not to mention the speed with which Rosenthal is making the change, and without communicating it to the company’s networking users beforehand — is that Ning couldn’t sustain its business at that level. Is that a sign that the “social networking for all” phenomenon was simply not workable? If nothing else, it suggests that providing free services (in the hope that some users will pay) doesn’t scale at the rate Ning and its investors were hoping it would. And there’s no question that some big bets have been placed on the company: last year, it raised another round of financing that gave it valuation of $750 million.

Rosenthal said that Andreessen and his venture fund Andreessen Horowitz would “work diligently with everyone affected by this to help them find great opportunities at other companies.” The Ning CEO alsosaid that within the next three months, the company would launch “the next generation of Ning, which will include a range of new premium features and services for our Network Creators, a new mobile experience, and a new set of APIs.”

The response from network creators has not been pretty, to say the least. The first comment on the Ning Networks blog post about the changes says:

What the hex!? This better be a late April Fools joke! I thought I found something great and now I have to cancel all my networks because Ning wants MONEY! I’m not made of it and Ning’s the only platform that actually gives you your own social network. In plain English, this idea sucks, and I hope it’s just a bad joke!

Below is the full text of Rosenthal’s letter to employees:


When I became CEO 30 days ago, I told you I would take a hard look at our business. This process has brought real clarity to what’s working, what’s not, and what we need to do now to make Ning a big success.

My main conclusion is that we need to double down on our premium services business. Our Premium Ning Networks like Friends or Enemies, Linkin Park, Shred or Die, Pickens Plan, and tens of thousands of others both drive 75% of our monthly US traffic, and those Network Creators need and will pay for many more services and features from us.

So, we are going to change our strategy to devote 100% of our resources to building the winning product to capture this big opportunity. We will phase
out our free service. Existing free networks will have the opportunity to either convert to paying for premium services, or transition off of Ning. We will judge ourselves by our ability to enable and power Premium Ning Networks at huge scale. And all of our product development capability will be devoted to making paying Network Creators extremely happy.

As a consequence of this change, I have also made the very tough decision to reduce the size of our team from 167 people to 98 people. As hard as this is to do, I am confident that this is the right decision for our company, our business, and our customers. Marc and I will work diligently with everyone affected by this to help them find great opportunities at other companies.

I’ve never seen a more talented and devoted team, and it has been my privilege to get to know and work with each and every one of you over the last 18 months.

We’ll use today to say goodbye to our friends and teammates who will be leaving the company. Tomorrow, I will take you through, in detail, our plans for the next three months and our new focus.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flick user Darren Hester

31 Responses to “Ning Kills Free Service, Would Like to Get Paid Now, Please”

  1. I am really upset with NING. I want off of it. and have sent them several emails telling them to drop my page and they keep billing me! They have the worse customer service! Come Monday I’m going to get this solved! I want a refund!!!!!!

  2. Honestly, Ning is probably dead. But the idea of having to pay for a service as robust or potentially robust as Ning isn’t a bad proposition. Maybe if they have a few tiers of service it might be able to survive, but generally a free Ning site never really was worth coming back too. I only know of one that I would and that’s SaveNasa.

  3. Crazy that all these folks are left with the option to pay or leave. I noticed there are some free options out there. Zerista is one that is a free and lets you take your group to your mobile phone.

  4. Then I guess that I made the right choice to not use Ning as a platform for our community. There are more Open Sorce platforms available to build your own social network with than WordPress and Buddypress.

  5. As pointed out above, there are other packages but I think those who laugh at Ning or are negative, miss the point. Ning was dead simple to set up – just about anyone could do it. The other packages, while free and customizable, also required additional skills and in some cases hosting. But I too always wondered how long they were going to give it away. I think they still have a viable business as long as they don’t charge too much and keep adding features.

    • I agree w/you @HSK. Asking a school administrator or other non technical person to who barely knows how to do a spreadsheet macro let alone set up a buddypress implementation to just “do Buddypress” misses the point. Most non-technical people would have their eyes glaze over once you start talking how to get a Buddypress implementation running.

      While there were a lot of ghost town social nets on Ning, the idea of letting anyone to set up a social net with a few clicks for their interest group w/the ease of setting up a Tumblr blog was the idea behind Ning.

      Not a bad one, except it never figured out (like alot of freemium models) how to compel the freeriders to upgrade to paid. They probably should have limited what functionality they gave away to a much greater degree and compelled free users to to move to a pay plan w/ compelling widgets/features.

      Now they’re forcing them, without any migration or handholding and its probably not going to work.

      • Jake Westin

        Michael, you are definitely right about Ning not being able to get the right balance of paid vs free functionality in order to create a profitable business. I think the move might be good for Ning, and my reasoning is that most of the people not willing to pay on Ning are the people who start a social network and then abandon it. Those with thriving communities will certainly pay a monthly fee.

        Maybe Ning should have changed their model so that if you have X amount of community members then you get additional free features?

        I think from a business perspective that when you analyzed the numbers it probably made sense to cut the free networks, but how does this affect the pipeline of communities going forward? How many communities joined Ning at first because it was free and then grew to the point where they were willing to pay? These questions are going to be what makes or breaks Ning going forward.

        I was just reading David Skok’s blog post on how sales complexity impacts a startups viability – While Ning isn’t a startup anymore, they are certainly impacting their sales complexity by moving from a freemium model to a more complicated sales process. They will also be increasing the cost of customer acquisition as well.

        It should be interesting to see how Ning plays out going forward.

  6. Ning is wonderful and it is a shame that the business model is not working. I was on one popular ning site for a long time and kept wondering how I could be getting all that I was receiving “for free.” In fact, if the fee is reasonable then perhaps I will actually go back on that site one day, simply because it was an extremely useful site and I do not mind paying for something that is worthwhile!

    However, one suggestion I have for ning administrators is to check that the google ads are actually working. For awhile I used google ads; afterwards, when back on a ning site, I have found that very often when I press on a google ad, it does NOT work. If this is happening a lot, then it is no wonder that ning is not making money – NOR I assume are the people who are placing advertisements with google ads!!

  7. When you host your social network on someone elses server, you’ll always be dependent on them. Operating a self-hosted solution like SocialEngine provides a more viable long term solution so you can maintain control of users, content and data.

    • Originally, Ning was an open source set of scripts which allowed users to self-host.

      Do you suppose those open source contributors are getting any of the payout?


      I paid, I figured it’d be less work to pay than to migrate.

      Have to say, what I appreciated about ning was the polish, the fact that it was clean & functional. The features have been disappearing from my “lite” account.

      Have to say, it’s gone from a “yaaay” in my books to a slightly rumbling sound, with the distinct possibility of booing and missiles in the near to mid future. I’ve submitted feature ideas, as I have done in the past… and got back bot-mail saying “your package does not include support… so your email went in our recycle bin”.

      Rumble rumble.

  8. What I don’t understand is why anyone would think they could get this for free and make anything out of it to begin with.

    and oh . . . if you did/could, wouldn’t you already have taken control of it and set it up yourself using (for example) one of the several free WordPress plug-ins that do it and let you host it?

    Andreessen love is correct; this was always a DOA proposition based on hysteria.